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Cuban gay and lesbian activists hold march against homophobia around the world

HAVANA (AP) — Hundreds of gay and lesbian activists, some dressed in drag and others sporting multicolored flags representing sexual diversity, marched and danced through the streets of Havana on Saturday along with the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro as part of a celebration aimed at eliminating homophobia around the world.

Some of the marchers played drums and others walked on stilts as they made their way down a wide avenue in the capital's hip Vedado neighborhood, where they have held a series of debates and workshops ahead of the May 17 celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia, which participants say marks the day in 1990 when the World Health Organization stopped listing homosexuality as a mental illness.

"We have made progress, but we need to make more progress," said Mariela Castro, a campaigner for gay rights on the island and the leader of Cuba's National Sexual Education Center. She is also the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro.

Cuba has come a long way in accepting homosexuality. In the 1960s, shortly after the revolution, homosexuals were fired from state jobs and many were imprisoned or sent to work camps. Others fled into exile.

But that began to change in the 1980s, in large part to the work of Mariela Castro's center. Recently, the government has even agreed to include sex change operations for transsexuals under its free national health system, another project championed by the center.

The workshops and debates held Saturday dealt with issues such as adoption by gay and lesbian couples and whether to legalize gay marriages, a step Mariela Castro has been pushing for years, so far without success. The week of celebrations culminates Monday.