In paradise, fighting for LGBT rights

Ada Bello, a 79-year-old LGBT rights activist, confronted homophobia on two shores.


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Cuban LGBT activist confronted homophobia on two shores


Ada Bello holds a photograph of herself and fellow pioneers in the fight for LGBT rights. They stand at the Historical plaque marking the first protests for this cause, which started in Philadelphia in 1966. Photo: David Cruz/AL DÍA

PHILADELPHIA -- For Ada Bello, a 79-year-old LGBT rights activist, growing up on the island of Cuba was "terrible" due to the risk of being identified as a lesbian. So in 1959, when Bello was in her 20s, she emigrated to the United States, where she became one of the early pioneers of the LGBT rights movement in Philadelphia.

"Your behavior was enough for them [the Cuban government] to take legal action against you," said Bello, remembering her youth on the island. "Even though men were the most affected, women had less freedom."

The consequences of being identified as a lesbian in Cuba were serious. For some families, it was an affront to their honor and it meant estrangement.

"I didn't feel any remorse for being a lesbian, but I knew I was going to have to live my life in the shadows," Bello said. "So I decided the only solution was to leave the country."

In Cuba, Bello knew two or three other gay women. At least she thought they were gay, "because in many cases they wouldn't even confide in each other, out of fear" – no doubt a scenario that is difficult to imagine today. 

As a young woman, Bello moved from Matanzas, a town where everyone knew each other and gossiped, to Havana.  She soon discovered that the university community there was just as small as the city where she grew up.

Just before the revolution, in the midst of conflicts between students in Havana and the police, the university shut its doors. When Fidel Castro assumed power shortly thereafter, it didn't make much of a difference for her or for other gay people on the island – at least at first.

"But then they started to persecute people they considered to be a threat to society," said Bello. "That included homosexuals."

Those who were identified in the raids were confined to labor camps.

"When the world learned this was happening, there was a lot of pressure on the Cuban government," said Bello, recalling the impact of the Spanish documentary "Improper Conduct" had; it exposed the persecution of homosexuals and intellectuals in Castro's Cuba during the beginning of the Cuban revolution. 

"That was a very important moment. The practice started to change," said Bello.

By then, Bello had already left Cuba and was attending college in the United States. At that time, getting accepted at an American university was reason enough to be allowed to leave the island.

"When I got to Louisiana I found I had a lot more freedom because no one knew me, and I had a lot more privacy than I did with my family in Cuba," said Bello. "I was near New Orleans, a big city with gay and lesbian bars."

After graduating with a major in chemistry, she went to work, always being discreet, afraid that if she were discovered she could lose her job.

The American South, which at first had offered her so much freedom, eventually seemed too small for her and in 1962 she moved to Philadelphia, where she would become a true pioneer in the movement for gay rights. 

In the City of Brotherly Love, Bello was a founding member in 1967 of the local chapter of the organization known as Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), which led a year later to the creation of the Homophile Action League (HAL).

"We held peaceful protests against the raids the police were conducting on gay and lesbian bars. They were arresting the customers at night and weren't letting them go until the morning," said Bello. "We challenged the police and they realized that there was a group of people that was watching what they were doing and they couldn't just act unjustly."

From 1966 to 1968, on the Fourth of July in front of Independence Hall, the first demonstrations for the rights of the LGBT community were held in Philadelphia. Bello participated in the last of these.

A year later the Stonewall riots broke out in New York, a series of violent demonstrations by the gay community against police raids, considered to be the most important events that led to the LGBT liberation movement and the struggle for gay rights.

After helping to organize the first gay rights march in the Big Apple in 1970, HAL organized LGBT conferences until the organization disbanded in 1972. 

"After Stonewall, the methodology was different. It was no longer a question of covert action, but of integrating into the political process, and that required another type of structure," said Bello.

She later joined different organizations in Philadelphia, such as the William Way Center and the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force — which was responsible for the inclusion of the protection of homosexuals in a local ordinance in 1983. It previously protected only against discrimination based on race or religion.

Today, one of the streets where police used to carry out raids on the LGBT community in Philadelphia is named after Barbara Gittings, one of the activists Bello worked with in the struggle.

Bello later shifted her focus to her career, but she didn't give up her activism.

"When I came to the United States from Cuba, I thought I had arrived in paradise, that I'd found a lot of freedom," Bello said. "Then I saw all the battles that had to be fought, and that led me to activism."

Although there is still a long way to go toward equality for the civil rights of the LGBT community, Bello believes that in her 79 years she has seen major changes both in the United States and in her native Cuba.

"In those days, it seemed like it was going to take an eternity, but the speed of the change has been incredible," Bello said. "Back then we were fighting because they considered us criminals. Now we are fighting for marriage equality, and we have to keep fighting so we don't return to the past."

*This article was translated from it's Spanish version, "Luchando en el paraíso por los derechos LGBT."


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