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Cuban enjoys new benefit of free sex-change operation

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
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Cuba battles homophobic past
  • "I've known I was a boy" since age 5
  • Transsexual had gender reassignment surgery at 61
  • Co-workers, brother are supportive
  • Fidel Castro's niece runs program against homophobia

Matanzas, Cuba (CNN) -- On the job, Juani Santos is just another one of the guys.

He inspects recycled canisters for flaws at a gas tank factory in western Cuba and cracks jokes with the other workers. Short and stocky, he has a deeply lined face and thick mustache.

But Juani was born a girl.

It was only two months ago that the 61-year-old transsexual underwent gender reassignment surgery.

"I'm not an alien or a delinquent," he told CNN during an interview in his tiny two-room apartment in the central Cuban city of Matanzas.

"I'm a person who feels and suffers like anybody else. I didn't want to be born like this. Every since I was 5 I've known I was a boy."

Forty years after being diagnosed a transsexual, he has benefited from a gradual but far-reaching transformation in Cuba.

At the beginning of Fidel Castro's revolution, gays and transsexuals were locked up or sent to labor camps. Even a decade ago they were regularly harassed by police.

Now it's Fidel's niece Mariela Castro who has launched a nationwide campaign to battle homophobia.

As president of the National Sexual Education Center, she's pushing for same-sex unions.

"I want to live in a socialist society where there is absolute justice," she recently told CNN. "So there can't be discrimination of any kind."

More radical yet, Cuba has begun to provide sex-change operations.

The financing and the medical specialists come from Belgium, which has a long-standing partnership with Cuban medicine in this area.

Juani is among some 15 transgender patients operated on so far.

He has worked hard to overcome machista (chauvinist) attitudes at home and work.

Although his parents were fairly understanding from the time he was young, his older brother used to burn Juani's clothes when he dressed like a boy.

"But he was clever," Fernando Santos said. "As soon as I left the house, he would just wear my clothes."

The brothers now live together, with Fernando taking care of most domestic duties while Juani works at the factory and tinkers with his motorcycle at home.

Juani said the most difficult moment of his life came when a woman fell in love with him.

"I had to sit her down and tell her who I was" he said. "She accepted it at first, but after six months, her family convinced her to leave me. I haven't had any relationship with any woman since."

In the 1980s, he was finally allowed to legally change his name to Juani, which can be either feminine or masculine in Spanish. He won't even mention the name he was born with.

"It gave me half the freedom I was looking for," he said.

In fact, Juani was initially turned away from the factory where he now works because his appearance just didn't match the name on his ID.

But they eventually gave him a chance and now his co-workers are his closest friends and supporters.

"I'm really happy for him, this was his dream," Lazaro Maredo said during a break on the factory floor.

When asked what he wants out of life now, Juani smiled.

"To find a partner and live what's left of it in the company of a woman."