‘A Space Where You Could Be Free’: Puerto Rico’s L.G.B.T. Groups Rebuild After a Hurricane

Hurricane Maria doomed some of Puerto Rico’s safe spaces for L.G.B.T. groups. Now they’re opening new ones — and fighting new political fights.

San Juan, P.R. — Puerto Ricans mourned so many losses after Hurricane Maria that the closing of a beloved tiki bar in San Juan might have seemed of little consequence, another casualty of the battered post-storm economy.

But the bar — El Escondite, or the Hideaway — was not just a place for a strong screwdriver cocktail. It was also a mainstay for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patrons wanting to share a good time or enjoy a drag show. For Roma Rodríguez, a 23-year-old transgender woman, and her friends, the bar’s closing last year meant the loss of one of the few hangouts in Puerto Rico’s capital where they felt safe being themselves.

“I needed someone to laugh at my jokes, to hug me, to tell me I looked beautiful,” Ms. Rodríguez said.

Only a handful of establishments directly served an L.G.B.T. clientele before Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017, splintering thousands of homes and leaving the island’s power grid in shambles. The economic hardship that followed the storm forced at least three well-known establishments in the San Juan area to close their doors, leaving even fewer places for regulars to socialize and feel connected to a larger community.

Now, almost two years after the hurricane, new spaces are slowly appearing. In October, Ms. Rodríguez and a friend opened a venue of their own to stage the drag shows they reveled in before the storm.

“We made it,” Ms. Rodríguez said. “It takes a lot, not to have electricity, not to have water. Sometimes queer people didn’t have food, didn’t have almost anything, and they were still there.”

But the sense of relief and joy over the new spaces has been tempered by fears that other threats unrelated to hurricanes — from legislative battles to brazen violence — loom here.

In early June, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives passed legislation to grant “reasonable accommodations” for government workers who did not want to serve people whose views might be in conflict with their religious beliefs. After a public-relations campaign organized by advocacy organizations argued that it amounted to legalizing discrimination, the so-called religious liberty bill was shelved when Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, who initially endorsed the legislation, withdrew his backing.

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Even with Mr. Rosselló’s reversal, the fact that the bill had advanced at all — and that lawmakers could still reintroduce it — left many people worried about the future of gay rights on the island.

“In Puerto Rico, L.G.B.T. and women’s rights have come a long way in recent decades,” said Amarilis Pagán, an activist for women’s rights and L.G.B.T. rights. “This is simply a response — a backlash — by these groups from the ultraright to stop those advances.”

Puerto Rico has tried to foster a gay-friendly reputation, marketing itself that way to tourists. Employment discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation is banned. Following a court ruling last year, people have been able to change the gender listed on their birth certificates. Last weekend, San Juan hosted its first trans pride day.

But Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian churches wield a great deal of influence on the island, and religious conservatives have close relationships with some local politicians who have pushed the bills that L.G.B.T. leaders have opposed. And a wave of violence on the island has not spared L.G.B.T. people: Earlier this year, Kevin Fret, who billed himself as Puerto Rico’s first gay Latin trap artist, was fatally shot.

“This has served as a reminder that some of these advances are at risk, that there is still discrimination, that there is still homophobia,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, an activist in San Juan. “We can’t forget that.”

Against that backdrop, members of the island’s L.G.B.T. community have tried to focus on rebuilding the bars, art and performance venues lost to Hurricane Maria while being forced to keep a wary eye on politics.

“It hurts me, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Moire Díaz, a 24-year-old transgender woman, said of legislative attempts to cater to religious conservatives. “I grew up in a Catholic school. My grandfather was a deacon. My religion teacher told me, in front of all my classmates, that I needed an exorcism.”

Ms. Díaz used to work as a bar-back at Polo Norte, a gay bar in San Juan that closed after the storm. She also performed there once a week as Nansicótica, a drag queen who raised awareness about mental health issues. Since Polo Norte shut down, she has only been able to perform twice, Ms. Díaz said.

“Many of the regulars stopped going, because they left the island,” she said. “The clientele started to diminish. People started going out a lot less. I think they had to raise the price of many things, and there were infrastructure problems. We reopened when there were still blackouts. People would come and then have to leave.”

Luis Pares, the owner of El Escondite, lamented that closing his bar meant not only losing a gathering spot for L.G.B.T. people but also laying some of them off, since he had made a point of hiring them.

“It was a space where you could be free — there was no discrimination, no fights,” said Mr. Pares, 33. “The hurricane killed the space.”

Jhoni Jackson, 33, used to organize drag shows at El Escondite. In August, she hopes to open a new bar at the same location, near the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico in the Río Piedras neighborhood of San Juan. Ms. Jackson plans to hire only L.G.B.T. employees, she said.

For now, one hangout in the capital is El Hangar, which opened two years ago in the Santurce neighborhood, at an empty lot where locals used to dump trash. El Hangar hosts community markets, arts workshops and parties every month, but staying open remains a challenge, said Carla Torres, 35, the venue’s founder. Funding is difficult to come by, though regulars tend to the place as best they can, she added.

“People love it because it’s not easy to find a space like this,” Ms. Torres said. “People recognize and appreciate the space — they value it, they care for it.”

On the Fourth of July, a crowd gathered at El Local, in Santurce, for a drag show. In the audience was Ms. Rodríguez, the transgender woman who used to perform at El Escondite. As blue, green and purple lights flashed, Ms. Rodríguez danced, sometimes stopping just to beam at her friends.

Last year, Ms. Rodríguez, who performs as the drag queen Roma Riviera, returned to her hometown, Caguas, on the outskirts of San Juan. Six months after El Escondite closed, she and Jacob López began their own show in Caguas, establishing the sort of community they wish they had had growing up.

“When I was in high school, there was one bar that lasted for about two years,” Ms. Rodríguez said. “Then it closed, so there was never a defined place for queer people to get together and feel good and feel safe.”

Bringing the culture to places outside of San Juan, Ms. Rodríguez hopes, will bring solace to more isolated residents who have been struggling with depression since the hurricane. She said she knew of “many” L.G.B.T. people who died by suicide after the storm.

“Being poor and queer, I think, leads you to think, ‘How am I going to get out of this, if no one wants me?’” she said.

At the core of efforts by Ms. Rodríguez and others to maintain spaces for L.G.B.T. Puerto Ricans is the belief that envisioning a better future starts with having somewhere to go.

“It feels special,” Ms. Rodríguez said, “to get to a place where they treat you as the human being that you are.”

by Alejandra Rosa and Patricia Mazzei
Source – The New York Times