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Puerto Rico Senate approves non-discrimination bill

Passage seen as turning point in island’s LGBT rights movement

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Pedro Julio Serrano, NGLTF, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Puerto Rico, San Juan, LGBT equality, adoption, gay news, Washington Blade
Pedro Julio Serrano, NGLTF, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Puerto Rico, San Juan, LGBT equality, adoption, gay news, Washington Blade

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.”

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1 Comment

  1. Mario PR

    May 26, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    The Senate passed the bill but the House of Representatives destroyed each and every important clause in the law for the protection of LGBT people in the island. You need to get the facts since this is of utmost importance. It was a disaster. The bill #238 passed by the House in Puerto Rico is exclusively about employment. In every other aspect of your life you can now be legally discriminated against without any recourse. Everything else was stripped from the bill by a rogue group of elected representatives under pressure by religious fundamentalists. A follow up of this article is required and the ACLU of Puerto Rico is source you can trust.

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N.C. lieutenant governor compares gays to cow feces, maggots

“If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said

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North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson (Blade file photo)

WINSTON-SALEM – Speaking to parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem last Sunday, November 14, North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson attacked the LGBTQ+ community in remarks caught on the church’s livestreaming video on YouTube.

Robinson said in his sermon that he questioned the “purpose” of being gay; said heterosexual couples are “superior” to gay couples; and that he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren why two men are kissing if they see that on television the Charlotte Observer reported.

The state’s Republican Lt. Governor then went on to compare being gay to “what the cows leave behind” as well as maggots and flies, who he said all serve a purpose in God’s creation. “If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said.

Democratic lawmakers expressed their outrage on Twitter:

According to the Observer, “The video was distributed Friday by a pastor at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, the day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance. A protest rally was held Friday in front of Robinson’s office, but organizers also read the names of transgender people who have been killed.

This man’s theology and religious practices are not only flawed and a perversion of the Christian tenets; he places countless people at risk of violent attacks and even murder every time he opens his mouth,” said Vance Haywood, senior pastor at St. John’s, in a statement.

Robinson is expected to run for the governor’s chair in 2024. In another video of the sermon captured the Lt. Governor ranting in transphobic terms his opinion of the Trans community:

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (Twitter Video)

Video of remarks made by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

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LGBTQ elder care facilities open nationwide, but discrimination persists

Advocates say seniors face challenges despite groundbreaking advances

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The Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing facility opened this week in Los Angeles. (Blade file photo)

Marsha Wetzel, an out lesbian, shared her life with her partner of 30 years, Judith Kahn, at the couple’s home in Illinois until Kahn died in 2013 of colon cancer.

As is the case with some same-sex couples who never married, Kahn’s family took legal possession of the couple’s home several years later, forcing Wetzel, who suffered from severe arthritis, to move into the Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a retirement and assisted living facility in Niles, Ill.

According to a lawsuit filed on her behalf in 2016 by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, when word got out that Wetzel was a lesbian after she disclosed her sexual orientation to a fellow resident, she was called homophobic slurs, spat on, and assaulted on several occasions by other residents of the facility. The lawsuit, which later resulted in a court ruling in Wetzel’s favor, charged that officials at the Glen St. Andrew facility illegally failed to take action to prevent Wetzel from being subjected to abuse and threats by fellow residents and retaliated against her when she complained.

Lambda Legal announced one year ago, on Nov. 20, 2020, that Wetzel passed away at the age of 73 of natural causes after a landmark 2018 appeals court ruling in her favor affirmed that residential facilities such as the one in which she lived are legally responsible for the safety of tenant residents.

“Marsha spent the rest of her days in a senior living community where she was out and affirmed,” said Lambda Legal attorney Karen Loewy, who represented Wetzel in the lawsuit.

Advocates for LGBTQ seniors were hopeful that the 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruling in the Wetzel case would speed up the gradual but steady advances in the rights of LGBTQ elders in long-term care facilities and in society in general.

A short time later, the New York City-based national LGBTQ elder advocacy group SAGE expanded its programs providing cultural competency training for the nation’s long-term care residential facilities. And in some cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, LGBTQ specific retirement and long-term care facilities began to open to provide LGBTQ elders with a wide range of “wrap around” services in addition to a safe place to live.

But LGBTQ elder advocates were taken aback in October of this year when news surfaced that transgender U.S. Army veteran Lisa Oakley, 68, was denied placement in more than two-dozen long-term care facilities in Colorado in 2020 and earlier this year.

“When they found out I was transgender, a lot of the facilities didn’t want me,” Oakley told USA Today. “A lot of transgender people, I’m sure, face the same thing,” she said. “We’re humans, just like everybody else.” 

Oakley told other media outlets her ordeal in trying to gain admission to a residential care facility began in October 2020, when she became unable to care for herself due to complications from diabetes. Her first choice was a facility in her hometown in rural Craig, Colo., where she had lived for the previous 25 years. She believes that facility turned her down because of her gender identity.

A social worker who assisted in Oakley’s applications for long-term care facilities said the facility in Craig said Oakley would have to be placed in a private room, which was at the time unavailable, “because she still has her ‘boy parts’ and cannot be placed with a woman” in a shared room. 

Many other Colorado facilities to which Oakley applied for admission, according to social worker Cori Martin-Crawford, cited the COVID pandemic as the reason for not accepting new residents. But as COVID related restrictions began to subside, other facilities continued to deny Oakley admission.

With Martin-Crawford’s help, Oakley finally found a facility that is LGBTQ supportive in Grand Junction, Colo., which is nearly three hours away from her hometown of Craig, where she had hoped to remain.

LGBTQ activists expressed concern that the discrimination that Oakley faced took place in the state of Colorado, which has a state law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Experts familiar with long-term care facilities for older adults have said many private elder care facilities can get around state LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws by claiming other reasons for turning down an LGBTQ person.

Michael Adams, the CEO of SAGE, told the Blade that the wide range of programs and initiatives put in place by SAGE and other groups advocating for LGBTQ elders in recent years have resulted in significant changes in support of LGBTQ seniors.

“It is the case now that in almost all states there are one or more elder care facilities that have been trained through our SAGECare program,” Adams said. “But it’s nowhere near what it needs to be,” he said. “It needs to be that there are welcoming elder care facilities in every single community in this country” for LGBTQ elders.

Adams was referring to the SAGE program started recently called SAGECare that arranges for employees and other officials at elder care facilities throughout the country to receive LGBTQ competency training. The facilities that participate in the program are designated “SAGECare credentialed,” and are included in SAGE database lists available to LGBTQ elders looking for a safe facility in which to reside.

SAGE spokesperson Christina Da Costa provided the Blade with data showing there have been 136,975 professionals trained at a total of 617 SAGECare credentialed organizations nationwide. Out of 617 organizations, 172 are residential communities. Also, out of the total of 617 are 167 Area Agencies on Aging, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, Senior Centers, and senior Ombudsman offices.

Da Costa said 278 of the credentialed entities that have received the SAGECare training throughout the country are “other aging focused nonprofit and for-profit businesses.”

According to SAGE, there are 12 SAGECare credentialed elder care facilities or service providers operating in the D.C. metropolitan area, with two located in D.C. One of the D.C. facilities is Ingleside at Rock Creek, located in Northwest D.C., which is a residential facility. The other is Options for Senior America, a company that provides in-home care services for seniors, including seniors living in D.C.

A SAGE list of the D.C.-area SAGECare credentialed facilities shows that three are in Rockville, Md.; two are in Gaithersburg, Md.; and one each are in Bethesda, Md.; Arlington, Va.; and Alexandria, Va. The list shows that one of them that provides services to elders in the D.C. area is based in North Carolina.

SAGE has a separate list of the 15 elder care residential facilities in the U.S. created specifically to serve LGBTQ residents. 

None are in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. However, SAGE says it has been working in cooperation with Mary’s House for Older Adults, a D.C.-based LGBTQ organization that advocates for LGBTQ seniors and is in the process of opening LGBTQ elder residential facilities in D.C. and others in the surrounding suburbs.

Mary’s House founder and CEO Dr. Imani Woody couldn’t immediately be reached to determine when the organization expects to open its first residential facility. 

While a residential LGBTQ elder facility has yet to open in the D.C. area, activists note that in addition to Mary’s House, services and amenities for LGBTQ elders in the area are currently being provided by the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive health center, which also has a legal services branch.

Adams of SAGE said the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center opened the nation’s first LGBTQ elder residential facility over eight years ago called Triangle Square. He said the L.A. Center opened a second LGBTQ elder residential facility a short time later. And this week, the L.A. Center announced it has opened a third LGBTQ elder residential facility in Hollywood that is part of a larger “intergenerational campus” that will bring together LGBTQ seniors and LGBTQ youth. 

SAGE, meanwhile, operates two LGBTQ elder long-term care residential facilities in New York City, one in Brooklyn called the Stonewall House and one in the Bronx called Pride House. 

The other U.S. cities with LGBTQ elder residential facilities include: Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco (which has two such facilities), San Diego, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, and Islip, N.Y.

Adams said the LGBTQ elder residential facilities range in size, with the largest – New York’s Stonewall House – having 143 apartments that can accommodate 200 residents. He said others vary from 40 or 50 residential units to 120.

Advocates for LGBTQ elders point to what they consider another important breakthrough for LGBTQ elders this year in the release of a joint SAGE-Human Rights Campaign Long-Term Care Equality Index report for 2021. Adams said the report is the first of what could become an annual report and rating and scorecard for long-term care elder residential facilities and other elder facilities. 

The 2021 report includes a self-reporting assessment of elder care facilities that the facilities themselves completed through a questionnaire in which many disclosed they have LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies for elders around admission to the facility and for practices by staff for those residing in their facilities.

The report includes a chart showing that 158 elder care facilities in 31 states responded positively to the outreach to them by organizers of the Long-Term Care Equality Index.

“We are thrilled to be working with SAGE and to be working with the Human Rights Campaign who are developing the Long-Term Care Equality Index,” said Nii-Quartelai Quartey, who serves as senior adviser and LGBTQ liaison for the American Association of Retired Persons or AARP.

“There is a great deal of work that we’re doing in the area of LGBTQ older adults nationwide,” Quartey told the Blade. “And AARP has been engaged with the LGBTQ community nationwide for many years now,” he said.

“In recent years, we’ve turned up the volume in working more closely with organizations like SAGE and Lambda Legal and the Victory Fund Institute, the Center for Black Equity, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and the Hispanic Federation.”

According to Quartey, a recent AARP study of LGBTQ elders called Maintaining Dignity shows that longstanding concerns of discrimination remain despite the many advances in support for LGBTQ seniors in recent years.

He said a survey that was part of the study found that 67 percent of the LGBTQ elders who responded, “were concerned about neglect in a long-term care setting.” Over 60 percent feared verbal or physical harassment in a long-term care setting and over half “felt forced to hide or deny their identity” as an LGBTQ person, Quartey said.

Another recent survey of LGBTQ elders conducted by SAGE asking them how they feel about the use of the word “queer” in descriptions of LGBTQ people yielded findings that came as a surprise to some, according to Adams. A large majority of those surveyed from across the country said they are “comfortable at this point using that word and reclaiming that word, which is different from what we had heard historically,” Adams said.

He said in response to those findings SAGE will now as an organization gradually shift to using the term LGBTQ instead of its past practice of using LGBT.

Although Congress has yet to pass the Equality Act, last year under the Trump Administration, Congress acted in a rare bipartisan way to approve the required five-year reauthorization of the U.S. Older Americans Act with new language supportive of LGBTQ older adults. President Trump signed the legislation.

The language includes a mandate for outreach to and reporting about services provided to LGBTQ older adults in federally funded programs. It also opens the way for LGBTQ older adults to be designated in a category of “greatest social need.” Under that category, older adults receive a higher priority in the allocation of resources by the federal government.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go to get over the finish line,” said the AARP’s Quartey. “And aside from passing legislation federally and on the state and local level, we absolutely need to continue the hard work of changing hearts and minds,” he said.

Longtime gay activist and writer Brian McNaught, whose latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray – Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives,” was just released, says his own very informal survey of LGBTQ elders found there is a need for intimacy that may be too controversial for the establishment LGBTQ elder groups.

“I’m a SAGE volunteer and the 81-year-old man with whom I was working after his husband of 47 years died, said after his grieving process, ‘I want to be hugged and kissed. Does that make me a bad person?’”

McNaught told the Blade he assured the man those feelings do not make him a bad person. McNaught said the man’s comment prompted him to conduct further research, in which he found that some gay male elders in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area who often need assisted living support would like to patronize gay bathhouses or seek the services of an escort agency. He said he determined that any LGBTQ elder group providing such services would trigger “a huge uproar of protests” and most likely a loss of funding.

“We don’t want to talk about sexuality and aging,” McNaught said.

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Former VOA director nominated to head U.S. Agency for Global Media

Previous CEO’s actions threatened LGBTQ internet freedom

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(Public domain photo)

President Biden on Monday nominated Amanda Bennett, the former head of Voice of America and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

“I am honored by this nomination,” Bennett told Voice of America. “If confirmed, I will be so proud to work with all the dedicated journalists at USAGM who are doing the critical and difficult work around the world of upholding and demonstrating the value of a free press.”

The agency operates independently from the U.S. government and oversees five different entities that include Voice of America, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. The fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials, privacy enhancement and security tools like encryption.

These tools have been integral in preserving internet freedom for LGBTQ people abroad, especially in places where it’s unsafe or illegal to be LGBTQ.

Bennett, 69, was named VOA director in 2016 and resigned from her post in June 2020 after conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s CEO during the Trump administration.

Under Pack’s tenure, several technology freedom experts said the former CEO thwarted the Open Technology Fund’s efforts abroad by freezing funds. Pack also ignored a House subpoena for an oversight hearing that was meant for him to address mass firings, withholding congressionally approved funds and other questionable activities.

Pack stepped down at Biden’s request in January, and the president named Kelu Chao, a VOA veteran journalist, as Pack’s replacement and interim CEO.

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