In a historic win for queer couples in Cuba, the island country that once sent queer people to work camps has legalized same-sex marriage.
In a national referendum Sept. 26, around two-thirds of Cubans voted for a new family code that would boost protections for same-sex couples, women, children and the elderly, the BBC reported. Cuba’s Parliament, the National Assembly, approved these reforms after years of debating them, and they will come into effect September 30.
In addition to legalizing same-sex marriage, the 100-page code gives same-sex couples the right to adopt children and allows for surrogate pregnancies. It also includes measures against gender-based violence and advocates that couples split household work equally.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel celebrated the vote, saying in a statement that “love is now the law.”
“As of today, we will be a better nation,” Díaz-Canel’s statement said. “[Passing the law is a way to] pay a debt to various generations of Cubans whose domestic plans had been waiting years for this law.”
The measures also enjoyed support from Mariela Castro, the director of the National Center for Sex Education, a LGBTQ+ education and advocacy organization in Cuba. Castro is the daughter of former pPresident Raúul Castro and the niece of Fidel Castro.
The new family code marks a significant shift for Cuba, where LGBTQ+ people had been sent to work camps for “re-education” after the 1959 revolution, when Fidel Castro’s government encouraged homophobia. Although homosexuality was legalized in Cuba in 1979, many LGBTQ+ people still report discrimination, despite the constitution having anti-discrimination provisions for LGBTQ+ people since 2019. In 2019, police disrupted a LGBTQ+ rights parade, claiming that marchers did not get permission to hold the rally.
This isn’t the first time that the Cuban government has tried to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2018, lawmakers attempted to introduce provisions to the constitution to legalize same-sex marriage. But after facing backlash from religious and social conservatives, they deserted these provisions, afraid that they would prevent the new constitution from being voted in. The lawmakers said in a tweet that they had scrapped these provisions “as a way of respecting all opinions.”
Moreover, while this new family code garnered widespread support, it didn’t receive the almost universal support—90 percent% of the vote—that government-backed initiatives typically win. The Catholic Church in Cuba called the new code “gender ideology,” and claimed that it targeted “the nature of the family,” with other churches in Cuba opposing same-sex marriage measures on similar grounds.
LGBTQ+ activists have been skeptical of the referendum too, speculating that it may be an effort of the state to improve its image following recent moves to crack down on dissent, including the arrest and abuse of peaceful protestors. Juan Pappier and Cristian González Cabrera, researchers for the Human Rights Watch, wrote that with the referendum, “authorities are subjecting basic rights to a political football between advocates for equality and non-discrimination and their opponents.”
“Referendums can be an important component of democracy and can, in some circumstances, help break the political inertia to uphold rights and promote rights-respecting policies,” Pappier and González wrote. “Yet, ultimately, the recognition of the rights of minorities, including LGBTQ+ people, should not hinge on a popularity vote.”