Wedding is a small triumph for Cuba's sexual minorities

A gay man and a woman whose sex-change operation was paid for by the state tied the knot in a first-of-its-kind wedding for Cuba.

Wendy Iriepa, 37, arrived at a Havana wedding hall on Saturday afternoon in a vintage Ford convertible and a white wedding gown, flowers in her hair and holding a rainbow flag.

Neighbourhood residents came out of their homes to gawk.

"This is the first wedding between a transsexual woman and a gay man," said the 31-year-old groom, Ignacio Estrada. "We celebrate it at the top of our voices and affirm that this is a step forward for the gay community."

Inside, a public notary joined them in a brief civil ceremony and the newlyweds kissed to cheers from friends and family. Gay marriage is not legal in Cuba and the wedding does nothing to change that, since Ms Iriepa, born Alexis, is a woman in the eyes of the law.

She had sex-change surgery in 2007 as part of a pilot programme that began in earnest the following year and made gender-reassignment procedures part of the island's health care system. One other transgender woman married many years ago, but Ms Iriepa is the first to do so under the new policy.

In the early years after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, homosexuality was considered highly suspect, along with other "alternative" forms of expression, such as US fashion trends and rock and roll.

Many gays and transsexuals were fired from government jobs, jailed, sent to work camps or left for exile. That climate of persecution was famously chronicled by exiled writer Reinaldo Arenas' autobiographical Before Night Falls, later a feature film starring Javier Bardem.

Today, even if deep-seated macho attitudes toward homosexuality have not entirely disappeared, the island and its government are much more tolerant.

The country's most prominent gay rights activist is Mariela Castro, Fidel Castro's niece and President Raul Castro's daughter. She heads the National Sex Education Centre and is firmly established in Cuban officialdom.

"One of our accomplishments has made it possible for Wendy to get married," she said. "It seems she found the love of her life and we wish her many congratulations, because all of our work has been for this, the well-being and happiness of our sisters."

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