Achy Obejas, a distinguished writer at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., gives a lecture on queer issues in Cuban culture. 

Photo Credit: Remy Fine | Daily Texan Staff

At a talk discussing queer issues in Cuban culture Monday, Achy Obejas, a Cuban-American writer and LGBTQ advocate, noted the achievements of Cuba’s movement toward equality but said there is still progress to be made.

Naomi Lindstrom, acting director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, said Obejas brings a well-balanced perspective to the discussion of Cuban issues.

“She’s not at all what you would think,” Lindstrom said. “She’s not totally critical of the Cuban government. She’s not totally supportive. She takes what I consider [to be] a very measured outlook of everything that came out of the Cuban Revolution.”

Obejas said that since the early 21st century, treatment of the LGBTQ community in Cuba dramatically shifted from a place of persecution and marginalization to a place of tolerance. According to Obejas, tolerance does not mean acceptance. 

Obejas said that most of the changes could be attributed to Mariela Castro, founder of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), a government-funded body that advocates for LGBTQ issues.  

Mariela Castro is the daughter of current Cuban president, Raul Castro. 

“What makes Raul Castro’s daughter’s pet project of homosexual acceptance truly ironic is that he is who is widely credited with being the driving force behind the creation of Cuba’s most notorious anti-gay campaign, the Unit for Military Production, also known as the UMAPs,” Obejas said.

Obejas said the Units to Aid Military Production, otherwise known as UMAPs, formally unacknowledged by the government, were detainment facilities for homosexual citizens as well as other political dissidents.  

Obejas said that despite the government’s silence on the subject, Mariela Castro was able to make gender issues part of the national conversation.

CENESEX pushed for a law that provides government-funded gender reassignment surgery to Cuban citizens who request the procedures. Obejas noted that, while the center’s accomplishments have made significant strides toward tolerance, there is still progress to be made within the movement.

According to Obejas, the ability for citizens to surgically change their anatomy doesn’t release them from societal gender pressures, just as the existence of an LGBTQ movement hasn’t eradicated homophobia. 

“The truth of the matter is that the harassment of gays is a pretty continuous and daily event in Cuba, particularly in Havana, where the capital police are notoriously violent,” Obejas said.

David Glisch-Sanchez, a sociology graduate student, said he enjoyed the fresh perspective given

Law student Richard Bellamy has his face painted by Taylor McCormick at the ALLY event in Gregory Plaza on Thursday. The event was hosted by StandOut to raise awareness about queer issues.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Overwhelmed. Intimidated. Confused. These are the feelings that mark the first few weeks of freshman year. Dorms, however, serve as safe havens for the hordes of new students in those first few weeks. On-campus living is valuable to first-year students, and this is why 70 percent of the 7,200 students housed on campus are freshmen seeking the security and belonging found in a residential dormitory. Due to the fact that on-campus dorms require same-sex roommate pairing, many LGBTQ students have to tolerate rooming situations that range from uncomfortable to unbearable.

The current same-sex roommate policy operates under very heteronormative assumptions. While it is intended to provide “appropriate” rooming situations, the policy ignores the unique housing needs of the LGBTQ community. Gender diversity in this community means students’ preferences and identifications fall beyond the traditional scope of gender norms, and the roommate policy does not acknowledge this diversity or support the many difficulties of this community. In fact, a study (Rankin and Beemyn, in progress) found that 44 percent of 50 transgender students from 14 universities experienced harassment in the form of derogatory remarks, verbal and physical threats, and denial of services. 

“Living in all-female dorms during both of my first two years on campus [was] an uncomfortable situation since I began questioning my gender. My request to change rooms was denied and I couldn’t afford a single room [on campus],” said Bridgette Kieffer, co-director of LGBTQ political activist group StandOut.

Since then, the Division of Housing and Food Service has offered a welcome, though incomplete solution. “If an LGBTQ student is willing to share their gender identity, it is possible that they will be assigned an individual room at the same cost as sharing a room,” Kieffer said. “This is not ideal since it requires the student to come out to Housing, but it is a step in the right direction.” 

Associate Director of Residence Life Hemlata Jhaveri, who oversees these types of housing issues at DHFS, has been working with StandOut for the past year to further evaluate the need for gender-neutral housing and study how it is provided at other universities. “It is very important that every student feels safe in their community living space, and we work with students on an individual basis,” Jhaveri said. Gender-neutral housing would give students the option to room together, regardless of the students’ biological sex or identified gender. DHFS has found that only two private schools in Texas offer it, and the majority of schools outside Texas offer it only to upperclassmen through university-owned apartments, suggesting its infeasibility at UT. 

StandOut, however, is not satisfied with these initiatives and has continued to petition for a gender-inclusive housing option that would allow students of any gender to freely room together for over a year now. Last year, DHFS suggested UT’s off-campus dorms as a solution because they allow students to choose any roommate. “That shows that they just wanted to throw the issue off campus, and I strongly agree with the idea that you should live on campus your first year,” StandOut co-director Devon Howard said. Since then, StandOut has continued to push for an on-campus dorm with a pilot floor for gender-inclusive housing. DHFS, however, has not confirmed any plans of the sort, and LGBTQ students are still forced to manage with the roommate policy in the current on-campus housing options.

Even if DHFS did approve plans for a pilot floor, it is still questionable that that would completely solve the problem. “I don’t believe this is purely housing-related,” Devon said. “UT has pretty awesome LGBTQ policies, like the nondiscrimination policy or preferred pronoun change on non-legal documents. A lot of the issues come from the students and their ignorance - not much [that] the University itself can directly cure.”

I think I speak for all of us when I say it is time to reexamine initiatives to cure the true source of the problem – ignorance and intolerance. StandOut and DHFS’ initiatives to explore gender-inclusive housing are a sensible approach to sensitive student issues, but the solution has to start and end with education and stronger student initiatives to promote tolerance and diversity on and off campus.

Huynh is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Laredo.

Students dance at the annual second-chance prom organized by the Queer People of Color and Allies Saturday in the SAC ballroom. 

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

Students and community members took out their partners and friends for a night of dancing and fun on Saturday, as Queer People of Color and Allies held its second-chance prom in the Student Activity Center‘s ballroom.

The prom — with a theme of “MasQUEERade” — is held annually, and is intended to provide a fun and social atmosphere for members of the LGBTQ community. Organizers say they want to provide an atmosphere more tolerant than the one at many Texas high school proms.

“It’s been going on for a pretty long time,” said Andra Steele, sociology sophomore and the organization’s finance co-director. “It gives the opportunity to people who identify within the queer community to bring their partner or their friend to prom, which wouldn’t easily happen for high schools that don’t allow queer couples to go to their own prom.”

Alexis S. Emperador, computer science junior and the organization’s director for operations, said she hoped MasQUEERade would help people like her friend from high school who was not allowed to take her date to prom.

“In the Valley, being queer was never really talked about ... but that just showed the sheer amount of homophobia that goes on in the Valley,” Emperador said. “We expect that there will be people from all over who weren’t able to take their partners to prom.”

Emperador said the Queer People of Color and Allies has a broader mission to push an agenda that falls through the cracks of colored people’s organizations and some gay rights groups.

“We want to make space for people who identify as queer and as a person of color,” Emperador said. “In the queer people of color agenda, we are focused ... on safe places for queer people of color to go.”

Emperador said last year, the prom had many attendees from Out Youth, an organization for LGBTQ youth in the Austin community. This year, there were about 100 attendees. They were invited to make masquerade masks, in line with the prom’s theme.

History senior Michael Ramsey, who attended the prom, said he was glad it provided a less strict environment than his high school did for its prom.

“I wasn’t allowed to dress in drag, and I wasn’t allowed to go with a guy. It was okay, but it wasn’t as fun as it could have been,” Ramsey said. “The regular prom is very like walking on egg shells. Even when you’re dancing, you don’t want to dance too effeminately.”

Correction: This article has been updated to show Miles Hutson, not Bobby Blanchard, wrote this report.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

On May 31, the First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits unconstitutional, stirring hope among LGBTQ activists and others nationwide.

Some LGBTQ advocates at UT reacted to the ruling with hope that the decision will lead to greater equality on campus, while others doubted that the court’s opinion will change Texas law or UT policy any time soon. Currently, UT only offers benefits to faculty and staff whose union adheres to Texas law.

Texas bans same-sex marriage and defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The court’s decision to strike down a key portion of the 1996 federal law comes at a time when the contest between opponents and advocates of same-sex marriage equality has intensified. For instance, on May 8, North Carolina became the 30th state to legally ban same-sex marriage. On May 9, President Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage, saying in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Alan Friedman, an English professor and outgoing chair of the UT Faculty Council, said it is unclear what lawsuit or legislation will establish marriage equality for LGBTQ individuals or allow UT to change its policy regarding domestic partner benefits.

“It is common knowledge among faculty that we have failed to recruit and retain excellent faculty because of our lack of domestic partner benefits,” he said. “I don’t know if even a Supreme Court ruling against DOMA would [change UT’s policy].”

Governor Rick Perry signed a Texas Defense of Marriage Act, which mirrors the federal statute, into law in 2003, and Texas voters passed an amendment to the Texas Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman in 2005.

Friedman said he believes the University’s administration is willing to provide its faculty and staff members who are in a same-sex relationship benefits, but has been unable to.

“I believe that the UT administration totally supports granting domestic partner benefits to faculty and staff, but that their hands are tied by state law, and repeal seems extremely unlikely given the current political climate,” Friedman said.

It is unclear what lawsuit or legislation will establish marriage equality for LGBTQ individuals or allow UT to change its policy regarding domestic partner benefits. It is well-known, however, that Texas’ opposition to equal rights for LGBTQ persons has harmed the University’s competitiveness, Friedman said.

Those state-level laws bar UT employees from receiving domestic partner benefits, said Patrick White, an outgoing student member of UT President William Powers Jr.’s LGBTQ presidential task force. The task force is charged with reviewing equal rights policies at UT and making recommendations on such policies to Powers.

“We [the University] are a charter of the state of Texas and are bound to its constitution, which denies benefits to same-sex couples,” White said.

Despite political and legal opposition to gay marriage in Texas, Queer Student Alliance director and biology senior Kent Kasischke said the federal appeals court decision on DOMA signaled a shift in the tone of the debate surrounding equality for LGBTQ persons.

“For UT students, alumni and faculty, I feel like [the DOMA ruling] is a positive chord we have all been waiting to hear, as it is a sign for future progress and equality,” Kasischke said. “It is unlikely that we will see full marriage equality for queer individuals in Texas for awhile, but I do think we will start to see increased domestic partner benefits for LGBTQ individuals.”

Torsten Knabe, former Queer Student’s Alliance vice director and music senior, said the federal ruling on DOMA may change the debate, but it will not change the University’s policy or state law.

“UT will not adopt domestic partnership benefits based on this ruling because [UT’s policy and DOMA] are not related at all,” Knabe said. “Partnership benefits are not based on marriage rights, and in no way imply a marriage or union.”

The lawsuit heard by the federal appeals court only pertains to a limited number of states, Knabe said.

“The lawsuit only involves states where same-gender marriage is already legal,” Knabe said. “Texas is not one of those states.”

Israeli movie director and social activist Yair Qedar conducts a Q-and-A Monday evening after the screening of his film “Gay Days”. The film is about the beginnings of the LGBTQ community in Israel.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

LGBTQ members and supporters in the United States can look to Israel as an example of hope for the future of same-sex rights where laws and culture are more open and accepting of other gender identities, said government senior and Texans for Israel president Zachary Garber.

Prominent Israeli LGBTQ activist and director Yair Qedar was invited to campus for a screening of his film “Gay Days,” a short documentary showcasing the emergence of the LGBTQ community in Tel Aviv, Israel, over the span of 30 years. The public screening, followed by a Q&A session with Qedar, was hosted by University Democrats and Texans for Israel along with Queer People of Color & Allies. Israel currently recognizes same-sex marriage and allows homosexuals to serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces, said Garber.

“LGBTQ rights in Israel are among the most developed in the world, and LGBTQ rights groups from across the Middle East are based in Israel precisely because of its stellar minority rights record,” Garber said. “The United States, on the other hand, has a pretty poor record when it comes to treating its LGBTQ communities, although it’s [slowly improving]. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed last year, and it appears the push for gay marriage is starting to have an effect.”

The film focused on several prominent figures who were central in promoting Israeli LGBTQ rights, ranging from military officers to popular musicians. The long struggle for these rights is something that should give current supporters hope, Garber said.

“I hope that students will be encouraged by the efforts on behalf of the LGBTQ community in Israel,” Garber said. “There was a lot of inertia to overcome in Israel as well, and nonetheless the country has made great strides in the last 30 years. Similarly there is a long road ahead here in the US, but those involved should not lose their motivation.”

Students currently face several gender issues on UT campus. Gender-inclusive housing as well as domestic partner benefits for faculty and staff are among the most important of these issues, said government junior and University Democrats President Huey Fischer.

“There are definitely things here at UT that we can make progress on and that we can push forward on,” Fischer said. “Seeing movements in other places, we can pick and choose and figure out what really works best for our community here. With University Democrats as an ally of the community, it’s something we’re really focused on progressing.”

Although Israel has made strides, the country is not homogenous, said an Israeli source who identifies as bisexual and asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy.

“Just like Texas isn’t like New York, Jerusalem isn’t like Tel Aviv. Like Hollywood isn’t necessarily a realistic portrayal, neither are our films,” the source said in an email. “I think most importantly, there is a very loud outcry in Israel at the moment against the amount of control a religious belief of one group should have on another’s freedom, not just in sexual orientation but in everything.”

Printed on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 as: Israel advances LGBTQ rights