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Cuban transgender woman says she resigned because Mariela Castro accused her of disloyalty

BY JUAN O. TAMAYO, jtamayo@elnuevoherald.com

A transgender woman has quit her job at a government-run sex studies center headed by the daughter of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, alleging that Mariela Castro accused her of disloyalty because of her relationship with a gay opposition activist.

Castro “challenged my life, (asking) why am I with my man?” said Wendy Iriepa, 37, who added that she handed in her resignation Thursday to the National Sex Education Center in Havana (CENESEX), which Castro heads.

Iriepa was a long-time fixture at the center: the first to benefit from Castro’s push for government approval of sex-change surgeries and steady participant in center-organized events for Cuba’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.

Castro, who directs CENESEX, has long been known as an advocate for LGBT rights and widely credited with lobbying the government to crack down on discrimination against gays and offer benefits to LGBT community members.

But a small group of gays has accused her of monopolizing the LGBT rights movement, demanding total loyalty to her father’s government and blocking efforts to establish gay rights groups that are independent of the government-run CENESEX.

On June 28, a small group of independent gays and lesbians known as the Observatory for LGBT Rights strolled down a Havana boulevard to mark Gay Pride Day. That’s a day Castro has refused to celebrate, arguing that such a protest is not necessary in Cuba.

One of the Observatory members at the demonstration: Iriepa’s lover, Ignacio Estrada, a gay activist for the rights of HIV-positive Cubans and self-described “opponent of the Castro government” who spoke at length about the Iriepa case in a phone chat with El Nuevo Herald.

Castro summoned Iriepa to her office the day after the Gay Pride celebration, showed her videos of Estrada’s participation and asked “how she could live, in bed and in a home, with an enemy of the revolution,” Estrada said.

The CENESEX director added that she had lost all trust in Iriepa, he added, signaling that she would be demoted from her job arranging food services for CENESEX functions and managing a list of people who seek the center’s help.

“I submitted my letter of resignation yesterday, noting it was due to interference in my personal life. I never before had any political problems,” Iriepa told El Nuevo Herald before handing the phone to Estrada because she was busy.

Iriepa and Estrada also claimed that she tasted Castro’s food and checked any gifts she received, but two Havana residents who know Iriepa said she simply handled the food at the center.

Iriepa and Estrada also said they plan to marry later this year and that as part of her job Iriepa usually tasted Castro’s food and checked any gifts she received. Two Havana residents who know Iriepa said she simply handled the food at the center.

A woman who answered the phone at CENESEX on Friday said Castro was not available to comment for this article and that no one else knew anything about the Iriepa case.

Iriepa’s sex-change surgery in 2007 was the first such procedure performed in Cuba after Castro and CENESEX had started to push the government, which owns all hospitals on the island, to approve the surgeries.

She was interviewed for several news reports about LGBT rights in Cuba, Castro and CENESEX, and often marched prominently next to Castro at events organized by the center.

Her surgery “has been a sign of humanity that the Cuban government has given. We have a lot to be thankful for,” Iriepa declared in one interview with the British Reuters news agency.

In a separate interview, she thanked Castro and said the sex studies center had helped her understand her rights, noting that even though it is legal for cross-dressers to wear women’s clothes in Cuba, police often issue them fines.

The Gay Pride celebration last month, though it drew no more than 20 participants, cast a spotlight on the growing activism by a wide range of independent groups — gays, blacks, artists and farmers, among others — seeking a stronger voice in Cuba’s affairs.

But a gay Havana man who blogs under the name of “Paquito el de Cuba” and supports the Castro government made a thinly veiled accusation in a July 4 post that the independent gays and lesbians are being supported by enemies of the revolution.

He noted an El Nuevo Herald report last month that the U.S. State Department planned to commit $300,000 this year to help Cuba’s LGBT community, and that an organizer of the Gay Pride celebration had met with former President Jimmy Carter in March.

“Not one word more,” he concluded, as though he had proven his point.

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