18 Murders in 18 Months: Puerto Rico’s LGBTTs Face New Threats, Old Politics

While the rest of the world is celebrating Pride, Puerto Rico is reeling from a spree of violent hate-based crimes against its LGBTT community. Eighteen gay, lesbian and transsexual individuals have been murdered in the last eighteen months. The most publicized of these murders is that of Jorge Stephen Lopez Mercado,  who was decapitated, dismembered, burned and left on the side of the road in the city of Cayey. His attacker, Juan Antonio Martinez Matos, claimed his attack was caused by the shock of realizing Lopez Mercado was a biological male and not a female prostitute. “Gay panic” pushed him into a blind rage and allegedly forced him to violently murder Lopez Mercado. He has since been sentenced to 99 years in prison. Puerto Rico itself seems to have been experiencing an epidemic of gay panic for years. These murders are the horrific end result of general ignorance and fear of the LGBTT community in Puerto Rico. Sensational details like “transsexual prostitute” and “decapitation” fly around the world and top Google News headlines, but what’s really going on in the island of enchantment?

Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Todos, an organization for the inclusion of LGBTT individuals in Puerto Rican ideals of equal rights, is the advocate that most major news outlets are going to for quotes about the murders. Serrano is rightfully calling for politicians and lawmakers to address this violence towards the LGBTT community. But the one thing many outlets have failed to mention is that Serrano currently does not live in Puerto Rico; he lives in New York, like me. Not to invalidate Serrano’s advocacy, but isn’t it possible that a voice on the island might provide a better view of what’s really happening and what really needs to be done?

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The Administrative Problem

Juan Carlos (last name withheld for safety purposes) is an activist librarian currently living in Puerto Rico who spoke with me over the phone. He coordinated Puerto Rico’s first LGBTT Health Summit, which took place on March 2, 2011. The summit’s objective was to explore the ways in which hate crimes, machismo and homophobia affect Puerto Rican health. Juan Carlos understands that the problem of the high murder rate affects more than just the queer community. So far this year, there have been 525 murders in Puerto Rico. At this rate, the number of homicides this year will be higher than the previous records: 983 last year or 995 in 1994. New York City’s population is slightly higher than that of Puerto Rico, and it totaled only 536 murders for all of 2010. Even straight and cis people in Puerto Rico live with the threat of senseless violence, much of which is attributed to drug trafficking. But according to Juan Carlos, the LGBTT deaths are in an entirely different category:

“There is a high level of ignorant machista homophobia towards the LGBTT community coming from the Fundamentalist Christians and homophobic legislature. The media outlets don’t even know how to report these crimes. Police don’t know how to treat victims. We have no advocacy.”

He also said talking about the grisly details of the murders is easy for most people because they’re so salacious. What’s harder to discuss and draw attention to is the root cause; the everyday ways that homosexual and transsexual Puerto Ricans are discriminated against. The bottom line is, the infrastructure needed to support the victims of all of these crimes is not in place in Puerto Rico. For example, recently NYC and San Francisco passed initiatives making LGBTQ sensitivity training programs mandatory for health care workers. Juan Carlos said he wishes Puerto Rico would enact that type of legislation as well.  Violence does not manifest solely through murder or physical harm; it also exists in the form of administrative discrimination and systemic inequality. Friends of Juan Carlos — gay men, like him — have been told by doctors and nurses that if they do not “change their lifestyle they [will] no longer receive treatment and [will] have to switch doctors.” This is the climate that Juan Carlos and his Health Summit are trying to navigate.

The Religious Problem

Meet Wanda Rolón, self-proclaimed Apostle and founder of the First Christian Church La Senda Antigua, Puerto Rico’s very own MegaChurch.

She’s an outspoken anti-gay activist, most recently infamous for protesting against Ricky Martin. (Hating Ricky Martin in Puerto Rico is like hating Santa Claus at the North Pole.) Rolón attacked via Facebook, announcing that Ricky would “lead Puerto Rico to hell,” a statement she later recanted:

I never promoted hatred, but the love of Christ … God calls us only man and woman because it was how He created us.

(She kinda looks like one of us…::cough::)

Rolón’s sentiments are not exclusive to the Christian Fundamentalist movement in Puerto Rico; they’re also mirrored by El Visitante, a Puerto Rican Catholic news publication. El Visitante states that homosexuality is triggered by environmental, biological and familial weapons of destruction and can be reversed. As religious groups, they are of course legally permitted to have their own point of view, but with Puerto Rico being heavily influenced by both Catholicism and a recent surge of Fundamentalism, queer Puerto Ricans are bombarded with messages that diminish their humanity – and so are those around them, from healthcare providers to johns, with dangerous results.

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The Political Problem

This kind of rhetoric is also supported by and reinforced politically. Luis Fortuño, the current Governor of Puerto Rico, has been criticized for not immediately declaring these 18 murders hate crimes (even though Puerto Rico passed its own hate crime bill in 2002 and still has not used it once), and for heavily advocating for an indisputable ban on gay marriage in Puerto Rico as a defense of traditional marriage. It’s worth mentioning that Fortuño’s ties to the Tea Party were made public via a video released of him at the CPAC at the Governor’s mansion.  Fortuño is not the only Puerto Rican politician to use family values as a platform against gay rights.

Thomas Rivera Schätz, Speaker of the Puerto Rican Senate, spearheaded a campaign in 2009 to protect the values of traditional Puerto Rican families against the “twisted” (i.e. LGBTT) families attempting to claim equal rights from the Puerto Rican legislature. Schatz claims that “twisted” was not a reference to homosexuals but to families that strayed from the traditional one mother/one father dynamic.  This is an interesting stance for a man involved in his own out-of-wedlock baby scandal and a bribery situation sparked by fellow senator, Hector Martinez, who faced an ethics counsel and has since resigned. Schätz has also been publicly challenged by Julio Pedro Serrano for his statements against the LGBTT community.

Towards A Solution

With Rolón, Fortuño and Schätz upholding “family values” in Puerto Rico, queer Puerto Ricans are being victimized by the “gay panic” pervading the island’s social service, religious and political spheres, and they need help. Pedro Serrano, Juan Carlos, the ACLU, Joe Solomnese and countless other organizations have rallied in defense of equal rights for LGBTT community and for diligence in the continued efforts of maintaining their safety. It remains to be seen whether that will turn the tide for queer Puerto Ricans’ safety.

The last thing Juan Carlos said during our conversation:

“I could be next just for walking with my arm around my boyfriend or letting you use my name in this article. I could be number 19. That is my reality.”

Although his employers are aware of his homosexuality, they ask that he keep it to himself.  Gender identity and sexual orientation bring shame upon companies and families and are unspoken reasons for being fired, disowned or stripped of your life, according to Juan Carlos. Puerto Rico is experiencing the same type of homophobia that runs rampant throughout the world, but what truly makes it stand out is its relationship to the United States. Any laws the U.S. legislature passes for gay rights also go into effect in Puerto Rico due to its status as a commonwealth. This can be both a blessing and perhaps a curse, because what works for us here in the States might not always be the right thing for Puerto Rico. By keeping communication open between us and those living on the island, we can aid Puerto Rico in its fight for LGBTT equality, even after all the headlines have faded away.

En Paz Descanse

Jorge Lopez Mercado · Michaell Galindo · Ashley Santiago · Angie González Oquendo · Fernando López de Victoria · Humberto Bonilla Rodríguez · Michelle González García · La Flaca Soto Fernández · Benjamín Acevedo Román · Charlotte Crespo · Frank Di Giovani · Ivan McDonald · Edwin Rodríguez Grajales · Ezequiel Crespo · Eugenio Alberto Rivera Ortiz · Karlota Gómez Sánchez · Alejandro Torres Torres · Ramón ‘Moncho’ Salgado

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Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabrielle has written 66 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    The problem is not political, is based on traditions. Unfortunately, the Latino culture is very macho, too. And if you add a pod that allegedly adversely their religious beliefs. You have a bomb that will explode bad cocktail. That does not happen only in Puerto Rico. Spends many Latin American countries.

    Our people are sexist and religious. You will have insurance problems, at least the past generation, the current save her educating children that there is nothing wrong with being gay.

    Is sick see the numbers. In Venezuela is not that high the number. Ehmm 3cases on a couple years i think.

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    With you all in solidarity, Puerto Rico.

    (She kinda looks like one of us…::cough::)

    Yep! If I passed her in the street, I’d think she was gay. Maybe she should go with a more subservient, conservative look, that honors the patriarchal tenants of her faith.

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    Great article! I love the comment about Ricky Martin.

    This is very tragic. I think it is important not to put the “cultural” label on this. Just like this occurs in other Latin American countries. It also does not occur in others. Gay marriage is legal in Argentina. There are civil unions in Columbia, Ecuador, and Uruguay. Mexico City has gay marriage and it is about to be passed for recognition in the entire country. My point here is that I think it is a trap to say. Well that is just the way it is and not think about how other issues affect the way we see this.

    This article points out how the entire structure revolves around this kind of homophobia that makes the environment supportive of this kind of violence.

    I completely agree that we need to hear more from Puerto Rican voices, but that will be difficult to do with so much fear.

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    Yup, it’s latino tradition that’s the problem. Here (argentina) we are looked at as some fancy weird unicorns with magical superpowers. Which isn’t that bad (i mean, at least we’re not getting killed – les mando toda mi buena onda, ojala todo se solucione y puedan vivir sin miedos), though it gets annoying. I guess people have more important things to be worried about, like Cristina running for president again or that team losing that one soccer game last saturday.

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    You might want to edit this to reflect that the U.S. Supreme Court does not and cannot “pass laws.” That’s a function of the legislative branch of government.

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    Thank you for posting this article b/c we rarely get any English-language news about Puerto Rico in NY unless you subscribe to Google alerts. This was a very well-written article that discusses very real problems in Puerto Rico. Until these issues are able to be discussed, these problems will persist. And no matter the reasoning or logic behind the violence, it has no place in 2011 – no matter where it’s happening or what the circumstances.

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    Thank you for writing about this. My one issue is that your article only mentions ‘homophobia’ whereas many of these murders were of trans women and people who were presenting as women. The Jorge Stephen Lopez Mercado murder was overwhelmingly reported in the gay press as the murder of a gay man and a homophobic crime when the crime was really about gender expression (and perhaps identity as well, we don’t really know). This is not to gloss over the large numbers of gay murders, but to also understand that categorizing everything as “homophobic” erases the degree of violence and murder perpetrated against young trans women of color.

    I might also note an organization in the Philippines has just released a report saying there were 14 murders of trans women in that country in the past 18 mos. and in Brazil, there are, on average, 250 LGBT related murders a year, with murders of trans women averaging over 120 per year. These stories need to come out.

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    Very well put together, Gaby. 18 is too many. There has to be a changing of attitude from judgment of others to respect. Strength to Juan Carlos and others who are risking their lives in this struggle.

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    Thank you for the article! I was totally unaware. I do send up love for those slain. transphobia jumped out to me as well, particularly m2f. In the follow up, I wonder if you could explore more the connection with misogyny? …maybe there is another entry way for coalitional response. Also, I know many gay men who despise trans people and feminine men. There is a fight for “homonormativity” in which some gay men want to be recognized as men who love (or sex) other men, but are “real” “men” …with all the rights and privileges a biological penis garners. But thank you. May we do all we can to stop the violence.

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    My heart goes out to Juan Carlos and the rest of the LGBTT community in Puerto Rico. I admire his bravery in speaking out.

    Can I also say how much I detest the whole idea of a “gay panic” defense? Every time I hear that phrase, I just want to scream. Quit blaming the victim for your hate and homophobia/transphobia!! It’s horrific enough to know someone was murdered for just being who they are, but the added insult of shifting the blame to the victim … the whole concept is sickening.

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    Thanks for writing this article. I appreciate how well-thought out it is, including how it’s approached from several different angles as a structural and religious problem. I don’t know much about Puerto Rico but I wish luck to all LGBTQ people living there, activists or not. They are all very brave.

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    It truly drives me crazy that the US doesn’t include the crime stats from Puerto Rico in the national data. If it did recognize that data, it would be forced to put more resources into helping alleviate the horrific levels of violence. It’s the same problem in the USVI as well, there are ridiculous murder rates and acts of violence against LGBT individuals there as well, due to the combination of severely corrupt police and the Caribbean culture that is unfortunately often extremely homophobic.

    People in US territories are US citizens!! Obviously that doesn’t make people in the territories better or worse than people anywhere else, but it seems completely fucking insane to me that the United States government would let its citizens be murdered and brutalized like this with barely an acknowledgement that it’s happening.

    Also, I totally love Puerto Rico and the USVI, and I really hope that the community leaders and the groups discussed in this article will be able to bring about some change on these issues. Thanks so much for writing about this!

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      I thought I kept up fairly well on these kinds of issues but I was unaware the US didn’t include this in their national data and it is insane their is barely an acknowledgment. My thanks too to Gabrielle for the article.

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    Gabby,

    As a rule of thumb, when talking about the transgender community, one should always be gender affirming. Meaning, always include their gender after trans* (i.e., transgender man, trans woman, etc.)

    In this case, the people who have died have been primarily gay men and trans women.

    In regards to the trans/transgender/transsexual dilemma, there is no “right” term. However, the preferred term is transgender. It was created and used in the 70s to combat the medicalization and hypersexualization of trans* gender identities. (Transsexual, like homosexual, are clinical terms). There are however, MANY men and women who identify as transsexual. So, like I said, there isn’t a wrong or right term. But transgender works in cases like these because not all of these trans* women killed were necessarily transsexual. (Transgender is to Latina as Transsexual is to Puerto Rican)

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      “As a rule of thumb, when talking about the transgender community, one should always be gender affirming. Meaning, always include their gender after trans* (i.e., transgender man, trans woman, etc.)”

      word. got it. thank you for being open enough to explain this without being angry, even tho if you were, i would understand.

      one thing, when i spoke with Juan Carlos he made it seem as though the preferred term on the island was Transsexual so that is why it’s the primary trans term used in the article.

      and thanks for this too:
      (Transgender is to Latina as Transsexual is to Puerto Rican)

      ps- he also told me about a lesbian that was murdered at the hands of her lover’s husband! but since I couldn’t find like ANY news stories backing that up, i chose to not include that tidbit.

      i can share it here in the comments because this is the place for here-say. :)

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    i was just talking about this with a friend, who is from ponce, p.r. there’s obviously more to this issue than a black and white view will give. a lot of the older generation has attached stigma to acting outside of the traditional gender roles. however, at least some of the younger generation is much more accepting and loving of the lgbtq community.

    always hope in the future as long as there are those willing to stand against injustice in the present.

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    I think the responsible for all this hate has a name: the catholic church, not too long ago I remained ambivalent towards the church (perhaps because I was raised as a catholic) but nowadays I just really wish it was over.

    Here in latin countries really bad people have a lot of undeserved power* that is used to satanize homosexuals, and transgender people have it worse, they don’t even stand a chance here.

    I believe we need to effectively separate the state from the church (for reals, not just on paper)so the laws that protect all human beings are actually applied TO ALL and not just to the privileged straight rich latinos.

    *such as Cardenal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez for example

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    I’m officially coming out of “lurk mode” on Autostraddle to say how much I appreciate this article. It’s a thoughtful and informative piece on something that was devastating to learn about. My heart goes out to those in Puerto Rico (and anywhere else) who are affected by this kind of fear and hatred.

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    Thanks for this article, Gabrielle. And for bringing in the voice of someone who actually lives in PR. (Full disclosure: I live in New York. My entire family lives in PR, however, and it’s what I consider to be “home”.) When I first read the article from The New Civil Rights Movement website I thought it was a bit sensationalist and completely out of touch with the reality of violent crime in PR. I’m glad Juan Carlos was able to put these numbers in perspective. To be honest, I thought the number (1 per month) was low compared to the rate for the general population. That’s awful, I know, but I listen to my mom go on about all the murders that happen every week, so maybe I’m a little desensitized.

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    thank you for writing this, gabby. i’m so glad you enabled us to hear from someone (juan) who’s in the community in puerto rico right now dealing with this reality.

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    all of this comes from such tragedy. it’s hard to wrap my brain around why so many of the best LGBTTQ stuff comes from tragedy.
    we have to have our matthew shepherds, asher browns, teena landons and jorge mercado lopez’s (just to name a few) before these stories, articles, youtube videos come out and unite/inform us.

    thank you riese and Autostraddle for giving a story like this a platform, for believing that all LGBTTQ issues affect us, not just the white stories or the dyke stories or the lohan stories :)

    thank you for not creating a latino column off to the side of AS but for including all of these stories as a whole and keeping them tied to all of us.

    Autostraddle has my heart, the Bronx has my soul and my girl’s got my bootie.

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      This. Times like this make me wonder how AS could be any more amazing.

      Thanks for writing this, Gabrielle. It’s so important to get this kind of information out there.

      We’re all Boricuas. We are all human beings. Stop the hate!

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    Thanks for writing this, Gabrielle. And thanks for your bravery in sharing with us, Juan Carlos.

    This is a terrible situation. Please keep us updated and let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.

    But you know what? As horrible and unfair as situations like these are, I’m constantly amazed at the bravery and resiliancy of LGBTQ folk around the world who still manage to be true to themselves and continue living their lives in spite of such hatred and violence. It’s beautiful.

  21. Pingback: Puerto Rico’s Hostile Environment To LGBT Leads To Murder | NewsTaco

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    So, I’m heading down there July 8-23 to visit my family. I was very concerned about the way my dad would treat me, but after logging on and reading this, I think he’s the least of my worries.

    Actually, when I logged on, I was going to post a question asking what I can do with my short crazy hair despite all of that humidity…Any ideas? Help!

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    Queen Helene Gel mami. Nothing frizzes out thru that sh*t for real.

    Also, I don’t want anyone to be afraid of going to Puerto Rico or being around native Puerto Ricans. This shouldn’t be read as a blanket statement about everyone and their feelings on the island.

    If you’re going to visit family, you should be fine. Follow the same rules you would in any city. 1) Go out with people you trust. 2) Don’t wander dark streets alone. 3) Try not to get involved with the purchase or sale of illegal drugs. 4) Look both ways before crossing the street.

    :)

  24. Pingback: 18 murdered in 18 months in Puerto Rico | Blog: Transgender News

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