It is hard to believe that an island of only 100 x 35 miles has the highest hate crimes rate in the United States. In 2020, six of the 44 deaths that occurred on the island consisted of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. These deaths represent the majority of the murders of trans people that happened in the U.S. in 2020. Followed by Florida (4), Louisiana (4), Ohio (3), Texas (3), New York (3) and 17 other states. Puerto Rico is the U.S. jurisdiction with the most murders of trans people, according to statistics from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Puerto Rico between 2019-2020 also saw at least 12 killings of LGBTQ people, the highest rate of deaths the island has seen in a decade.
Why is this? Why is a Caribbean island with so much multicultural diversity experiencing this level of hate crimes against the trans community and cases of gender-based violence? It is difficult to understand, when you see that Puerto Rico was ranked among the 30 top LGBTQ travel destinations in the world and also when Puerto Rico has the highest overall LGBTQ policy tally among the U.S territories, according to the Movement Advancement Project. MAP is an independent, nonprofit think tank that provides rigorous research about equality in the world. Puerto Rico was placed in a “high” category of LGBTQ policies, along with 18 states and the District of Columbia. The other four territories have a “low” LGBT policy tally scores, as do the other 21 U.S. states. Gender-based violence has also become even more common in Puerto Rico with at least 5,517 female victims recorded, according to the organization Gender Equality Observatory. Also, Puerto Rico has a high level of legislation, protocols and regulations towards gender-based violence or/and domestic violence in comparison to other jurisdictions in the world. However, history has shown us in a very hard way that public policies and laws are just worthless piece of papers when you have a systematic evil in your society, like racism, homophobia and machismo.
Back when I was leading the governor’s LGBT Advisory Board in Puerto Rico (created in 2018), we launched an investigation of how public policies related to equality and LGBTQ rights were being enforced by public institutions. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the public institutions that were supposed to adopt internal protocols and regulations to enforce equality or/and LGBTQ legislations across the island had not implemented any policy. In other words, Puerto Rico had progressive legislation and public policies (e.g. Act 22-2013, to protect LGBTQ workers) but most of them were unenforced laws. Sadly, Puerto Rico is an island full of symbolic laws, which are usually ignored by law enforcement authorities and have no consequences. It’s not only because we certainly have had a history of bad public administration on the island, but because when it comes to certain subjects, the system drags its feet over enforcement. The “system” has never existed to be changed, and that’s why it takes years to do so. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and color never changed the United States’ system, the systematic racism in our culture, or even the belief of the people and the implicit bias of its citizens towards our black communities. We keep seeing today, five decades later, how the implicit racism in our society is still out there, more rampant than ever. Public policies do not do that much in societies without a real will of change from the inside, real and equal participation of the protected populations in the decision-making process, and a comprehensive and permanent educational approach to change future generations. The Civil Rights Act, as many other federal legislations related to LGBTQ rights and gender equality, became a reality after the U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It was like the system, in some way, was forced to get there without been prepared to be there yet. The Civil Rights Act was not a piece of legislation that came from “the People” (represented by Congress), but from a list of judicial SCOTUS precedents based on an economic constitutional clause, starting with Brown v. Board of Education. In other words, legislation opens the door to change the system but not to change a culture. And the same thing has happened in Puerto Rico.
The lack of interest and acknowledgment of public authorities, public officers and decision-makers towards the existence of systematic evils like homophobia and gender-based violence has resulted in the eternal postponement of concerted efforts to eradicate them on the island. It was not until more than a year of demands from feminist groups and more than 60 murders linked to gender-based violence that the government declared state of emergency over the gender-based violence crisis. But why? Why did a simple action like approving an executive order acknowledging a real crisis or emergency take three different governors to do it? It took former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló less than 48 hours to request a state of emergency in 2017 after Hurricane Maria, but more than three years for the government to admit we were losing our fight against gender-based violence? Some people would say that it’s hard for any politician to admit a failure in the administration, as a justification for the delay, but the reality is different and has nothing to do with public administration 101.
In 2015 former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla approved gender perspective curriculum in schools. In 2017, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló eliminated that directive as a political campaign promise to the religious sector of the island. In 2020 the subject (gender ideology/perspective/violence) was brought into the political arena again during the last campaign. However, it was not a subject brought by the own will of the main candidates who had more of a chance to win the elections back then. It was a controversial subject that neither of them mentioned in their political platforms or even addressed before it was brought up during a debate broadcast on national TV. If it were up to these candidates, these subjects wouldn’t have ever been brought into the public discussion. The fear towards the political power of the religious sector and the conservative vote in Puerto Rico is a very controversial one. Informal surveys were held during the political campaign about the gender perspective and ideology issue and most of the citizens in the island answered that they were against it. During the political campaign on the island, I had the chance to meet with the current governor of Puerto Rico Pedro Pierluisi, and we briefly spoke about the LGBTQ subject. His answers were vague and politically correct. Governor Pierluisi didn’t take up the decision of approving an executive order acknowledging the gender-based violence crisis on the island because it was the right thing to do or he had the will to do it, but because he was forced to do so.
The pressure of a promise made during a political campaign, the pressure made by the civil rights sector, the pressure caused by the last recent murder of a woman and the pressure of having for the first time ever a legislature that has more representation (even a minority) from the left-wing were some of the factors that forced Pierluisi to do so, acknowledging that Puerto Rico was having a crisis. There is no genuine will from the government to address issues related to gender ideology and the LGBTQ community because that will doesn’t exist in our society or in our culture either. Politicians are only a clear and direct representation of what is in the society, because they all come from it. Even when Governor Pierluisi stated during a press conference that the executive order was going to include trans women, the final document didn’t include this population. Once again, the invisibility from the government over this population will make Puerto Rico’s path towards cultural competence education and acceptance of the diversity its citizens harder. Puerto Rico is still a very conservative country with a very sexist/chauvinist culture, and in order to change that and eradicate the crisis of gender-based violence and hate crimes, we need to create a very aggressive holistic approach, both from the inside and from the outside. The involvement from protected populations (minorities, women, LGBTQ people …) within the decision-making process is essential and it will be the only effective approach to reach an actual enforce from our public institutions of anything the government approves.