Published 20 November 2009
Diana enters stage at midnight and gives a dramatic diva-style performance. She then turns to the audience, reminding them that AIDS preys on all communities, “particularly on those of us who receive so much love, but also on all of you my darlings, not just gays but also heterosexuals.”
Blending a dark style of comedy with risqué innuendo she cautions those assembled, “we would all be dead without condoms, and I want you all here every Friday night.” She flings condoms into the amused crowd who catch or pick up the freebies.
With the audience enraptured, Diana then talks in a more measured tone, speaking of the need for everyone to keep their self-esteem high, as well as warning against getting carried away with high-risk behavior. Then to the tune of “I Will Survive” she rallies the crowd to keep up the fight.
El Club de las Estrellas is the only venue in Havana staging regular transgender shows. Diana’s been performing once or twice a week for the last 15 years at this café-cum-theater-cum-hairdresser’s salon. Although the venue has no licence to sell drinks or put on performances, its stage has been graced by Cuba's most famous drag queens. The crowds there are mixed, mostly “show-biz, vaudevilles, TV people, artists,” says the owner. Local residents tolerate the place, she says, but it required "a lot of education and a lot of patience to overcome prejudices."
Sitting in her dressing room after the show Diana talks about her experiences as a community health worker with the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX):
“Transvestites are great for attracting people to prevention programs, because people are curious about who you are and what you say. You’ll overhear a conversation in a bus and so you get in there and do your prevention, you correct someone’s ignorance in relation to AIDS, and you can’t imagine how interested everybody gets. They come up to you, and even the bus driver ends up joining the conversation, and that's when you give them your prevention leaflets.”
Sometimes there is tension, even violence, but it happens less and less, she says. “In the old days yes, people would throw stones or swear at you on the street. We were used to getting into fights and a lot of people were scared of us.”
Relations with the police are improving but issues still remain. “They often ask us for our papers or arrest us. The day before yesterday a police patrol stopped me on the street. The name on my ID card is Juan Carlos ... they aren't ready for it." Diana has helped train police on sexual diversity through a CENESEX program. She was surprised by how well the police officers responded to the sessions, “They are even asking us to organize more courses. We can’t cope with the demand.”
CENESEX has been working on prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in the transgender population for more than a decade. Since 2003 the Global Fund has financed community workers’ training, as well as the publication of their leaflets and educational materials. Dr Rosaira Rodríguez, director of the project, explains that the training sessions led the initial group of 15 to expand to more than 400 transvestite and transsexual community workers all over Cuba. Responding to popular demand this year's training sessions deal with conjugal violence, drug abuse and mental health issues.
And among the many CENESEX programs is a little known area of particularly delicate work - promoting reconciliation and acceptance among the families of transvestites and transsexuals. Every second Tuesday Dr Rodriguez holds awareness-raising sessions, offering mediation and encouraging acceptance. Diana’s mother attends these meetings. She poignantly commented, “some mothers have even ended up calling their daughters by their female name, and this is not an easy thing to achieve."
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