HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban Pedro Rafael Delgado, a 56-year-old accountant, saw his life change dramatically just days after Cuba approved a set of laws by referendum in September that allow gay marriage.
For more than a decade, Delgado, who works at a Communist Party office, lived as “friends” with his 62-year-old partner, Adolfo Lopez. He lacked basic rights and felt shunned even by his own family because of his sexual preference.
“Being gay was the embarrassment of the family and I always lived with that,” he told Reuters.
Cuba’s family code, a set of measures and regulations that establishes the rights of all Cubans, regardless of sexual orientation, to marry and adopt children, changed everything, Delgado says.
But activists and experts consulted by Reuters say the sweeping, government-led campaign to promote the law did more to moderate entrenched homophobia and machismo than the fine print of the code itself – which governs the totality of family relations and not just issues related to sexual orientation.
“There is no doubt that it represents a change…not just legislative, but also in mindset,” said Adiel Gonzalez, a 32-year-old activist and professor.
“Some say that (change) is solely due to the code, but that is false,” said Gonzalez, adding that changes in attitude existed before, but the discussion around the law helped people to accept other sexual orientations.
For months ahead of the referendum, the government flooded Cuba’s TV, radio and newspapers, which it controls, to promote the law. The government also put up billboards on national roadways and held parades, while Communist Party leaders, including President Miguel Diaz-Canel, repeatedly touted the measure.
That one-sided media push did not sit well with everyone. Cuba’s Catholic Church, in a missive just before the referendum, said the state’s overwhelming support and control of the media had stifled voices of opposition.
The government said at least half of the island’s 11 million residents participated in town-hall style meetings prior to the vote aimed at discussing and refining the measure.
Cuba registered 75 same-sex marriages in October, according to state newspaper Trabajadores. That is more than 2% of the total 3,300 marriages reported for the month, the data shows.
A direct comparison of such statistics with other countries or regions is difficult given cultural and legal particularities.
However, same-sex households in the United States account for 1.5% of homes occupied by couples of any sex, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
While Cuba has long been hailed as the vanguard of Latin America’s left, it had lagged behind regional neighbors on marriage equality, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, who moved more quickly in years past to approve gay marriage and other socially progressive reforms.
Cuban transgender medical student Ariana Mederos, of Matanzas, recalls two years earlier explaining to her university rector that “he” was now a “she.”
At the time, she was unprotected by the recently approved Family Code.
“I cried. I thought I was going to give up my career,” she told Reuters, recalling the day. “But just as I thought it was over, he told me, ‘We are going to support you throughout your transition and you will have all our support, including that of your professors.'”
Mederos says she too believes attitudes shifted in Cuba with the discussion ahead of the referendum.
“Cuba is changing and I am proof of that,” she says. “I’ve seen positive changes but there is still much to fight for.”
Activists like Gonzalez say the code, while marking a step forward for equality, still lacks detail, including a separate gender identity law that allows transgender people to be treated according to their chosen identities.
Those details, he said, must not be lost in the celebration following the referendum.
“The battle never ends. We must continue to fight to assure we don’t lose the momentum gained with the passage of the code.”