A common struggle for LGBT rights

December 8, 2009

Alma Torres, an activist in Puerto Rico, reports on the recent brutal murder of a gay teenager and the fight for LGBT rights in Puerto Rico as a whole.

THE GOVERNOR of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, has shown with his actions who he defends. The government protects the rich businessmen like Richard Carrion (CEO of Banco Popular de Puerto Rico) and the religious fundamentalists like the people organized in Alerta Cristiano (Christian Alert) and Pro-Vida (Pro-life).

In Puerto Rico, there are no governmental policies that guarantee civil rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. A majority in the LGBT community have been affected by the recent government layoffs, and lost out on not only collective bargaining rights, but also on guaranteed basic rights like having adequate health care, vacation time and sick days off. They are also suffering from being alienated and marginalized simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Puerto Rico, there is not a single law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace due to sexual orientation or gender identity. The effect of this is that many working-class homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals and transgender people don't have equal employment opportunity, and in many cases, they have to live a double life and hide their gender or sexual orientation. In this way, the government promotes division as an antidote to working-class struggle.

In Puerto Rico, the current laws do not favor or defend the LGBT community; on the contrary, they keep LGBT people on the fringes. An example of this is Law 54, which penalizes domestic violence in civil unions. When the LGBT community tried to amend the bill so that same-sex or transgender partners could be included, the ruling parties (the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party) blocked it.

Nowadays, if an LGBT person wants to report their partner for physical or emotional harassment, they cannot count on protection from Law 54, since same-sex couples are not categorized as legal partners. In many cases, the victim has to pursue other means to seek protection.

The current assembly bill 1725, which seeks to amend the current labor laws to include prohibition against discrimination because of sexual orientation, has evolved into nothing more than an insult to LGBT workers. The proposed bill no longer includes all public-sector workers, and it allows a boss to refuse a contract to someone from the LGBT community if it goes against their religious beliefs. In reality, this proposed bill legalizes discrimination in the workplace.

Another example of legalized discrimination is the current adoption law, which guarantees total priority to heterosexual married couples--prohibiting non-traditional, same-sex couples from adopting a child.

All in all, the current laws do not contribute anything to LGBT workers's rights, and are not responsive to the realities and changes that have occurred to what is known as the "traditional family"--which is almost non-existent today.

WHAT'S BEHIND the horrible hate crime committed against Jorge Steven López Mercado is the lack of public policies that protect the LGBT community.

Steven was a 19-year-old who, according to his friends, found great pleasure in fashion and looked forward to working in that industry. He worked as a volunteer activist to raise awareness about AIDS and fought for measures for protection in the LGBT community. High school teacher Luana Dávila remembered him in her blog as a "student who was very talented, who was respectful and was cared for by the high school community."

Steven was murdered in a horrible manner; he was dismembered, decapitated and partially burned, and his body later dumped in a field in the countryside in the town of Cayey. His death has awakened a wave of outrage from the LGBT community, prompting multiple press conferences and pickets. The macabre nature of the crime has also brought up also a debate over the possibility of applying the law against hate crimes against LGBT people.

On November 19, more than 200 people protested and called out those responsible for Steven's murder. "We make responsible and co-authors of this crime, the elected political leaders and the fundamentalists that, with their discourse, promote hate, discrimination and intolerance. We call on the citizenry to contemplate how far discrimination can go. Homophobia kills," said Sahir Ivette Pujols Vazquez, spokesperson for the Comite Contra la Homofobia y el Discrimen (Committee Against Homophobia and Discrimination).

The protesters chanted a slogan in honor of Steven: "Por ti Steven, tambien por nosotros, luchamos mano a mano, hombro con hombro" (For you Steven, also for ourselves, we fight hand by hand, shoulder against shoulder). Protesters called for the hate crimes law to be applied to the murder of Steven.

This law was passed in 2002 and, despite the fact that there have already been various murders that have the characteristics of a hate crime, there has never been a hate crime prosecuted in Puerto Rico.

In the mid-1980's, Angel Colón Maldonado, known as the "Angel of Bachelors," targeted homosexuals. He was charged with 27 murders and incarcerated for them. Today, he admits to killing six of those victims and has attributed the murders to his religious upbringing. Still, those crimes have not been charged as hate crimes in Puerto Rico. Instead, such crimes are typically processed as "crimes of passion" or as first-degree homicides.

Then again, what can we expect from a government that it has made clear that its priority is not to bring employment stability, housing, health care or any other essential care? What can we expect from the police, who have historically harassed and abused the LGBT community? What can we expect from a government that follows the interest of religious fundamentalist sectors?

The government and the police force have defended homophobia at an institutional level. This is the reality behind hate crimes in Puerto Rico and in the U.S., where there is a also a struggle developing for LGBT equality at a federal level, including a fight to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the Defense of Marriage Act. It is also the reality in many other places around the world, where homosexuality is a punishment to be paid for, in the most brutal cases, with death.

The government of Puerto Rico is a government that is homophobic and transphobic. But the logic behind the government's attack on the LGBT community--or on Dominican workers, or any other immigrant--is to divide and conquer the working class. While the government keeps the working class divided because of sexual orientation, gender or race, it allows them to sustain the economic power that forces laws like Public Law 7--which has ended up eliminating hard-won victories and reforms; throwing thousands into unemployment; and guaranteeing the privatization of our land, health care and education--down our throats.

Today, the list that justifies our fight-back is endless. All workers should fight for better living and working conditions--for the LGBT community and us all. Only by fighting for our common interests as the working class will we be able to confront the government of the rich and paralyze the country with a general strike that will make them give up their plans.

Our power lies on the streets and in our workplaces. We should continue our struggle for justice and equality for the LGBT community, whether Steven's murder is prosecuted as a hate crime or not. The ruling class in Puerto Rico has closed ranks with the businessmen and the rich; workers should do the same, and organize our side so that we can smash their plans and finally win what it rightfully ours.

Translated by Hector Tarrido-Picart

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