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Transit Havana (2016) starring Juani Santos Peréz

October 11, 2023.

This review involves discussions of transphobia, bigotry under the guise of religion, suicidal ideation, physical and emotional abuse, and gender dysphoria.

Juani Santos Peréz in the documentary Transit Havana

Juani Santos Peréz.

I primarily watched Transit Havana for Juani, a trans man. In the documentary, he refers to himself as "Cuba's first transsexual". To give further context about who he is and where he lives, below is the short biography which accompanies Diana Mrazikova's portrait of him:

"Juani was born as a woman, but he knew he was a boy since he was 5 years old. He was one of the first transgender individuals in Cuba who had gender reassignment surgery when he was 61 years old. Cuba has offered free sex changes through the public health system in 2008. The financing and the medical specialists come from Belgium, which has a long-standing partnership with Cuban medicine in this area. Juani got his reassignment surgery thanks to the great support of Mariela Castro, President Raul Castro’s daughter, who is... a leading advocate for the gay and transgender community in Cuba. In 2013, Cuba’s parliament passed a ban forbidding discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation. Mariela Castro, who is also a parliament member, voted against the ban because it didn’t include protections for transgender people. Juani lives in city of Matanzas with his brother Santos, who repairs bed mattresses and cares of most domestic duties while Juani works at the factory."

The three trans people followed in this documentary are Juani, Malú Caño Valladeres, and Giselle Odette Diógenes Domínguez Rodríguez. The other two interviewees are trans women, both of them significantly younger than Juani and experiencing immense emotional difficulties due to lack of access to sex reassignment surgery. Both women are hoping to undergo vaginoplasty/orchiectomy, whereas Juani is waiting to undergo an additional stage of bottom surgery.

It's clear from the documentary that, while Juani has a difficult life, he is positive, resilient, and joyful. He dances enthusiastically with others, describes falling in love towards the end of the film, and sings along with his neighbour's music rather than complaining about the unwanted noise. All in all, a beautiful portrait of an older trans man's happiness and second lease on life.

Juani Santos Peréz in his doctor's consultation room

Juani speaking with surgeons about another surgery which will allow him to become erect without the use of an external aid.

Juani saying, "Yes! It can be done!"

Juani celebrating when his next surgery is approved.

Juani saying, "They're going to breathe life into Pancho".

Juani describing his upcoming surgery. Pancho is a slang term for a penis.

Juani saying, "She gave me hope, because I've been struggling since 1970."

Juani speaking about how much Mariela Castro has supported him and facilitated his surgical transition.

Mariela Castro laughing as a doctor says, "He even showed me his penis. 'Look!'"

Castro laughing with doctors about Juani being eager to show off his surgery result, after emerging from anaesthesia.

Santos Peréz saying, "Here he comes."

Juani's brother, unlike the other interviewees' family members, refers to Juani using his correct pronouns. In the film still above, Santos is watching his brother being wheeled out of the operation room.

Castro asking Juani, "Do you feel pain?" Juani answers, "No."

Castro at Juani's bedside.

A woman dancing with Juani and saying, "Come on, Juani!"

Juani dancing joyfully after healing from surgery.

A woman fondly saying, "Juani is in love, pierced by Cupid's dart."

Juani being fondly teased about falling in love.

In terms of FTM history, this is a crucially important and very touching documentary. I would highly recommend this film to trans guys who struggle to imagine life as older men, and may have been deprived of older role models who have survived and successfully tackled gender dysphoria. I would also recommend this film to older men who have not yet transitioned. There isn't an expiry date on being your true self!

While Juani clearly still experiences hardships and doesn't have a perfect life, he was able to have sex reassignment surgery at an advanced age (in surgical terms, anyway) and consequently exudes a happiness that is quite inspiring.

Giselle Odette saying, "What I really want is to leave this world and go to heaven."

Giselle, who contemplates suicide several times.

By contrast, the trans women in Transit Havana are in the thick of their struggles. Any abuse, discrimination, or suicidal ideation which may have occurred in Juani's past isn't a part of this documentary, whereas the trans female interviewees are filmed during what are potentially the darkest periods of their lives.

Giselle's experiences are particularly heartbreaking to watch. She devotes herself to caring for her grandmother, who declares that Giselle isn't a real woman and insists that Giselle should not undergo surgery. Giselle's mother is similarly disapproving, and (for some bizarre, awful reason) she is let into Giselle's hospital room as the trans woman awaits surgery. She misgenders and demeans Giselle, while the doctors defend her attitude and speak about Giselle as if the young woman herself is not there. This, combined with a hostile phone call from Giselle's church, results in Giselle becoming so distressed that the surgeons will not proceed with her operation. It's an utterly shattering series of scenes.

Malú saying, "That nutcase is doing fine," when a friend asks her about Giselle.

Malú and a friend discussing Giselle Odette.

Malú, the other trans female interviewee, is not supportive of Giselle. After Giselle is refused surgery on the basis of emotional instability (caused by transphobic, religious bigots), Malú spreads the rumour that Giselle voluntarily walked out of the operating room, did not want surgery, and is a nutcase.

This documentary shows the intracommunity conflict which is perhaps inevitable when desperate, dysphoric people are competing for limited surgery spots, with only five individuals operated on each year in Cuba. (That may have changed since this documentary was filmed, I'm not certain of the numbers nowadays.) Resentment and dismissiveness is evident in this film, alongside the solidarity which is apparent throughout other interactions. These are people who are suffering.

Heck, even in my area (which is in a very different situation to Cuba), I have encountered intracommunity conflict and personal disagreements, so Transit Havana just lends credence to the idea that trans communities are not a monolith. We aren't all best friends, we don't all agree, and we don't always like each other.

Malú saying, "You'll find a worker and a client everywhere."

Malú talking about sex work.

Malú herself is a sex worker who had a traumatic start to life, suffering physical and emotional abuse at her father's hand, being incarcerated at least once, and fleeing home at a young age. She has been waiting for sex reassignment surgery for years, and has no control over when she will be chosen for an operation. During the film, she is misgendered and deadnamed by her family members.

As a resident of a developed Western country, I had access to sex change procedures after only a few years on waitlists. Getting to that point wasn't easy, and I did experience discrimination and hostility from healthcare workers along the way, but my circumstances are fortunate compared to those of Juani, Malú, and Giselle. I think it's hugely important that trans people in wealthier nations do not forget about trans people in poorer and developing nations. For that reason alone, Transit Havana is recommended viewing, to say nothing of how beautiful I find Juani's journey. I would love another documentary, dedicated to him. And I hope the two young women who starred in this documentary are happier, nowadays. I hope they're both still alive.


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