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HAVANA, Dec. 10th (CNN)  As Cuba opens its doors to American visitors, the government is encouraging more gay tourism. After decades of persecution, new laws to protect LGBT rights mark a dramatic turnaround for the Castro regime.

The show goes on at 2:00AM. Havana’s drag queen cabaret. Lip syncing six nights a week as cocktails flow and crowds grow. Cuba’s underground gay scene slowly becoming mainstream. A new club, the latest to openly cater to LGBT customers.

“Now there’s a boom. All the bars want to have drag queens,” says Kiriam, who began performing in secret 21 years ago. She takes us to a tiny dressing room packed with female impersonators. Some do drag full time.

“Ten years ago,” she says, “we might have been scared to perform or even to meet in certain places.”

A decade ago, Cubans could still go to prison for public displays of homosexuality. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Castro regime persecuted sexual minorities, sending some people to labor camps. In recent years, Fidel Castro himself has admitted responsibility for the quote, “great injustice.”

Today, President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro runs the national center for sex education, Cuba’s only state agency advocating for LGBT rights. Cuba offers free sex change surgery and has among the world’s lowest rates of HIV and AIDs.

Kiriam says she’s a “health promoter.” However, critics say the Cuban government overlooks a huge problem in the LGBT community. Prostitution is rampant at gay cruising spots like the Malecon here in Havana. It really surged during the Cuban economic crisis around 20 years ago and continues today. The reason? Money.

Sex workers catering to foreigners can earn more in a single night than a Cuban doctor makes in a month. Several men we spoke to say “gay for pay” is one of many issues ignored by Cuba’s mainstream LGBT activists.

Raiko Pin Nuñez, a Cuban blogger, says it’s still complicated to be openly gay on the communist-run island, “For example, if I walked down the street right now holding my partner’s hand it would not be taken well. People would stare, make comments.”

The topic is so sensitive, pin asks us to interview him away from his friends at the public wi-fi hotspot where he runs his own YouTube channel. He says his family accepts him but all of his ex-boyfriends have left Cuba. He says those who stay are still forced to lead “una doble vida” – a double life.

“My dream is to get married, to have kids. To have the same rights as someone who is straight. But here it’s complicated,” said Nuñez.

He dreams of equality. And the end of homophobia that still permeates Cuban society. A dream even the most optimistic LGBT advocates say is likely decades away.

HAVANA-LIVE-gaycubaflag-copyHAVANA, August 1  – As tourism flourishes in Cuba the island is emerging as a destination for the LGBT community and a travel agency specializing in packages for those customers is already in operation.

Pioneering the business are the owners of Mi Cayito Cuba, a Web-based intermediary between “gay-friendly Cuban private initiative and clients around the world,” company director Alain Castillo, a Cuban who lives in Madrid, told EFE.

“The island has great potential as a space for coexistence,” said the 35-year-old entrepreneur who wants to contribute to “the visibility and improvement of the LGBT collective” in the country.

“We are open to everyone, we believe in a free and tolerant environment where respect is valued,” he said.

Located east of Havana, Mi Cayito is probably the only gay beach in the Cuba and for that reason Castillo thought it was an appropriate name for his company, founded a year ago.

“It is vacation time,” the promotion posted on social media say. “It is Cuba time. The new gay paradise.”

Most popular destinations so far for Mi Cayito Cuba’s clients are Havana, the verdant heaven of Viñales in the western province of Pinar del Rio, and Varadero beach, Castillo said.

Mi Cayito Cuba’s Web site is available only in Spanish, but Castillo said it has been visited by clients in Germany, the United States, Russia, Spain and Latin America who have the choice of tours like “Havana Gay” or a service of personalized guides.

More than 2 million foreign tourists have come to Cuba so far this year.

“Changes in Cuba have become an incentive and have increased demand,” Castillo said, adding that his company expects a flood of U.S. visitors as a result of the thawing of relations between Washington and Havana and the restoration of diplomatic relations after a break of more than 50 years.

Cuba has not always been so welcoming to LGBT people. In the decades following the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, the Cuban government derided, persecuted and jailed gays and lesbians.

In a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro acknowledged that he bore ultimate responsibility for the persecution and expressed regret about the policy.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba in the 1990s and the island’s free public health service began offering sex-reassignment operations in 2008.

http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2393569&CategoryId=14510