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Gay Puerto Rico hairdresser rebuilding hurricane-ravaged home, salon

Volunteers spent Memorial Day with Ricky Santiago



Ricky Santiago sits in his salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Hurricane Maria, is working with Santiago and his family. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was in Puerto Rico from May 24-28 to volunteer with Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Hurricane Maria.

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico — A gay hairdresser in Puerto Rico who the Washington Blade profiled earlier this year says the situation for him and his family has improved “a lot” since electricity was restored at their home.

“They are happier,” Ricky Santiago told the Blade on May 25 during an interview at his family’s home in the Candelero Arriba neighborhood of Humacao, a city on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast that is less than an hour’s drive from the island’s capital of San Juan. “They have changed little by little like me.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall near Humacao on Sept. 20, 2017, with 155 mph winds.

Maria caused extensive damage to the second floor of Santiago’s family’s house in which he was living. Maria also destroyed Santiago’s hair salon that was in the backyard.

Ricky Santiago stands outside the second floor of his family’s house in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Electricity was restored to Santiago’s home on March 31. Santiago laughed when he pointed out electricity was restored at his sister’s home in a nearby neighborhood the day before he spoke with the Blade.

“She came here like a crazy woman and said, ‘I have power! I have power, after eight months,” he recalled.

Handwritten signs the Blade saw throughout Humacao over the weekend indicate people still do not have electricity more than eight months after Maria made landfall. Damaged utility poles and houses with temporary roofs — blue tarps or “techos azules” in Puerto Rican Spanish — remain commonplace throughout Santiago’s neighborhood.

The Puerto Rican government says Maria killed 64 people on the island, but estimates indicate the death toll is likely much higher.

The New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday reported researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the University of Colorado School of Medicine and other institutions have concluded Maria may have killed an estimated 4,645 people. The New England Journal of Medicine reported researchers have concluded the “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates” in the three months after the hurricane made landfall.

Santiago using FEMA money to repair family’s house

Santiago is currently living with his mother, his father who has been bedridden for 15 years, two of his aunts and three Chihuahuas on the first floor of the family’s house. Santiago sleeps on a twin size mattress that he places on the living room floor each night.

Santiago received $6,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair his family’s house and salon, which FEMA determined was part of his home. FEMA denied Santiago’s mother’s request for assistance because it concluded Maria did not damage the first floor of the house that it determined is her home, even though water caused extensive damage to the concrete ceiling after portions of the second floor’s roof blew away.

Exposed rebar in the living room ceiling remains clearly visible.

Santiago and his mother used the money he received from FEMA to remove what was left of the house’s second floor and seal the floor to prevent water from seeping through the ceiling. They have also painted the walls and repaired the gutters in order to reduce the risk of flooding.

“It’s going well,” Santiago told the Blade on Friday. “We have power and the water is going well.”

Santiago has turned a covered patio along the side of his family’s house into his salon. Santiago is converting the building in which his salon was located before Maria into his new home.

Waves Ahead, San Juan mayor to open LGBT elders center

Waves Ahead earlier this month launched ReconstruyeQ, a campaign that is helping Santiago’s family and nine other families in the U.S. commonwealth repair their homes and replace furniture and other items they lost during the storm. Waves Ahead is also working with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and her administration to open a community center for LGBT elders.

Wilfred Labiosa and Grissel Bonilla, who co-founded Waves Ahead, met with Cruz on May 23. Human Rights Campaign Foundation Director of Faith Outreach and Training Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, who grew up in the city of Caguas that is located outside of San Juan, is among those who also attended the meeting.

“An agreement to collaborate with the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan to secure a restored location in the city that will serve as a base for the first community center for Puerto Rico’s older LGBT community was discussed,” said Cruz in a press release, according to Primera Hora, a Puerto Rican newspaper.

Ricky Santiago and Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, executive director of Intersections International, a New York-based LGBT-affirming ministry, stand inside what was once Santiago’s hair salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Waves Ahead posted to its Twitter account pictures of the meeting with Cruz.

Help from Waves Ahead, volunteers ‘tremendous’

Construction crews earlier this month installed a new roof on Santiago’s new home.

Santiago over the Memorial Day weekend helped volunteers from the Human Rights Campaign and other groups paint the walls. Waves Ahead and its volunteers also bought Santiago a new bed, a dining room table and chairs, a medicine cabinet and shelves.

Waves Ahead volunteers with Ricky Santiago, first row, fourth from left, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 25, 2018. Waves Ahead is helping Santiago and his family repair their home that Hurricane Maria damaged. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Santiago told the Blade he hopes to be able to move into his new home in the coming days.

He said Waves Ahead and the volunteers who have helped him and his family have been “tremendous.” Santiago became emotional as he talked with the Blade about the assistance that he and his family have received.

“It is an experience that I will have in my heart until I die,” he told the Blade.

Santiago’s mother on Sunday said as she sat in her living room with two of Santiago’s aunts and two of the family’s three Chihuahuas that Santiago would have “nothing” if Waves Ahead and its volunteers were not helping him.

The mattress on which Santiago is sleeping was along one of the walls and his clothes were draped over the top of it as she spoke with the Blade. One of Santiago’s aunts on May 26 began to cry as she talked her family’s experience during Maria.

Hurricane season begins on Friday.

Many structures in La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, still have temporary roofs — “techos azules” in Spanish — more than eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami



Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)


MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

















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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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