ABOVE: Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, takes part in a march in Havana on May 13, 2017, that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
HAVANA — It was shortly after 6 p.m. on May 13 when Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, sat down with the Washington Blade at Havana’s iconic Hotel Nacional.
Perry’s husband, Phillip De Blieck, and Rev. Hector Gutiérrez, an MCC elder from the Mexican city of Guadalajara, joined Perry in his suite in the hotel that overlooks the Cuban capital’s oceanfront promenade and the Florida Straits. Perry spoke with the Blade hours after he and De Blieck rode alongside Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, in a 1950s-era car during a march that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
“I don’t ever want us in America to think we’re better than other people because,” said Perry.
More than 2,000 people took part in the march the National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, organized.
Perry told the Blade he received a standing ovation from the more than 5,000 people who attended a CENESEX gala at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater on May 12. He said CENESEX honored him with what he described as an international human rights award.
“I’m deeply honored by that,” said Perry. “I am a little boy from North Florida.”
Perry, 77, met Mariela Castro in 2015 when he traveled to Cuba for the first time. He told the Blade his father — a former bootlegger who owned a tobacco farm — visited the island in the 1930s.
“That was a part of my speech last night,” said Perry, referring to the CENESEX gala.
Perry founded MCC in Los Angeles in 1968. It now has more than 200 congregations around the world.
MCC has congregations in Havana and in the cities of Santa Clara and Matanzas. Perry noted MCC provided housing to gay men who were among the more than 100,000 Cuban refugees — “Marielitos” in Spanish — who arrived in the U.S. during the 1980 Mariel boatlift after then-President Fidel Castro allowed them to leave the country.
Some of the “Marielitos” who arrived in the U.S. were criminals or people with mental illness who Fidel Castro had released from prisons and institutions.
“A lot of them weren’t good people as I can testify because we housed 10,000 of them in MCC houses all over the country,” Perry told the Blade. “Scripture tells me I am to help aliens. You’re an alien one time, Hebrew scripture told the Jews. So as a Christian I believe that, so we housed people.”
Mariela Castro is ‘just like the Kennedys’
Fidel Castro, who was Mariela Castro’s uncle, in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought him to power sent gay men and others to work camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAPs.
Cuba in 1979 decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.
The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria. Fidel Castro, who died last November, apologized for the UMAPs in 2010 during an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
“He apologized finally,” Perry told the Blade.
Mariela Castro over the last decade has spearheaded LGBT-specific issues on the Communist island, with her supporters noting the country since 2008 has provided free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. They also highlight Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban Parliament, in 2013 voted against a proposal to add sexual orientation to Cuba’s labor law because it did not include gender identity.
Mariela Castro earlier this year during an interview with Hatzel Vela, a Havana-based reporter for the South Florida television station WPLG, that her father is “supportive” of her LGBT-specific work. Perry noted to the Blade that Mariela Castro’s mother, Vilma Espín, who was the president of the Cuban Federation of Women, taught her at a young age to respect gay men.
“Her mother . . . instilled that into her,” said Perry.
Independent Cuban activists with whom the Blade has spoken say the face harassment and even arrest if they publicly criticize Mariela Castro or her father’s government.
Perry told the Blade in response to a question about Cuba’s human rights record that he wants “to be able to talk” about human rights.
He said CENESEX “never asked to look at” the speech he delivered at the organization’s gala. Perry also told the Blade that Mariela Castro “has problems when people threaten her family,” noting the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and sponsored the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
“She is just like the Kennedys,” said Perry, referring to Mariela Castro. “People have tried to kill her uncle and her name is Castro. She can’t even go to South Florida really. She would probably be hurt and I understand that.”
“There are emotions about the Castro family to this day as we Americans know.”
Perry sharply criticizes U.S. embargo against Cuba
Perry’s first visited Cuba roughly six months after then-President Obama began the process of normalizing relations between the U.S. and the Communist island. President Trump in June announced the reinstatement of travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.
Perry repeatedly criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba during the interview.
He said a Cuban pastor told him his congregation couldn’t buy Bibles, so it broke it up into separate books and checked them out to his parishioners. Perry told the Blade parishioners would receive another book once they returned the one they had checked out.
“What I saw when I came here, I could not believe what that embargo has done to this country,” he said. “We have been awful.”
Perry also told the Blade the Cuban people are increasingly concerned about Trump.
“They have never seen a more erratic president,” said Perry. “The Cuban people are afraid of him. They are worried more about what is going to happen now with the embargo, with the opening we have started.”
Perry said Mariela Castro told him that Fidel Castro once told the Cuban people, “I don’t care if we have to eat grass, no country is going to bully us again.” Perry also said the Cuban people “want their freedom.”
“They love Americans,” he said. “But on the other hand I don’t see any signs about Trump.”
“The government is waiting to see what’s going to happen,” added Perry.