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.
Supreme Court: What we know is bad enough. What should we do?
If you want a better Supreme Court, if you want better policies, if you want a better democracy, you must vote and get others to vote
As the shock of actually seeing a Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade sunk in, reporters and many concerned people once again started asking me whether the Republican Party and the Supreme Court it has packed with agenda-driven justices pose a threat to same-sex couples’ freedom to marry, which we won through a decades-long campaign. My one-word answer was and is: vote.
When an alarm sounds and there’s a fire in your kitchen, you don’t sit back and debate whether it might spread to the bedroom. You fight the fire.
Don’t waste time and energy sitting around cataloguing all the many additional bad things that might happen. What’s happening right now, to women, to all of us, is bad enough – and we can do something about it. We can elect representatives who will defend the rights of Americans and strengthen our democracy, who will pass legislation to protect voting rights and reproductive rights (and elections, economic opportunity, racial justice, and more), and who will select judges and justices who are faithful to the Constitution, not to theocratic ideology, partisan or shadowy funders’ regressive agendas, or an oligarchic wealth and power grab. We can vote out the elected officials who are dividing Americans to distract and demoralize them, foisting their unpopular minority views on our pluralistic people, driving our country into a ditch.
Those who would roll back the clock on America’s progress, and even undermine American democracy itself, didn’t succumb to despair, cynicism, apathy, or inaction, and nor should we. We can mobilize and turn out. We can overcome obstacles. We can reclaim power.
Who gets elected makes a difference.
Republican senators, led by Mitch McConnell, stole a Supreme Court seat (now filled by Neil Gorsuch). They railroaded through a second Trump nominee (Brett Kavanaugh) without meaningfully investing his sketchy past (not just the credible charges of lying about a sexual assault, but Kavanaugh’s paper-trail while in government and even his finances and the unresolved question of who paid off his debts). They ruthlessly (and hypocritically) seated a third Trump nominee (Amy Barrett) literally in the middle of an election. They pretended to believe that these nominees would respect precedent. And, of course, it was Republican presidents who packed the Supreme Court with litmus-tested ideologues; would Hillary Clinton have appointed the three right-wingers that Trump did? Would Al Gore have chosen the likes of Samuel Alito?
Voting, or not choosing to turn out to vote, has consequences.
The justices installed by Republican presidents who didn’t even win the popular vote have gutted voting rights, subverted labor organizing, shifted the rules of the economy to favor the wealthy, carved out special licenses to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom, impeded progressive and pro-environment actions of government (intended to be, as FDR put it, our people’s “greatest single instrument of cooperative self-help”), and now, come after women’s empowerment and health.
No political party, no politician, is perfect, but the difference between the Democrats and Republicans today could not be starker – not just because they differ radically on matters of policy, but because the primary difference is now that one is the Democratic Party and the other is anti-democracy itself.
And the difference between heading in the right direction and the dark place American politics is in right now can turn on as small a number as two: If there were two more Democratic senators, notwithstanding Republican obstruction and Trumpist lies, the Senate would dispense with the filibuster and follow the House in passing legislation to safeguard our elections and Americans’ right to vote, assure access to abortion, reform policing, invest in the middle class, extend the Child Tax Credit, address the need for safety in the face of the insane prevalence of guns, and so much more. Urgently needed reforms to protect and reinvigorate our Republic, including Supreme Court expansion, would be on the table as correctives or at least deterrents (full disclosure: I am on the advisory board of Take Back the Court). President Biden and progressives (who right now are leading effectively despite having zero political margin) would be delivering much more on what they ran on, what a majority voted for, and the country would be moving forward faster.
If you want a better Supreme Court, if you want better policies, if you want a better democracy, you must vote and get others to vote.
Justice Alito in his draft rightly notes that in some ways, abortion is different from other questions, and professes that that distinguishes the right to choose an abortion, which the majority takes away, from other rights, such as the freedom to marry without restriction based on race or sex. “We emphasize,” Justice Alito writes in his draft, “that our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right. Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”
Analysts are right not to believe him. He and Justice Clarence Thomas, at least, have indicated their absolute desire and intention to go after the freedom to marry as well as other basic rights, including contraception. Justice Alito’s draft contains an attack on the very idea that the Constitution protects an underlying liberty (sometimes denoted as our right to privacy, or our right to autonomy); the “unenumerated” right that the Court has invoked to affirm American’s freedom to make important life-defining choices, such as when and whether to bear a child, or to have sex, or whether and whom to marry.
Justice Alito pretends that because the word “abortion” is not in the Constitution, it is not protected. (The Constitution also does not contain the word “marriage” – or, for that matter, the words “freedom,” “education,” “corporation,” or “judicial review”). What the Ninth Amendment does say, of course, is “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
That clear constitutional text won’t be enough to stop Justices Alito and Thomas. But the fact that they may be ready to roll back the gains of the past fifty or more years, or overturn the New Deal, doesn’t mean there are five votes to fully adopt the specious, fraudulent attack on Americans’ underlying liberty that the draft opinion sketched out, or to follow it to where he might want to go.
More than a million gay people have gotten legally married in the US. We didn’t win marriage as a gift from the Court; we mobilized, organized, persuaded, shared our stories, fought, and worked for decades to change hearts and minds, and then the law. We won in legislatures, in state courts and then federal, at the ballot, and in millions of personal conversations. When I wrote my law school thesis in 1983 advocating for the freedom to marry, polls showed support at 11%. We grew that to 63% by the time we went for the win at the Supreme Court in 2015, and support has widened and deepened since. The latest polls now show support for the freedom to marry at 70%, including majority support even among those over 65, even among those still willing (despite Trump, despite Putin) to identify themselves as Republicans. We won by overcoming losses, and turning no into yes.
There are many reasons to hope that the freedom to marry victory remains secure – even while there is reason, of course, to fear.
But, again, we shouldn’t be sitting around cataloguing, fretting, or waiting in dread of additional bad things. Trump and his enablers are mounting a continuing coup attempt. Extreme candidates threaten to take power in states and in the House. And now looms the despicable prospect of a constitutional right such as a woman’s right to choose – embedded in the law and our lives for nearly half a century – being cynically stripped away, with all the harm that will inflict on women, children, and families. We know enough already.
Instead of worrying about whether the freedom to marry is at risk, we must heed the call to action already upon us. By taking action now, above all by winning elections, we will best undo damage and move our country forward, the best protection for all that we we care about.
Evan Wolfson led the campaign to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. Since victory in 2015, he advises and assists diverse movements in the US on “how to win,” as well as activists seeking to win marriage in other countries worldwide.
Dispatch from Kyiv
Intersex activist remains in Ukrainian capital with mother
War came to our house suddenly and severely. It was brought by a cruel and ruthless aggressor: Russia.
More than 10 million Ukrainians were forced to seek refuge around the world, where it is much safer today. My elderly mother and I stayed in Kyiv because she needs daily help and support, and she can’t move far from home because of her poor health.
It is not easy for an intersex person to live in Ukraine, even in peacetime, but in times of war it is even tougher. Moreover, without the appropriate ID (passport) that corresponds with my gender and appearance, it is nearly impossible for me to leave the country.
More than 10 years have passed since I began my struggle to get a correct document, but today the lack of one creates for me a real danger. During the occupation of Bucha and Irpin and other cities we lost touch with some our intersex colleagues. We do not know what happened to them, and for me it’s very scary because as it turned out I live just 10 km from the frontlines.
I am well-known to the Russians because of my activism, and as it turned out they are not tolerant of Ukrainians. I know that they are even more cruel towards people like me. They also slaughter LGBTIQ people; torturing them before killing them.
Julia Pustovit is the head of Egalite Intersex Ukraine, the first intersex rights organization in Ukraine. Pustovit lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with her mother.
LGBTQ Ukrainians will do our best to resist Russia
Putin invading country with ‘traditional values’
Today I woke up at 5 a.m. because of the massive attack on our cities from Russia. Nobody in Ukraine can still believe it is happening right now. I got dozens of messages and calls from different regions, from people who are asking me what to do, and I didn’t have any answers. It took us few hours to collect information on different regions and cities and members of our LGBTQI+ communities there.
We have branches in 11 regions, including Kramatorsk, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, which are located in eastern Ukraine. We started to collect names of those who must be relocated immediately.
So why it is so dangerous for LGBTQI+ people to stay under possible occupation?
Russia is coming with its “traditional values” and will be hunting us, those who are dangerous for their evil empire. I heard they already have lists of activists who will be persecuted first and I am sure that LGBTQI+ activists are on those lists.
We already had a similar situation in 2014, when Russia occupied our territories and many people were forced to leave their homes. Many of them were LGBTQI+ people, who told us they were hunting them and some were killed or disappeared.
In 2014 we opened a shelter for LGBTQI+ internally displaced persons in Kyiv. This time it seems we do not have any place to go and we want to protect our homeland from occupants. Therefore, the situation is difficult and nobody knows what will be next and who will survive. We are doing what we can do now: Providing psychological support to people, opening a hotline for consultations and asking international communities to somehow help us. But it seems these instruments don’t work anymore in the world and we must fight this stupid war on our own.
I think the international community needs to realize that it’s not just some war in Eastern Europe. It is the start of a huge international crisis and possible war all over Europe. The Russian president clearly showed he doesn’t care about international obligations, rules or sanctions anymore. He will continue and never stop.
We are living in very interesting times in which a new story is being made, and this is not only our Ukrainian history, but also in the geopolitical history of the world. Existing international institutions and existing mechanisms for deterring and maintaining peace have proved imaginary. When I say imaginary, it does not mean that they do not exist. This means that they are not effective. They help only if you believe in them and hold on to that faith. In essence, we need to rethink this and create other, new and working mechanisms, and here Ukraine must show its strength to others.
Jokes about “deep concern” are no longer funny. We understand that this is the maximum of what an imaginary democratic world can give us now. In recent days, our international partners have been writing to me almost every minute, many of them asking if we have a crisis plan in place, and, if not, when will we develop it. I want to tell everyone again: What plan can work in the event of a full-scale invasion? (We do not have planes to take people to a safe place, as you did.) In any case, we remain to defend ourselves and our country and will continue to help people. Our activists from the LGBTQI+ communities are staying and keep working, providing support to the most marginalized ones. Honestly, I don’t know how long we will be able to resist, but we will do our best for sure.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones. Everything will be fine!
Olena Shevchenko is the chair of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ rights group. Shevchenko lives in Kyiv, Ukraine.
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