Also see: Caribbean Anti Violence Project
March 14, 2003 – The Gully
Puerto Rico’s Sodomy Law Just "Tip of the Iceberg" And Reverend Margarita Sánchez de León vows to smash it.
Reverend Margarita Sánchez de León is a leading opponent of Article 103 of Puerto Rico’s Penal Code, which criminalizes same-gender sexual relations. A prominent human rights activist, Reverend Sánchez de León is Executive Director of Amnesty International-Puerto Rico and a member of the progressive National Ecumenical Movement of Puerto Rico. She is an ordained minister of the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church of Puerto Rico, and was lead plaintiff in a legal challenge to the sodomy law brought by the ACLU. The lawsuit ended last June when the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled that Article 103 was not unconstitutional.
THE GULLY caught up with her in New York City, where she was seeking support for her cause.
The Gully: Last June Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled that the sodomy law was not unconstitutional. What have you and other Puerto Rican activists been doing since then?
Sánchez de León: We are focusing on Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives. In April, or May, they are going to discuss a revision of the Penal Code. At Amnesty International, we are going to focus on public activities, on public education around the issue of the sodomy law.
Every struggle has different steps. Public discussion is essential. Without that, it’s very difficult to pressure the legislature. We will also continue to lobby, to educate, to hold demonstrations. All of this is important to create change. In the future, we may have to do something more forceful than lobbying. Lobbying is important, but it’s too quiet.
TG: In 1997, you and other activists walked into Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice, "confessed" to violating the sodomy law and asked, in vain, to be arrested. The campaign against the sodomy law took off after that. What made you do it?
SdeL: The fight against the sodomy law is actually 30 years old, the struggle of a generation. Our action in 1997 just brought the fight out into the open. It triggered a big controversy in Puerto Rico. It had a big impact there, and even in some communities here. That was a big blow for the Puerto Rican government. They were surprised and didn’t know what to do.
For the first time, we did a proactive action, not a reactive one. At the time, Puerto Rico’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups were all engaged in different issues; from that point on, repeal of the sodomy law became central. That 1997 action came out of a specific incident. Around that time, I had gone to our House of Representatives to speak at a hearing on a proposed law to ban same sex marriage. It was a reaction to [the movement for gay marriage] happening then in Hawaii.
I was there as a representative of the National Ecumenical Movement of Puerto Rico, not as part of a lgbt group. Ours was the only religious group at the hearing that was against the proposed law. During my testimony, some of the legislators became hostile, violent. One asked me, "Do you indulge in lesbian practices?" I was there with other religious leaders. No one else was asked. I can’t describe how I felt.
You have to understand this was a public hearing. There were legal consequences to his question. Article 103 says that any person that has sexual relations with a person of the same sex can face up to 10 years in jail. I was being asked to incriminate myself. I had never imagined I’d be put in a situation like that. I decided I was never going to be put in that situation again. We formed a coalition around the issue. It included feminists, students, some pro-independence political groups, Amnesty, lgbt groups. That coalition made possible our action in 1997.
TG: Are the same groups supportive of your efforts now?
SdeL: Not exactly. There is now a bigger coalition that’s working to change the law, but Amnesty isn’t part of it, though we’re helping. This coalition is focusing right now on the issue of the right to intimacy for all, including heterosexuals. The ACLU played a role in shaping the new tactic.
Their thinking is, "Let’s avoid the lgbt issue and focus on the wider issue of intimacy in order to get rid of the sodomy law."
TG: But if you believe that education is part of social change, isn’t that tactic just putting lgbt people back in the closet? How does that fight homophobia?
SdeL: That is part of the reason why Amnesty chose to go in a different direction this time. Amnesty is going to focus on lgbt issues. Article 103 is important, though it’s rarely applied directly: it is used to deny lgbt people their rights. For instance, if you try to bring a domestic violence charge against a same-sex partner, it’s thrown out because the judge says it happened as part of a criminal act anyway. Article 103 is just the tip of the iceberg. [In 1999, an appeals court ruled that Puerto Rico’s domestic violence law does not apply to lesbians and gay men because the sodomy statute "makes homosexual conduct a crime."]
TG: What kind of things will Amnesty be doing?
SdeL: We’ll be working a lot with the press, holding press conferences, trying to get interviews, and public exposure for our issues.
We’ve already set up three panels in three different geographical locations throughout the island. They’ll take place in public places like universities. We’ll demonstrate in front of the legislature. This is all timed to coincide with their discussions on the revision of the Penal Code, in April and May. Already there has been a worldwide appeal through Amnesty International, with people sending letters of support from all over.
TG: Are there any legislators out in support of a change?
SdeL: No. There aren’t. Not a single legislator has come out in favor of repealing Article 103. Not even so-called progressives like the "independentistas"(advocates of independence for Puerto Rico), of which I am one.
TG: What about Puerto Rico’s Governor Sila María Calderón?
SdeL: Where she stands on the issue will depend a lot on how the 2004 electoral process shapes up. This week the former governor, Pedro Roselló, returned to the island. She’ll probably face him. Before that, she has to think of the primaries. In Puerto Rico, the conservative churches are very well organized. They are very effective lobbyists.
They go to a legislator and say, I have 500 people in your district and this is how they will vote. I like to joke that we should go to them and ask for lessons. "Please, teach us how to do that." They are really very effective.
TG: Conservative evangelical groups have a strong presence in Puerto Rico’s radio and television. What kind of media access do lgbt people and their supporters have on the island?
SdeL: We don’t have access to television. Except when we organize a major demonstration or maybe hold an important press conference. But there is one lgbt radio program. That’s significant, because Puerto Ricans are big radio listeners. I’m not aware of any lgbt group ever having tried to buy time on a Puerto Rican TV station. At this time we’re not planning to place ads in Puerto Rico’s media for the Amnesty public awareness campaign. That costs money and we need to use our resources sparingly. Our focus is on getting media coverage, getting them to interview us.
TG: The US Supreme Court may reconsider the Texas sodomy law when it hears the case of Lawrence & Garner v. Texas on March 28. What impact would a Court ruling against Texas have on Puerto Rico’s sodomy law?
SdeL: It depends on the language of the ruling. It may just apply to this particular case in Texas. Or it may apply to all 14 states that currently have sodomy laws, as well as to Puerto Rico. Now, that would be a big irony. Article 103 was a colonial imposition on Puerto Rico. It came to us in 1902, imported from the California penal code. But such is the irony of the colonial process that, if the Texas sodomy law is now overturned, that ruling will also apply to Puerto Rico – once more, a process of political imposition. So, yes, the ruling may have an impact on Puerto Rico, like Roe vs. Wade. That’s the flip side of colonialism.
TG: In a recent article in the San Juan daily El Nuevo Día, Mayra Montero says that in Puerto Rico the most dangerous enemies of gay human rights are not the strident moralists who oppose them, but those who pretend to accept gay people but actually silence them and remain silent themselves. Do you agree with that?
SdeL: I have not read her article, although I have heard about it. But yes, I can tell you that in Puerto Rico there are certainly many segments of society, particularly those that are politically liberal, that hide when the moment comes to take a clear position regarding this issue. As a supporter of Puerto Rican independence, a non voting one, because I don’t vote, I think it is shameful that the Independentista Party, whenever it has had the opportunity to make a difference regarding this issue, has always voted with the conservatives, has always taken a conservative position.
I would also like to see more people from the intellectual sectors active on this issue. I think that in Puerto Rico we have not yet understood that the issue of rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is a human rights issue, connected to all other human rights issues, and that no one can, today, in 2003, accurately speak about human and civil rights if they exclude one group from their discourse. That’s shameful. Just shameful.
March 14, 2003 – The Gully
Puerto Rico’s Law 103: A Colonial Imposition
A gift in 1902 from California to Puerto Rico, the U.S.’s new Caribbean possession. Article 103 of the Puerto Rico Penal Code penalizes "sexual relationships between people of the same sex or [persons] committing acts against nature with a human being" with 10 years in prison. The text is a consequence of US colonization: it derives from the California Penal Code, a model for the original Puerto Rico Code which the US imposed on its new Caribbean possession in 1902. Originally it penalized "acts against nature, committed with another human being or with a beast" with 1 to 10 years of imprisonment.
In 1974 the Penal Code was reviewed: bestiality was newly treated as a separate "crime," and the punishment for same-sex relations was increased to a mandatory 10-year term. In 1992, proposals were submitted for the elimination of Article 103, but failed. Activists have been struggling for years against Article 103. On November 4, 1997, Reverend Margarita Sánchez de León, a member of the National Ecumenical Movement of Puerto Rico, turned herself in to the Division of Sexual Crimes of the Department of Justice, confessing to have committed the "crime of sodomy the night before." San Juan District Attorney Ramón Muñiz Santiago declined to prosecute her.
The District Attorney informed Reverend Sánchez de León that lesbians are incapable of committing sodomy since they lack a "virile member." He added that he would not prosecute two homosexual men under this statute because there would be no victim. On the same day, the Justice Department issued a press release refusing to prosecute the case; it claimed that Reverend Sánchez de León had a personal agenda in submitting her confession.
On February 1999, three homosexual couples (Reverend Sánchez de León and her partner, José Joaquín Mulinelli Rodríguez and his partner, and Edgar Danielsen Morales and William Morán Berberena), together with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), challenged the constitutionality of Article 103 in court. The case ended on June 28, 2002, when the Puerto Rico High Court ruled that Article 103 was not unconstitutional.
Carlos Vizcarrando Irizarry, president of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives, made a statement to the press on May 12, 2002, affirming that the Penal Code’s original version includes "the values and the way the Puerto Rican people feel and think . . . framed in a Caribbean, Latin American philosophy of life, that differs in life style from those of the North American, Anglo-Saxon people." He added that "what might be good for the United States in terms of liberalization of penal schemes, is not necessarily good in Puerto Rico, where our vision and values are directly rooted in our Christian sense of life, and in that sense our current legislation responds to that vision"
The Puerto Rican Constitution bars discrimination based on "race, color, sex, birth, origin or social status, political or religious beliefs" (Article 2.1). It also upholds the right to privacy (Article 8). Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. It was acquired by the victorious U.S. at the end of the 1898 Spanish-American war. Its official name is "Commonwealth of Puerto Rico," an euphemism that has not fooled the United Nations, which has long classified it as a colonial territory. . Adapted from an International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission release.
April 20, 2003 – Orlando Sentinel
Gay-rights issues bring protesters to streets
by Iván Román
San Juan, Puerto Rico – Now that gay-rights activists narrowly lost another battle in Puerto Rico, they are bracing for a full-court press this summer to win the war. By a split 4-3 decision, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled last week that domestic-violence statutes – commonly known here as Law 54 – do not apply to gays and lesbians. The judges in the majority said the legislative intent was to "strengthen the institution of the family," defined as one of a "sentimental and legal union between a man and a woman."
The decision set aside criminal charges against Leandro Ruiz Martínez for beating his boyfriend, Juan J. del Valle, two years ago, the first domestic-violence case the government prosecuted since it decided to reverse its predecessors and apply the law to same-sex couples. It also calls into question dozens of similar cases and protective orders that have been issued since. Arguing that gays should have equal protection under the law, Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez asked the court last week to reconsider its decision as demonstrators on both sides of the issue picketed the Supreme Court.
The passionate discussion also grabbed headlines at a time when the Legislature is revising the island’s penal code for the first time in 30 years, including a controversial sodomy law that gay activists say makes them criminals and opens the door to discrimination. "Society in general wants to claim that we are in the same situation in which we were in 30 years ago," said Ricardo Ramírez Lugo of the Legal Assistance Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico’s Law School.
"The decision by the court reflects that wish for the [gay] community to continue to be nonexistent, for the closet to keep growing." Their opponents say it’s all part of a bigger battle being waged simultaneously in the government, the courts and the Capitol. Given that this victory was not so solid – the three dissident judges in essence blasted their colleagues in writing for copping out – these groups say they can’t let their guard down. "We thank them for reaffirming the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman," said Milton Picón Díaz, president of the Morality in Media of Puerto Rico.
"If they don’t, it opens the door to changes in the Penal and Civil Code that are being revised in the Capitol right now." For both sides, that’s where the bigger issue lies. To speak about his relationship with his violent boyfriend, del Valle, the victim, had to get immunity from prosecution under the island’s sodomy law, which criminalizes any sexual contact not traditionally used for procreation. Although the sodomy law has never been applied in Puerto Rico, activists say the threat is there.
A lawmaker so much as voiced that threat to lesbian activist Margarita Sánchez as she testified at a hearing in the Capitol, giving rise to a constitutional challenge that went up to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. The court ruled against Sánchez, stating that the law had not been applied. A potential threat was not enough, it ruled, to prove a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed in the island’s Constitution or unequal protection under the law. The Ruiz domestic-violence case, activists say, now proves their point, because victims had to get immunity to seek protection.
"Here we see a clear example of the type of damage this can cause," said Janice Gutiérrez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Puerto Rico office, a key part of an alliance now lobbying the Legislature to eliminate the sodomy law. "We are telling lawmakers in our visits that our Constitution protects a right to privacy which that law penalizes." Puerto Rico is on a shrinking list of 19 U.S. states and territories with a sodomy law still on the books.
The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a Texas case in which two men caught having sex in a bedroom claim the sodomy law is unconstitutional. The effect that decision may have on Puerto Rico’s law in the Penal Code is still unclear. But gay-rights opponents say they’ll keep fighting even if a decision in Washington gives the other side the upper hand. "The gay community wants to shut us up, and we’re not going to shut up," said the Rev. Jorge Raschke, a Protestant minister and prominent gay-rights opponent. "The legal matters are just one battle front. Ours is moral. This is not San Francisco. What we want is for our culture in Puerto Rico to be respected." .
Iván Román is the Sentinel’s San Juan bureau chief. He can be reached at email@example.com or 787-729-9071.
April 28, 2003 – Associated Press
Government appeals Supreme court ruling
by Sandra Ivelisse Villerrael of Associated Press
San Juan, Puerto Rico (AP) – After considering it a mistaken ruling, the Government of Puerto Rico filed a motion for a reconsideration of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling to exclude same-sex couples from benefiting from domestic violence Law 54.
In a 20-page document, the General Advocate’s Office objected to the analysis made by the court regarding the law text and the application of the legal principle to cases as well as the constitutional implications of the judicial ruling. "The Court use of legislative intention as a tool to interpret this case is mistaken," said the legal motion, arguing that if the legislative intention was to exclude people from the law it would have said so. In addition, it says that regardless of the social value ascribed to the law there is an undisputable social reality of thousands of Puerto Ricans who form same-sex couples and as such form a consensual relationship under any reasonable definition.
According to the government’s interpretation of Law 54 it should include any victim of domestic violence regardless of the person’s sex. "Law 54 is neutral. In reality, the law has nothing to do with homosexuals, lesbians or heterosexuals, but with the physical and emotional pain suffered when they are subjected to abuse by people with whom they are having an intimate consensual relation," reads the motion. The government is warning the Supreme Court that in case its ruling is sustained, it should make sure that its opinion survives challenges of a constitutional nature. "It could be argued that the ruling is based on a sex classification," reads the document.
May 26, 2003 – Associated Press
Local Supreme Court insists on excluding gays from Law 54
San Juan – The Puerto Rico Supreme Court upheld its position that the legislative intention when creating the domestic violence Law 54 was to exclude same-sex couples from the concept of "intimate consensual relation."
On Friday the Supreme Court dismissed the petition made by Solicitor General Roberto J. Sanchez to reconsider its decision to exclude same-sex couples from Law 54. According to published reports, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in a 4-3 vote on April 8. Supreme Court Justices Efrain Rivera, Baltasar Corrada del Rio, Francisco Rebollo, and Chief Justice Jose Andreu Garcia voted against the inclusion of gays, while Justices Federico Hernandez Denton, Jaime Fuster Berlingeri, and Miriam Naveira de Rodon voted for it.
May 28, 2003 – Associated Press
Gays denounce judiciary and legislature
by Istra Pacheco of Associated Press
Four days before the thirteenth Gay Pride Parade, more than a dozen organizations condemned Puerto Rican judges and legislators for "not taking responsibility" to create laws and legal precedents which would protect them on equal terms with the rest of the population.
Olga Orraca, spokeswoman for the coalition of organizations which will participate in the demonstration, said the recent decision of the local Supreme Court on the non-applicability of domestic violence Law 54 for gay couples contributes to existing prejudices against the homosexual community. "Neither the judges, nor the legislators in Puerto Rico want to take responsibility to make positive changes for the lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transgender or transsexual communities, because they respond to the conservative sector," Orraca said during a press conference at the Ateneo Puertorriqueño.
She added that the organizations will take advantage of the parade – scheduled for Sunday at 10:30 a.m. in Condado – to organize a lobbying strategy with legislators and promote an amendment to Law 54 to include homosexual wording in the statute. In the meantime, activist Jose Mulinelli said event coordinators expect nearly 5,000 people to participate in the parade, which will begin at Plaza del Indio in Condado, go down Ashford Avenue and end at the Third Millennium Park in Puerta de Tierra. This year’s theme "Peace through understanding", is a denunciation of violence which dominates society, and a call on respect the differences between human beings.
November 19, 2003 – Associated Press
Island reacts to Massachusetts decision on same-sex marriage
San Juan – Religious activists received with displeasure the ruling issued Tuesday by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that approved marriage between same-sex couples, while activists in favor of homosexual rights celebrated the decision. Former Evangelical Council President Jose Lebron Velazquez said he is against the ruling and said the scenario is far from becoming reality in Puerto Rico because he understands that this type of marriage is not legally recognized here. Pentecostal Fraternity Vice President Angel Marcial said in published reports that the decision will be the beginning of a great discussion on the topic and that churches worldwide should prepare strategies "against these new influences."
On the other hand, Human Rights Foundation President Ada Conde described the decision as a great victory for the gay community and said it would open doors for same-sex couples in Puerto Rico to claim the right to marry in local judicial forums. Gay community activist Pedro Julio Serrano said the decision shows "that all human beings are equal before the law, that all human beings deserve the same rights, and that the courts are correcting the horrors commited by governments in not granting the rights to all citizens." The ruling, the first of its kind in the United States, is the result of a lawsuit filed by seven gay couples. The ruling was approved with four votes in favor and three against. In the determination, the judges explained that the protections, benefits, and obligations of a civil marriage cannot be denied to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry.
Some Puerto Rico archive reports
May 2006 – From "Jose Velez"
Puerto Rico commentary-New Penal Code Legalizes Homosexuality
In Puerto Rico homosexuality is technically illegal under Article 103 though this law has been declared unconstitutional. In any event, the laws are rarely enforced and Puerto Rico is probably the gayest island in the Caribbean with a very sizeable gay scene. We think Puerto Rico has much to offer gay and lesbians particularly if you have come for the sun. Bear in mind that Puerto Rico is a dependency territory of the United States.
Since 2005 homosexuality has been legal. Following the Lawrence v. Texas case Puerto Rico’s Penal Code’s Article 103 was ruled unconstitutional and the Senate in 2003 voted for a new Penal code that would void Article 103. The New Penal Code was also approved in the House and signed by the Governor. It went into effect on 1st May 1 2005. But even in hospitable Caribbean island destinations, gay-specific or gay-exclusive resorts and nightlife tend to be thin on the ground, save perhaps in the Puerto Rican metropolis San Juan.
For all that, the Caribbean region still offers slim gay-vacation pickings. The closest approximations of gay life are to be found — ironically enough — in American territories such as Puerto Rico or St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, or on French or Dutch-speaking islands, such as Curaçao, Sint Maarten/ St. Martin and Guadeloupe.
Generally speaking, the gay-friendliness of each Caribbean island is tied to cultural heritage, meaning French or Dutch equals friendly; Spanish less so; and British even less, though of course this is completely different in the United Kingdom itself. Politics plays a role as well. Islands ruled from abroad, such as U.S. territories or Dutch dependencies, tend toward tolerance. Great Britain has called on Commonwealth islands to be more tolerant. But independence or home rule — as in Jamaica — or totalitarian governments (read: Cuba) can spell oppression for local homosexuals and pose problems for out gay and lesbian travelers.
November 17, 2009 – CNN Justice
Suspect arrested in brutal slaying of gay man in Puerto Rico
by Arthur Brice, CNN
(CNN) – A suspect has been arrested in the slaying of a 19-year-old Puerto Rican man found Friday decapitated, dismembered and partially burned, police said Tuesday. Members of the U.S. gay community are asking authorities to investigate whether the slaying was a hate crime because the victim, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, was gay, said Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "The brutality of the slaying and the fact that he was openly gay leads us to believe it was very possibly a hate crime," Serrano said.
Authorities are investigating whether the killing involved sex, Guayama police Commander Hector Agosto Rodriguez told CNN affiliate WLII TV. Guayama prosecutor Jose Bermudez identified the suspect as Juan A. Martinez, 26. Police had earlier described him as a 27-year-old man from the interior Puerto Rican town of Cayey. Martinez was scheduled to attend a court hearing Tuesday night at which charges would be lodged, said Luis Bernier, a spokesman for the Guayama police district, which has jurisdiction in the case. The hearing was postponed several times throughout the day. Officials were waiting for a prosecutor from a nearby district, causing the delay, Bernier said.
The FBI was not directly involved in the investigation Monday, said FBI Agent Harry Rodriguez of the San Juan office. "The FBI is monitoring this investigation by police in Puerto Rico," Rodriguez said. "Any assistance that the police requests or requires, we would be more than happy to provide."
Puerto Rican authorities may ask for help with forensics or other advanced investigative tools the FBI could provide, Rodriguez said. The U.S. attorney’s office, in consultation with local officials and other agencies, would determine if the slaying was a hate crime, which is a federal offense. "It’s at a very preliminary stage," said Lymarie Llovet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which means federal agencies have jurisdiction. "There’s the potential for a federal investigation," Rodriguez said. The suspect was arrested Monday around 11:30 p.m. AST (10:30 p.m. ET) at his home in the Mogote de Cayey neighborhood, said Wilson Porrata Mariani, another spokesman for the Guayama police district. Police impounded two cars and also are investigating a home in another neighborhood, Huertas del Barrio Beatriz de Cidra.
Lopez Mercado’s body was found on Puerto Rico Road 184 in another part of town, Barrio Guavate de Cayey, police said. The slaying has reverberated throughout the gay and lesbian community in the United States, where supporters started a Facebook page called "Justice for Jorge Steven Lopez — End Hate Crimes." The group demands an investigation by Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno and prosecution of the slaying under the Federal Hate Crimes Law.
The law was enacted in 1969 to guard the rights of U.S. citizens engaged in any of six protected activities, such as voting, going to school, applying for a job or attending a public venue. Last month, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends federal protection against illegal acts motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Gay activist Serrano said he does not believe anti-gay sentiment is any stronger in Puerto Rico’s Latin culture than anywhere else. "That’s a long-debunked myth, that our culture is more homophobic," Serrano said. Instead, he attributed any ill will toward gays to "hate rhetoric" by some religious and political leaders. One politician, he said, recently referred to gays as "twisted and mentally ill." "That’s the kind of rhetoric that incites violence against gays," Serrano said.
Equality Forum, an international gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights organization, asked for a federal investigation. "Equality Forum calls on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to have the FBI investigate," said former federal prosecutor Malcolm Lazin, the group’s executive director. "The Matthew Shepard Amendment empowers and requires the federal government to prosecute this horrific murder."
Serrano said Lopez Mercado was a "very, very dear friend" he had met through a mutual acquaintance. "Jorge was a person who you only needed one minute to fall in love with," Serrano said. Lopez Mercado often volunteered for gay causes, Serrano said. The teen’s family is coping, considering the circumstances. "It has been horrible, but they are very grateful that it has come to a quick resolution," Serrano said.
November 25, 2009 – AP
Thousands in PR hold vigil for murdered gay teen
by David McFadden (AP)
San Juan, Puerto Rico — Thousands of people marched through Puerto Rico’s capital on Wednesday, celebrating the life of a gay teenager whose dismembered, burned body was found dumped along a road in a small mountain town. The crowd, many of them carrying candles as a breezy dusk settled over San Juan, were also demanding that authorities invoke a law for the first time covering crimes based on sexual orientation in the U.S. territory.
"We’re gay people, straight people, young people, old people. It is Puerto Rico that’s walking tonight," Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said among the marchers gathered outside the island’s Department of Justice.
The mutilated body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was discovered Nov. 13 along a road in the town of Cayey. He was a volunteer for organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights, and Serrano said there have been vigils for him in a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and New York. Juan Martinez Matos, the 26-year-old suspect held in the case, allegedly met Lopez in an area known for prostitution, according to prosecutor Jose Bermudez Santos.
The prosecutor said Martinez confessed to stabbing Lopez, who was dressed as a woman, after discovering he was a man. It could not be immediately determined if Martinez is being represented by a lawyer. Officials for the island’s public defenders office could not be reached Wednesday evening. Gay activists have voiced outrage that Martinez wasn’t immediately charged with a hate crime. He has been charged with murder. Ana Quintero, a spokeswoman for Justice Secretary Antonio Sagardia, said the murder case was still under investigation and officials would pursue it as a hate crime if the evidence warrants.
A 2002 hate crime law in this U.S. territory has not been applied to any cases involving sexual orientation or gender identity despite calls to use it more aggressively, Serrano said. A suspect convicted of a hate crime offense as part of another crime automatically faces the maximum penalty for the underlying crime. For murder, that would be life in prison.
Serrano said he has identified at least 10 slayings on the island over the last seven years that should have been investigated as hate crimes, including some in which the victims were sex workers. Two U.S. Congress members from New York, who are of Puerto Rican origin, have suggested prosecuting the case under new federal hate crimes legislation that extended coverage to sexual orientation. President Barack Obama signed it last month.
July 2010 – LGBT News
7 Murders in 8 Months: The Increasing Wave of Murders of Members of the LGBTQ Community in Puerto Rico
by Mariela Nieves
This past Wednesday morning the body of the 7th victim was found. The cadaver was lying on the sand at the beach in the town of Loiza, PR. It was the body of an approximately 25 year old male, presumably a transexual or transgender individual, who was wearing a long black hair wig, a fitted blue shirt, gray sandals and female underwear. The police noted that (for unknown reasons still) no clothing but the female underwear was covering the area below the waist. The body was impacted with multiple gunshots (police found 12 bullet shells on the crime scene); this young and lifeless human being has yet to be identified.
Since 2002 there have been 26 murders of LGBTQ people, 7 of which have occurred in the past 8 months. This is an alarming and outrageous situation. Even more outrageous is that neither the local media nor the international media is paying much attention to this wave of murders. The only case that has had a relatively fair coverage was the murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado. Jorge Steven is the 19 year old boy whose body was found dismembered, decapitated and burnt this past November; probably one of the most brutal crimes ever committed in Puerto Rico, if not the most brutal. This case sounds like a front-page headline, but surprisingly the local media in PR was barely covering the case during the first week after the murder. This all changed after a young and brave member of the LGBTQ Puerto Rican community -named Christopher Pagan- sent a CNN iReport about the case. CNN heard Christophe’s voice and the case spread all over the news in the USA and many other countries. It was then, after feeling the pressure of the international media, that the local (Puerto Rican) media really started to talk about it.
In addition, because of the vast media coverage, vigils and protests arose in several cities in the USA and PR. These were the most significant manifestations against the Puerto Rican homophobia inside and outside my country. The pain and the rage of the LGBTQ community and sympathizers from PR and many other places were intense. The support towards the LGBTQ community seemed strong and unremitting. It was impressive. We felt hopeful. It felt like something was really changing. It felt like many eyes, minds and hearts were being opened right then and there. Some people even called Jorge Steven “the Matthew Shepard of Puerto Rico”. Back then, Jorge Steven was only the 4th victim of this recent wave of murders that increased dramatically to 7 murders in the past 8 months.
Puerto Rico is a great and beautiful country; and its people are the most warm and welcoming people you could ever meet. However, we have a history of homophobia and I guess old habits -and in this case- old prejudices die hard. I see most of our fellow Latin-American nations making perceptible progress with gay rights and related issues. I cannot help but wonder why the Caribbean is still probably the most homophobic and LGBTQ unfriendly territory in the whole western hemisphere. My theory is that it is because we are islands, we are geographically isolated; therefore we do not often have direct contact with people different from us. We cannot cross a border and immediately experience a significantly different culture from ours. Most Puerto Ricans do not have the means to get out of the country to travel and experience other cultures. What is our frame of reference for what is acceptable and unacceptable then? It is television and other media; it is our political and religious leaders; it is the tradition of homophobia; it is what our parents taught us and what the previous generation taught our parents. This is a vicious cycle and we are stuck with the mentality of machismo. Neither our media nor our leaders help much with this cause. In fact, some of our most important leaders (like the president of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz) have declared many times in the press horrifying homophobic comments. The government does not do anything about this.
In fact, the only person constantly fighting for gay rights in PR is Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto Rican gay activist who has been attacked and almost killed in the past, solely for being gay and out. He is also the only person who has truly pressured the police to try to solve the crimes and investigate the hate crime side on each of them. “Even though its been established as public policy to not tolerate hate crimes, the truth of the matter is that up to this date the PR Police and the Justice Department refuse to classify these crimes as hate crimes to avoid doing an in-depth investigation and get rid of the case by classifying it like any other victim”, Serrano stated to the media.
In this recent wave of murders, the crimes seem to be unrelated and isolated. In fact, the murderers of some of these assassinations have been caught and confessed to their crimes; yet none of them have been classified as committing a hate crime (even in the cases where murderers have confessed they killed because the victim was gay or they had “mistaken” the victim with a woman when the person was a transexual). The crimes being unrelated is an even more worrisome situation. It’s not like there is one serial killer or only a certain group of people committing these crimes. It means that this mentality of machismo is predominant in the Puerto Rican collective thinking and culture.
The Puerto Rican LGBTQ community is not safe and many of their members live in great fear. We need help and the help we need is impossible to get from our own resources right now. We need help from international media and international pro-gay rights entities and associations. We need better education. We need a strong anti-homophobia campaign. Puerto Ricans do not have a voice in the American government. We need CNN and the media in general to help report these vicious and most likely homophobic motivated killings. Puerto Rico is a USA territory, after all. Our President is your President, yet we do not get to vote in the presidential elections; but this is not the issue at hand right now… Would you report about this if so many of these victims where being murdered due to their sexual orientation in the states? We cannot allow for a certain group of people to be second class citizens in a way that their lives become expendable.
I know my people and their fears; I know about my government and its enormous flaws; I know about the justice system and its repeated mistakes… I know my country and I know that now more than ever we need your help. Please, this is a letter written out of desperation.
June 9, 2011 – GSFLA
Anti-LGBT violence in Puerto Rico ‘must stop now,’ says National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
News release from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:
Washington — The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is calling upon authorities to act immediately to address the ongoing anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) violence in Puerto Rico. In the past week, three LGBT individuals have been killed. On Tuesday, Ramón Salgado was found dead along the side of a highway in Humacao; Karlota Gómez Sánchez, a transgender woman, was shot to death in Santurce on Monday; and Alejandro Torres Torres was stabbed to death in Ponce on Saturday. Task Force staff is currently on the ground in Puerto Rico working with local authorities, the press and the community to respond to this crisis. In the past year and a half, 18 LGBT individuals have been killed in Puerto Rico. The local hate crimes law requires authorities in Puerto Rico to investigate whether the murders were motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity and the Task Force urges them to respond adequately to this wave of violence.
The Task Force has been in Puerto Rico on numerous occasions to respond to the scourge of anti-LGBT violence. This includes responding to the killing of Jorge Steven López Mercado, a 19-year-old student murdered in Cayey in November 2009. Last year, the Task Force’s National Religious Leadership Roundtable convened one of its semi-annual meetings in Puerto Rico to stand in solidarity with the Puerto Rican LGBT community. This year, the Task Force participated in the International Day Against Homophobia march in San Juan and has been very active in denouncing the attacks against LGBT individuals in Puerto Rico. The Task Force has also assisted in the response to the brutal bashing of Francheska González, a transgender woman who was beaten and luckily survived last April. The Task Force will continue to help local activists with efforts to curb the anti-LGBT violence in Puerto Rico.
Statement by Pedro Julio Serrano, Founder, Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Communications Manager
“The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force stands in solidarity with the LGBT community in Puerto Rico and sends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of Karlota Gómez Sánchez, Ramón Salgado and Alejandro Torres Torres. As someone who grew up in Puerto Rico and has been very active in its LGBT community, this is a heart-wrenching moment. Our thoughts and sympathies go out to all of the victims’ loved ones at this difficult time. Justice must prevail. This is about members of the Puerto Rican LGBT community feeling safe in their communities and being able to take care of the ones they love. We call upon the authorities and political leaders to effectively address this epidemic of anti-LGBT violence. This must stop now.”
To learn more about the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, visit www.theTaskForce.org and follow us on Twitter: @TheTaskForce.
June 10,2011 – 365 Gay
Puerto Rican activists demand hate crime charges amid deaths
San Juan, Puerto Rico (AP) — Activists are demanding that a series of killings of gays, lesbians and transgenders in Puerto Rico be treated as possible hate crimes, saying there is an alarming rate of violence against these groups on the U.S. island. In the last year and a half, at least 18 such people have been killed, three of them just this week, but authorities refuse to treat the cases as bias crimes, Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of the gay rights group Puerto Rico for Everyone, said Thursday. “It seems they have declared open hunting season against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual people,” he said.
A 2002 hate crime law in Puerto Rico covers crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but it has only been invoked in one case. If someone is found guilty of a hate crime they automatically face the maximum sentence for the underlying offense. If the offense is murder, it means life in prison. The island’s attorney general created a special committee last year to investigate hate crimes, and the government recently appointed prosecutor Janet Parra to oversee hate crimes. Police are expected to name a liaison with the gay and lesbian community. Neither Parra nor Police Chief Jose Figueroa Sancha returned messages seeking comment. “These are tentative steps,” Serrano said. “With the level of violence that we have, we have to take bigger steps.”
The most recent victim, Carlos Alfredo Gomez, a transsexual known as Karlota, was shot to death Tuesday by someone driving along a street where he worked as a prostitute, police have said. No one has been arrested. In late April, another transsexual, Francheska Gonzalez, was severely beaten by a man while leaving a gas station in the suburb of Rio Piedras. “He began yelling insults at me,” she said, adding that he hit her so hard he broke the implant in her right breast. The suspect faces a June 29 hearing for an assault charge. Gonzalez wants him to be charged with a hate crime.
Late last year, two young men dressed in women’s clothing were shot in the head and apparently run over by a car in the southern city of Juana Diaz. Also last year, the naked and battered body of a transgender woman, Ashley Santiago, was found in her home in the northern town of Corozal. In a November 2009 case that sparked vigils in New York and Chicago, gay teenager Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found decapitated and partially burned in Cayey. The suspect has been charged with first-degree murder. The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group, issued a statement Wednesday urging Puerto Rico’s government and police to create a plan to address crimes against gays and lesbians. “The alarming rate of violence … cannot be tolerated,” the group said.
June 21, 2011 – Miami Herald
Deadly assaults target gay and transgender people in Puerto Rico – Since November 2009, 18 people have been murdered and others beaten across Puerto Rico.
by Frances Robles
San Juan – Francheska González looked into her attacker’s eyes as he kicked and punched and saw her own death. “He kept saying, ‘Faggot! You have no right to exist!’’’ said González, a 41-year-old transsexual. “I’d cry and scream, ‘What happened? Why are you hitting me?’ He said: ‘For being like that.’’’
González’s vertebrae was broken and right breast implant ruptured in the April beating, making her a survivor of a series of deadly attacks against transgender and gay people in Puerto Rico. When transgender teenager Jorge Steven López was decapitated, dismembered and set ablaze in November 2009, it marked the start of what activists say is an escalating wave of hate crimes in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Eighteen gay or transgender people have been killed since then. Three were murdered in a single week earlier this month. The murders have been committed in various areas across the island and by different perpetrators, which advocates say underscores their belief that widespread homophobia — not a serial killer — is the culprit.
“A lot of church people are not teaching peace and to love thy neighbor,” González said. “They are teaching to hate gays. For me, the people who do this are men who know they are gay and don’t want to be.” The attacks come amid growing fundamentalist rhetoric on the island, where senior politicians are often influenced by conservative religious leaders who speak out publicly against homosexuals. Even as arrests are made and long sentences handed out, experts here say murders and harassment have continued, because the government has failed to implement anti-discrimination policy and remains largely mute on the disturbing trend. In Puerto Rico, gay and transgender people say, it has become socially acceptable to despise them — especially men who dress as women.
“You have religious and political leaders saying: ‘Gays don’t matter; they are the devil and twisted,’” said Pedro Julio Serrano, the communications manager for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “That’s inciting violence. We have not seen anything like this here since the 1980s.” In that decade, serial killer Angel Colón Maldonado, aka the “Angel of the Bachelors,” was found guilty of killing six gay men. He was suspected of killing 27 more. Serrano said today’s anti-gay rhetoric is largely led by Puerto Rican Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who makes it a point to ask senior government job candidates up for confirmation hearings whether they support gay marriage.
“Change will come to the Supreme Court… a Supreme Court that will defend the rights of the Puerto Rican family, traditional family values, not this twisted family some try to implement through legislation or jurisprudence,” he said at a judicial confirmation hearing.
Pastor Wanda Rolón made headlines when she posted a Facebook status update saying that “RM” was going to “send Puerto Rico to hell.” Later, she denied that she was comparing singer Ricky Martin to the devil, but lamented how the entertainer flaunts his homosexuality. “I do not glorify that conduct,” she told Primera Hora newspaper. “I don’t glorify drug addicts, alcoholics.”
Rivera Schatz did not return repeated calls seeking comment. Rolón was traveling and unavailable, her church office said. “The politicians are under the influence of these fundamentalists and their hate speech,” said Sophia Isabel Marrero Cruz, a transsexual activist who leads TTM, Transsexuals and Transgenders on the Move. “There is a pattern, and that threatening pattern is repetitive and escalating.”
2011 June 30 – PubMed.gov
HIV-related risk behaviors among a sample of men who have sex with men in Puerto Rico: an overview of substance use and sexual practices.
by Colón-López V, Rodríguez-Díaz CE, Ortiz AP, Soto-Salgado M, Suárez E, Pérez CM. Department of Health Services Administration, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Despite the growing impact of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic in Puerto Rico (PR), limited epidemiological research on men who have sex with men (MSM) has been conducted. The aim of this study was to describe HIV-related risk behaviors in a sample of MSM in PR.
A secondary data analysis of a household survey of the adult population of PR was performed in order to describe substance use and sexual practices related to HIV transmission and seropositivity for hepatitis A virus (HAV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), HIV, and type 2 herpes simplex virus (HSV-2) in MSM. Data regarding substance use and sexual practices were collected using audio computer-assisted self-interviewing (A-CASI). Descriptive statistics were used to examine lifetime and recent (12 months) prevalence of substance use and sexual practices.
Of the 640 men interviewed, 41 (6.4%) reported having ever had sex with another man on at least one occasion. Approximately one-fourth of MSM reported having used marijuana (24.4%) and cocaine (24.4%) in the past 12 months. Nearly 42% of the MSM reported an early age of sexual initiation (< 15 years), and 61% reported having had at least 10 sexual partners in their lifetime. Seropositivity rates for HAV, HSV-2, HIV, HCV, and HBV were 43.3%, 32.4%, 7.3%, 4.9%, and 4.9%, respectively.
This is the first study to attempt to examine high-risk behaviors related to HIV in a population-based sample of MSM in PR. Concurrent efforts that will help to intensify research and prevention initiatives among MSM are necessary, especially those that will enhance awareness of screening for HIV, HCV, and other sexually transmitted infections, access to HAV and HBV vaccinations, substance use, and identification of social barriers.