‘Born In the Wrong Body’: Recipient of first sex-change operation in Cuba tells story of her journey

ANTON KOTELYANSKII

Staff Writer

On Oct. 16, in the Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre in the Vukovich, Cuban filmmaker Marilyn Solaya presented her documentary “En el Cuerpo Equivocado,” or “Born in the Wrong Body,” about the first Cuban to undergo a gender reassignment surgery. This was followed by a QnA session, during which Barbara Riess, professor of modern and classical language studies and women’s studies, served as translator.

The film followed the life of Mavi Sussel who was born a man and became a woman in 1988. The surgery was paid for by the Cuban government through the National Center for Sexual Education, a government organization headed by Fidel Castro’s niece, Mariela Castro. Solaya said in the QnA session that Fidel Castro took a personal issue in the plight of LGBT individuals, and that there was a 20-year tolerance education process prior to the first surgery. In the documentary, Mavi says that after the surgery, Fidel sent her flowers. Nevertheless, as Solaya said “he is just one man.” This is part of a significant marked change in the government’s policy, as all homosexual behavior was criminalized until 1979 almost 10 years before the first sex-change operation.

The documentary took eight years to make. It follows Mavi Sussel’s current life and reenacts scenes from her life before the surgery. Mavi says that she felt she was a woman when she was still a little boy. Her father wanted to throw her out when he found out about how she felt, but her mother interceded. Her father took him to a psychologist, who prescribed Mavi male hormone treatments. As a transgender, she was scorned both by both hetero and homoseuals. At school, Mavi endured abuse from the other boys, and was eventually raped. Her mother took her to another psychologist who said “I don’t know what you are, but you’re not homosexual.” At this point, she moved away from home and started undergoing hormone treatments to become a woman, culminating in the surgery, which according to the psychologist was “something that must be done.”

During this time, she was harassed and molested by the local men. She had trouble finding a partner because she was afraid to be honest about her past. Nevertheless, she found someone, who when she told him, said that he had met her as a woman, and courted her as a woman, and that as far as he was concerned, she was a woman. They married in 1981, and are still together today. Sussel is currently her mother’s caretaker; she lives with her husband, mother, sister and nieces.

At the beginning of the movie, Sussel laments her lost time. Now, well into her middle-age, she has been unable to start a career for herself, and spends almost all of her time at home caring for her mother. She says that she dreamed of being an artist, a singer, a dancer, or a nurse, but has found herself trapped in the role of housewife. At the end of the movie, she has started to branch out from the home and get involved; she volunteers at a local hospital, calling it “occupational therapy,” joined a local choir and volunteers at a museum.

The movie ends with her singing to piano accompaniment with a small hall full of people. Nevertheless, Solaya later said, “But it is bittersweet. As we see at the end, she is no singer.” And this, according to her, is another issue that transsexuals find themselves confronted by: Cuba’s patriarchal machismo culture. Solaya said that men who become women find themselves confined in the traditional female role of caretaker and face additional abuse for “giving up” their masculinity. On the other hand, women who choose to become men, have no problems. Homosexuals are somewhere in between the two extremes; if a family has five sons and one is gay, then the gay one is expected to care for his parents, while the others work. She says things have gotten better and that gays are now “tolerated” but not women. As she puts it, “You’re a woman, and on top of that, you’re gay?”

Sussel’s husband is not shown in the movie. Solaya said that this was an “ethical decision” on her part, as Sussel’s husband would be vulnerable to abuse as the husband of a former man.

The audience’s response to the documentary was positive.

“It’s very interesting and educational about transsexualism and Cuban culture in general, there’s certain problems that are different […] a lot of times we think transsexual, we think something along the lines of homosexual or something involving gays, but we saw she’s a woman who just happened to be in a man’s body, she desired a very heterosexual man,” said Manuel Marquez, ‘15.

“I thought it was very interesting to see what her experiences were as she went through all of this, because I feel like lots of people  don’t talk about transsexuals as people and think of them as people, so we see the humanity behind this,” Cara Brosius, ‘15, said.

The appearance at Allegheny is part of a tour organized by the Americas Media Initiative, which organizes viewings of Cuban films in the United States and Canada.