HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban gay rights activist and his transsexual bride plan to marry on former President Fidel Castro's birthday next month in a move aimed at advancing homosexual rights on the communist-ruled Caribbean island.
Wendy Iriepa, 37, who became a woman in Cuba's first state-sanctioned free sex change operation in 2007, and Ignacio Estrada, who is 31 and suffers from AIDS, will tie the knot on August 13, the 85th birthday of the veteran revolutionary.
Estrada said the wedding, which the couple called "a gift" for Castro, would be a first in Cuba's once-persecuted gay and lesbian community which has gained more space in recent years.
Same-sex marriages are not covered in Cuba's current marriage legislation, but Iriepa is now legally registered as a woman following her sex change.
The couple has scheduled their free, state-authorized nuptial ceremony at an official "wedding palace" in Havana, complete with cases of beer courtesy of the socialist state.
Cuban homosexuals, persecuted in the 1960s and 1970s by the communist authorities who sent many gays to military-run work camps, have gained more freedom in recent years thanks to a campaign of sexual education by Mariela Castro, the daughter of current Cuban President Raul Castro.
Fidel Castro, who fell sick in 2006, was formally replaced as Cuba's president by his younger brother Raul in 2008.
Iriepa, who used to work with Mariela Castro in the National Sexual Education Center (CENESEX) headed by the latter, said the wedding was not intended to be political.
"I always wanted to marry ... I wouldn't want this to be seen as political, as though I'm attacking the government, or maybe Fidel and the revolution, I want people to see us as two people marking a 'before' and 'after'," she told Reuters.
Fidel Castro, who ruled the island for almost half a century after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, surprised many last year by expressing regret in an interview for the repression of homosexuals during the early years of his revolution.
"If anyone is responsible, it is me," Castro said in the interview with Mexico's La Jornada newspaper.
"During those years, I didn't have time to deal with the matter ... I was too busy with the October Crisis, war, and with political questions," he said, referring to the 1962 missile crisis with the United States.
Iriepa, while crediting Mariela Castro with winning more freedoms for Cuban gays, lesbians and transsexuals, said she stopped working with the president's daughter last year after she questioned her relationship with Estrada because of his activities as an independent gay rights activist.
Authorities view with suspicion Cubans who seek to work independently outside the communist system, and treat them as dissidents and traitors if they openly challenge it.
Estrada, along with government opponents such as prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez, says Mariela Castro has "hijacked" the gay rights movement for the government. Last month he organized an "independent" gay rights march in Havana, but only nine people showed up, witnesses said.
Iriepa denied being a dissident. "I am a patriot and revolutionary because I am going to continue making revolution inside my country, and doing new things," she said.
She said she was focusing on the details of her wedding. "I'm going to wear a strapless dress ... nothing traditional, I don't like traditional weddings, I can't stand them, I want my wedding to be as simple as possible," she said.
Writing by Marc Frank; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Mohammad Zargham