Tampa LGBT leaders join cruise to explore community in Cuba
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Updated: September 3, 2015 at 07:05 AM
TAMPA — It's a time of rapid steps toward equality for the Tampa area's
LGBT community — the once-resistant Hillsborough County commission
signed a Tampa Pride proclamation in March, the U.S. Supreme Court
legalized same sex marriage in June, and the next day a quarter million
people jammed the streets of St. Petersburg for its annual Pride Parade.
Now, some local LGBT leaders are planning to carry the momentum with
them to Cuba.
At least 50 people from the Tampa area, including prominent LGBT
leaders, will join a gay-themed cruise in January for education and
outreach with members of the Cuban LGBT community, including discussions
on the campaign to achieve equality in both nations, said Al Ferguson,
owner of Sarasota's ALandCHUCK.travel, which is planning the trip.
"Cuba is just 90 miles away from Key West but might as well be on the
moon," Furguson said. "Much of our gay community knows little about
Cuba's and they may know little about ours. I am a firm believer that
travel can lead to change. Visiting Cuba can open dialogue between us
and help us both."
Though same sex marriage remains illegal in Cuba, the island nation can
point to its own advances toward equality from the times when gays and
lesbians were rounded up and sent to work camps. The LGBT lives and
works openly there today.
The eight-day, seven-night excursion leaves Jan. 15 from Montego Bay,
Jamaica, and flights to Montego from Tampa International Airport are
part of the package deal.
The ship will sail around Cuba, stopping at ports in Santiago, Havana,
Maria la Gorda and Cienfuegos. Passengers will take tours of each area
for educational purposes — one of 12 categories of travel to Cuba that
are legal under relaxed U.S. rules — and experience Havana's gay
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The tour group will meet with leaders of Cuba's LGBT community and
Ferguson will be a guest on radio and television programs to discuss the
equality movement in the U.S.
At the end of each day, as many as 1,200 passengers return to the ship
for dining, dancing and parties.
The State Department has approved cruises to Cuba from the U.S., and
Carnival Corp. has announced plans to offer trips from Miami soon, but
travel via a third nation remains the only cruise option today.
The cruise will be among the first with a gay theme since President
Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba in December
after five decades of a U.S. travel and trade embargo.
ALandCHUCK.travel has more Cuban cruises planned from Montego on Feb. 26
and April 8.
Furguson began planning the cruise shortly after Obama's announcement.
His travel company is a major financial supporter of both the St.
Petersburg and Tampa pride events as well as the Tampa International Gay
and Lesbian Film Festival. The company also promotes the Tampa area as
one of the best vacation destinations anywhere for the LGBT community.
Carrie West, founder of Tampa's GaYBOR District Coalition, called
Furguson a good ambassador for Florida's LGBT community.
"He is world travelled and is known around the country as being
supportive of pride events," West said. "I think he will make a great
first impression. He supports the gay community everywhere he goes.
Adding Cuba to that list seems right."
West welcomes the chance to join one of the cruises later in the year —
after finishing a home renovation project.
"This is an unbelievable opportunity to have fun and make a difference,"
he said. "I'm jealous of those going."
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Reaction from the LGBT community has been equal parts excitement and
caution, Ferguson said.
The roundups occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Cuba doesn't have the best human rights record by any stretch,"
Furguson said. "But it is improving."
Byron Motley, who is writing a book on Cuba's LGBT history, said cruise
passengers have little to worry about.
"Gays and lesbians are now allowed to live openly in Cuba," said Motley,
who also authored the photo book "Embracing Cuba."
"The people are very respectful and there are very serious consequences
for harming tourists. Of course, as anywhere in the world, travelers
were advised to be mindful of their surroundings.
"Nowhere is 100 percent safe for anyone, gay or not," Motley said. "But
as for being part of a hate crime — there should be no concern."
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1979, gay-themed art is no longer
censored, movies like the modern western "Brokeback Mountain" air on
government-run television, gay bars are opening in the cities and the
national healthcare system has provided free gender-reassignment
surgeries since 2008.
"It is much more open and liberal than many people would realize,"
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Fidel Castro has even apologized for Cuba's past treatment of its LGBT
In a 2010 interview with Mexican newspaper "La Jornada," Castro called
it a "great injustice," adding, "If anyone is responsible, it's me. We
had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life and death. In
those moments, I was not able to deal with the matter of homosexuals"
This swing in Cuba's philosophy, said author Motley, arises primarily
from the campaign's leader — Mariela Castro, niece of Fidel and daughter
of President Raul Castro.
Mariela Castro is heterosexual but thought her government's treatment of
its LGBT community was so unfair that she decided to use her family
status to lobby for change.
As director of the National Center for Sexual Education, she helped
establish Cuba's LGBT pride event, held each May since 2008. She also
persuaded the government to cover gender reassignment surgeries.
Learning about these positive steps in Cuba will be part of the
travelers' experience, Furguson said.
"Our government has approved of travel to Cuba so we can better
understand the county," he said.
Still, Cuba has far to go on equality for the LGBT community.
Legalizing gay marriage is at the top of the list, said author Motley,
and he believes it will happen sooner rather than later.
Activists in Cuba also point out there is no official recording yet of
hate crimes against the LGBT community in Cuba, there are no laws
prohibiting LGBT discrimination in the work place, and few sexual
reassignment surgeries have actually been approved by the government.
But Motley said the U.S. has much to do before achieving true equality
for the LGBT community.
That, said Furguson, is why these cruises to Cuba are so important.
"The message I want to share with Cuba's gay community is you are not
alone or isolated," said Furguson. "America's gay community thinks a lot
about you. Your desire for equality is not a Cuban issue. It is global.
Let's work together."
Source: Tampa LGBT leaders join cruise to explore community in Cuba |
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