Cuba's first transgender athlete shows the progress and challenges faced by LGBTQ people

While Reyes’s ID still formally identifies him as female, sports authorities accepted his male status based on his hormone treatments, medical reports and self-identification.
Transgender Cuban athlete Ely Malik Reyes, who practices mixed martial arts known as sanda, trains at a gym in Regla, across the bay from Havana, Cuba.
Transgender Cuban athlete Ely Malik Reyes, who practices mixed martial arts known as sanda, trains at a gym in Regla, across the bay from Havana, Cuba.Photo | AP

HAVANA: Ely Malik Reyes stepped onto the cordless platform and began delivering powerful punches and spectacular flying kicks against his combatant. He lost the fight, but won a major victory that day by becoming the first transgender athlete to officially compete in a Cuban sports league.

Reyes, a 26-year-old transgender man, competed for the first time in the male 60/65-kilogram (132/143-pound) category of sanda, a demanding contact sport that blends martial arts like kung fu with kickboxing.

The June 1 milestone marked the latest step toward inclusion in Cuba, one of Latin America's most progressive countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Yet, Reyes himself acknowledges having to overcome challenges, including the lack of medications, a law that sets conditions to change his gender on his ID and the “suspicious looks” he sometimes gets from people in the street.

“Educating society doesn’t happen in two days,” he said.

Reyes, who lives with his girlfriend in a colorful house on the outskirts of Havana, supports himself by repairing air conditioners, as his sanda fights are unpaid. He has been on hormone therapy for two years, but says he does not want full genital reassignment surgery.

His transition has been far from easy.

It began over four years ago when he visited Cuba’s Center for Sexual Education and consulted with a psychologist. He then saw endocrinologists and underwent tests to obtain a “tarjetón,” a special card that allows Cubans to purchase medication at pharmacies, enabling him to get the hormones needed for his transition.

But as Cuba’s economic crisis deepened, medications became scarce so he had to rely on other people who brought testosterone from abroad. While not illegal, the practice can be very expensive. “I’m an athlete; I can’t neglect my hormone treatment. ... I have to stay on top of it,” he said.

Transgender Cuban athlete Ely Malik Reyes, who practices mixed martial arts known as sanda, trains at a gym in Regla, across the bay from Havana, Cuba.
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Changing his identity in official documents posed yet another challenge. While Reyes was able to legally change his name last year, his ID card still displays an “F” for female. That is because Cuba’s current law requires full genital reassignment surgery for this change — something he does not want to do.

LGTBQ activists in Cuba say a solution could come soon through a new Civil Registry law currently being drafted in the National Assembly that would allow people to change their gender on their ID cards — or eliminate this requirement altogether.

The changes stem from Cuba’s 2019 constitution, which gave way to the 2022 Family Code that allowed same-sex couples to marry and adopt as well as surrogacy pregnancies among other rights. Though approved via referendum by a large majority, the measure faced opposition from evangelical groups and other conservative groups that disagreed with its provisions.

While Reyes’s ID still formally identifies him as female, sports authorities accepted his male status based on his hormone treatments, medical reports and self-identification. This allowed him to compete in the male category of the Cuban Fighters League.

“It’s something new; it’s a challenge that I have embraced with much love,” said Reyes's coach, Frank Cazón Cárdenas, the president of Cuba’s sanda community who handled the athlete's registration.

Cazón said he had to work on two fronts to make it happen: discussing Reyes with the other sanda male team members — and securing approval from the powerful Cuban Sports Institute, which ultimately authorized Reyes to participate in the male category.

Cuba’s LGBTQ community celebrated Reyes's milestone, noting it was the result of a hard-fought battle.

“It was only a matter of time,” said Francisco “Paquito” Rodríguez Cruz, a well-known LGBTQ rights activist in Cuba, referring to the sports institute’s unprecedented greenlight for a transgender athlete to take part in an official competition. “It’s the logical consequence of what has been done in the last 15 or 20 years.”

“It's obviously a cultural process of change that is still controversial," Rodríguez said.

Transgender Cuban athlete Ely Malik Reyes, who practices mixed martial arts known as sanda, trains at a gym in Regla, across the bay from Havana, Cuba.
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