Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force testifies in support of a Puerto Rico adoption bill on Friday, May 17. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—LGBT rights advocates here last week celebrated the passage of a sweeping bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the U.S. territory.
The 15-11 vote in the Puerto Rico Senate on May 16 took place after lawmakers for several hours debated Senate Bill 238 that Sen. Ramón Nieves Pérez of San Juan introduced in January.
“The country, you and I are sick and tired of the marginalization,” Sen. Mari Tere González López of Mayagüez said.
Sen. Thomas Rivera Schatz of San Juan is among those who spoke against the bill.
“This Senate speaks of tolerance but discriminates against those who don’t have the same political ideology,” he tweeted during the debate.
A triumphant Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force greeted dozens of LGBT rights advocates and other supporters who had gathered outside the Capitol after the vote. Singer Ricky Martin and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn are among those who also applauded SB 238’s passage.
“We are celebrating this victory,” Serrano told the Washington Blade outside the Capitol, noting Rivera has previously referred to him as a “faggot.” “The people are celebrating with us. It is an extraordinary step forward.”
Senators approved SB 238 three days after San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz issued two executive orders that banned discrimination against the city’s LGBT municipal employees and mandated the Puerto Rican capital’s police department to equally investigate domestic violence cases regardless of the alleged victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. She was also inside the Senate chamber when lawmakers approved the measure.
The historic vote took place less than four years after the November 2009 murder of gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado sent shockwaves across Puerto Rico.
Serrano, Quinn and others repeatedly criticized then-Gov. Luís Fortuño for his failure to publicly speak out against rampant anti-LGBT violence on the island in the months after the crime. They also noted Puerto Rican prosecutors remained reluctant to convict anyone under the territory’s hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
The Puerto Rico Senate in late 2011 approved a proposal that would have eliminated LGBT-specific protections from the aforementioned statute.
The Puerto Rico Supreme Court in February narrowly upheld the island’s ban on gay second parent adoptions.
Dr. Carmen Milagros Vélez Vega, whose partner of 25 years, Dr. Ángeles Acosta Rodríguez, sought to adopt their 12-year-old daughter she conceived through in vitro fertilization, on May 17 testified in support of a bill that González introduced earlier this year that would extend second-parent adoption rights to gays and lesbians on the island.
Vega received a standing ovation from Senate Bill 437 supporters who attended the Senate Judiciary, Security and Veterans Committee hearing after she finished her testimony.
“Us three are a Puerto Rican family, one among many,” she said as Acosta and their daughter, Juliana María Acosta Vélez Vega, sat next to her. “We are here, not for the sake of receiving special treatment, nor to seek a privilege, but to present ourselves as citizens and daughters of this country and to ask for that which is granted to Puerto Rican families and children, the right to a family and the protections that that includes.”
The SB 437 hearing took place hours before thousands of people took part in an LGBT rights march from La Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence in Old San Juan, to the Capitol that coincided with the annual International Day Against Homophobia.
Yulín, who unfurled a gay Pride flag from the balcony of City Hall with Nieves during the march, spoke to marchers from the Capitol steps as she stood with members of the Butterflies Trans Association, a transgender advocacy group, while wearing a white headband that said “equity.”
“I say from the bottom of my heart to those who are listening to us — all of Puerto Rico; we are all equal,” she said.
Optimism despite death threats
FBI agents on May 17 arrested Joseph Joel Morales Serrano at his San Juan home for allegedly threatening to kill Serrano at the IDAHO march in a tweet that referenced the Boston Marathon bombings he posted earlier this month.
The Primera Hora newspaper reported Serrano had been planning to attend the march, but he returned to New York City where he lives to accept an award from the Latino Commission on AIDS. His mother, Alicia Burgos, spoke on his behalf.
“We are marching against homophobia,” she said.
Eduardo, who traveled to San Juan from Ponce on Puerto Rico’s southern coast with a group of nearly 150 people, expressed a similar message.
“We are here because we want equality,” Eduardo told the Blade. “We want the same equality that everybody else has.”
The Puerto Rico House of Representatives had been expected to vote on the non-discrimination and the gay second-parent adoption bills on Thursday. A third bill introduced in the chamber in January would add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the island’s anti-domestic violence laws.
“It’s just about basic human rights,” Bayamón resident Héctor Maldonado told the Blade as he waived a rainbow flag across the street from the Capitol before senators approved SB 238.
Gov. Alejandro García Padilla supports both the non-discrimination and adoption measures.
“Puerto Rico is on the brink of history,” Serrano said, noting polls that indicate the majority of the island’s residents support expanded rights for LGBT Puerto Ricans. “LGBT rights are advancing and we will have two bills become law in the next few days.”