Havana: Ignacio is a homosexual dissident who fights for gay rights in Cuba. Wendy is a transsexual woman. Their plans to marry on Saturday, longtime leader Fidel Castro's birthday, have stirred controversy.
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Cuba, which in the past has showed little tolerance for homosexuality and operated camps for several years to stamp out "counterrevolutionary" values.
Attitudes have changed, in part following efforts by Mariela Castro, a sex therapist and daughter of President Raul Castro. And technically, Saturday's nuptials are not a gay union, as Wendy is officially recognised as a woman.
But the wedding plans are challenging public perceptions about gays, transsexuals, marriage and how all three can co-exist in the island nation.
Gay rights activist Ignacio Estrada, 31, said the couple's wedding would "mark a new step in Cuba" and is a "birthday gift to Fidel Castro, who last year admitted his role in the decades of discrimination suffered by gays”.
"This is not a provocation. It's an acknowledgment," Estrada said as he helped his fiancée, Wendy Iriepa, choose her wedding bouquet at a flower shop in central Havana.
At 37, Iriepa says she is living a "woman's dream”, four years after abandoning her former male identity, Alexis, thanks to a sex change operation performed by Mariela Castro's Centre for Sex Education (Cenesex).
"It's wonderful. It will be the first 'gay' wedding in Cuba. I don't want this to be seen as a political act. Even if it's a gift to Fidel, I'm not worried about what the government will think," said Iriepa.
Iriepa, a former Cenesex employee who is close to Mariela Castro, said the President's daughter refused to be a witness at the ceremony after she learned that Estrada was a dissident.
Well-known Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has now been chosen as the couple's witness for the marriage and is planning to run live streaming video on her blog via Twitter.
"Wendy and Ignacio are sending Cuba into the third millennium," Sanchez wrote on her blog desdecuba.com/generaciony/.
Among the Cuban dissidents in attendance will be members of the gay community and the Ladies in White -- wives and other female relatives of political prisoners.
Diplomats from the US interests section in Cuba also will be present.
Estrada and Iriepa say they knew they were in love at first sight, which happened on May 13, at Cenesex. Two days later, Estrada invited Iriepa to dinner, and they were living together a week later. Now, it's wedding time.
"Total symbiosis," Iriepa said.
"I always said I was gay," Estrada said. "But with Wendy, it's totally different. Today, I don't know what I am -- all I know is that I am in love with a woman."
Iriepa says she sees no problem with their unusual love story.
"He's gay, but he's a man. He has a penis and he makes me happy. I had a penis, which I used a lot when I was selling myself on the streets. Now, if I need to resort to sex toys for him, I will do it," the transsexual said.
Estrada insists: "Our wedding will be an ode to freedom, and the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) community."
Since 1988, 16 sex change operations have been legally performed in Cuba. Mariela Castro's Cenesex is lobbying for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the island nation.
First Published: Saturday, August 13, 2011, 10:40