HAVANAHAVANA (Reuters) - A gay dissident and a transsexual woman married on Saturday in what was said to be a first for Cuba, then draped themselves in the rainbow flag of gay pride and rode through the streets of Havana.
In a simple civil ceremony surrounded by much hoopla, Ignacio Estrada, 31, and Wendy Iriepa, 37, signed a marriage certificate, exchanged rings and kissed before a state official, who wished them much happiness.
It was not technically a same-sex marriage, which is prohibited in Cuba, and drew no interference from authorities because Iriepa is legally a woman after undergoing Cuba's first state-sanctioned sex change operation in 2007.
But the wedding, held on Fidel Castro's 85th birthday in what the couple had called a "gift" to the former leader, was aimed at advancing homosexual rights in Cuba and tinged with politics as some of Cuba's best-known dissidents participated and U.S. diplomats attended in a public show of support.
It also signalled changing attitudes on the island, where homosexuals were placed in camps in the 1960s for being "counterrevolutionary" in a part of history that prompted a mea culpa from Fidel Castro last year.
Applauding supporters, a throng of reporters and dozens of curious Cubans awaited the couple as they arrived at a government marriage office in the Havana suburbs.
The bride, wearing a strapless white wedding dress, made an exuberant arrival in a 1950s Ford convertible, sitting up on the backseat and holding the gay pride flag high with both hands as she smiled with happiness.
"I'm very happy and very nervous," the statuesque Iriepa said as she stepped down from the car. "This is really the happiest day of my life."
'A STEP FORWARD'
Estrada, decked out in a white suit and red tie and arriving separately in a white Mercedes, said he was also happy and nervous, but that the day's importance extended beyond him and his bride. "This is a step forward for the gay community in Cuba," he said.
The couple met three months ago and fell in love, said Estrada, who has AIDS.
After the ceremony, they had their photographs taken in front of a two-tiered wedding cake, kissed again and then followed Cuban tradition by riding through the streets in a convertible, the horn blaring a few notes of wedding music.
The only difference was the rainbow flag they draped across their shoulders.
They were to honeymoon in an undisclosed location.
The reaction of Cuban onlookers, who crowded the sidewalks and watched from apartment windows, ranged from applause to derisive laughter to bewilderment.
"What does she have here, mami?" a young girl asked her mother, putting her hands to her chest.
"I don't think they should be able to marry. It goes against nature," said middle-aged Iris Gonzalez, who also asked "Where did she get those breasts?"
Prominent dissident bloggers Yoani Sanchez and husband Reinaldo Escobar participated in the wedding, while Laura Pollan and Berta Soler, leaders of the dissident Ladies in White attended.
"We are very happy with what has occurred today. A big step in a small Cuba," Sanchez twittered from the ceremony.
The United States government has spoken of giving financial aid to gay dissidents as part of its long-standing campaign to promote political change in Cuba, but it is not known if money has begun to flow.
Notably absent was Mariela Castro, Cuba's biggest proponent of gay marriage and daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro.
Mariela Castro, who heads Cuba's National Center for Sex Education, said earlier she had not been invited to the wedding, but congratulated the couple.
Iriepa recently left a job at the centre.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)