Connect with us

homepage news

Puerto Rico marks Hurricane Maria anniversary

Activists remain highly critical of Trump response



Sept. 20, 2018, marked a year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Thursday marked one year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

The hurricane had winds of 155 mph when it made landfall near the city of Yabucoa on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast on Sept. 20, 2017. Maria’s eye passed over the municipalities of San Lorenzo, Caguas, Aguas Buenas, Comerío, Naranjito, Corozal, Morovis, Ciales, Manatí, Florida, Barceloneta and Arecibo before it moved offshore of Puerto Rico’s northern coast.

A hurricane-damaged house in La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 18, 2018. The house was in nearly the same condition on Jan. 29, 2018, with piles of debris in front of it. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

Hurricane Irma, which devastated St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands in the northeastern Caribbean, brushed Puerto Rico less than two weeks before Maria made landfall.

Sixty percent of Puerto Rico lost power during Irma. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. commonwealth were without electricity and/or running water for months after Maria.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his wife, Beatriz Rosselló, joined Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and hundreds of others at an event in Old San Juan that marked the anniversary of Maria. Flags flew at half staff at government buildings across Puerto Rico on Thursday.

The Associated Press reported a ceremony took place in Yabucoa at the exact moment that Maria made landfall a year ago. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Wednesday visited a photo exhibit in Old San Juan’s Columbus Square that showed pictures of Maria’s immediate aftermath and relief efforts in her city.

Grissel Bonilla, co-founder of Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other groups recover from Maria, and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, on Wednesday spoke at the Human Rights Campaign about the hurricane’s continued impact in Puerto Rico. Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, who grew up in Caguas, helped organize the event that benefitted Waves Ahead.

Ricky Santiago on Feb. 1, 2018, stands in what remains of his hair salon in Humacao, Puerto Rico, that Hurricane Maria destroyed. Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other groups
recover from Maria, helped Santiago rebuild his salon and turn it into his new home. Santiago was sitting in his living room on Sept. 19, 2018, when Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, visited him and his family. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

Situation ‘getting better’ in U.S. Virgin Islands

Waves Ahead’s other co-founder, Wilfred Labiosa, told the Blade this week in Puerto Rico that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and poverty have made LGBTI Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable since the hurricane.

Raymond Luis Rohena of the Puerto Rico Trans Youth Coalition and Brian Ínaru de la Fuente of La Sombrilla Cuir echoed Labiosa when they spoke with the Blade on Wednesday at a Starbucks in the San Juan suburb of Carolina.

Edgardo Rosario Rentas of Vieques Ready, a group that helps residents of Vieques, an island off the Puerto Rico mainland, prepare for hurricanes, said during a telephone interview the island is still on generator power. Rosario, a gay man who worked at a W resort before Maria, told the Blade there are still people on Vieques who are still living without electricity or running water.

“We’re trying to move forward,” he said. “The government is going slower than they should go.”

Grissel Bonilla, co-founder of Waves Ahead, an organization that has provided assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and people with HIV/AIDS after Hurricane Maria, drives her car under a damaged utility pole in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The other activists and HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade spoke in Puerto Rico — including Bill’s Kitchen Executive Director Sandy Torres, Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS Executive Director Rosaura López-Fontánez and Anselmo Fonseca of Pacientes de Sida Pro Política Sana — also said recovery efforts have been very slow.

Maria devastated St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands the day before it made landfall in Puerto Rico.

Lavonne Wise, an LGBTI activist who works for the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview that many people on her island, as in Puerto Rico, are still living in homes with blue tarps as temporary roofs. Wise also said she and her wife still do not have a landline or Internet connection at their home.

“Things are getting better,” she said. “We still got a ways to go.”

Trump ‘wrong’ to reject Maria death toll

President Trump’s response to Maria continues to spark widespread outrage in Puerto Rico.

Rosselló, who has faced his own scathing criticism over his government’s response to Maria, has been reluctant to publicly criticize Trump.

Rosselló earlier this month pushed back on Trump’s rejection of the results of a George Washington University study that attributed 2,975 deaths to Maria. Cruz told the Blade on Wednesday during an interview in Old San Juan that Trump’s decision to reject the hurricane’s official death toll in Puerto Rico is “despicable.”

“It shows that he’s unhinged from any sense of reality,” she said.

The White House on Thursday issued a fact sheet with a headline that says the Trump administration “helped lead a historic recovery effort in Puerto Rico.” It contained a one sentence statement attributed to Trump that acknowledged Maria’s anniversary.

“And we stand with Puerto Rico, and we are helping them to rebuild stronger and better than ever before,” he said.

Wise on Monday was highly critical of Trump’s response to Maria in Puerto Rico.

“It’s disgraceful that he needs to be right whether he’s right or not,” she said. “It’s a bit of an embarrassment and his need to be louder and righter than everybody else is embarrassment and waste of everyone’s time and energy.”

Rosario told the Blade that Trump is “wrong” to reject Maria’s death toll.

“PTSD after the hurricane was so big and the uncertainly among the people were so big, people are going to keep dying,” said Rosario. “There’s people on Vieques who still don’t have electricity. There’s people on Vieques who still don’t have running water.”

Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito speaks at a Waves Ahead event at the Human Rights Campaign that marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. (Washington Blade photo by Wyatt Reid Westlund)

Continue Reading

homepage news

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.”

Continue Reading

homepage news

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)

















Continue Reading

homepage news

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].

Continue Reading

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts