The former governor of Puerto Rico, the Hon. Ricardo Rosselló, in 2019 signed Executive Order EO-2019-16 that “partially” banned conversion therapy for minors on the island after the House of Representatives decided not to vote on Senate Bill 1000, which would have made these therapies illegal. The executive order requires all medical institutions applying for a license from the Health Department to guarantee that they will not offer conversion therapy. However, this is not enough to address the problem since the order is limited to the executive’s powers. Also, any future governor can repeal it, so it cannot be relied on to guarantee the protection that minors deserve. Although the EO does represent a positive advance to prohibit conversion therapies, it is vitally important to enact it into law to address them and expressly prohibit them. This legislation should be extended to the religious sector and mental health professionals to protect minors.
Different senators recently introduced Senate Bill 184 to expand protections for minors’ physical and mental health and prohibit the practice of conversion therapy against LGBTIQ+ people. The bill defines conversion therapy as a “practice or treatment provided by an entity or professional who is licensed or certified to provide mental health services that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity in an individual.” The definition includes any effort or treatment to change a person’s bodily behavior, expressions, or sexual orientation and eliminate or reduce romantic or sexual attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender. The bill identifies conversion therapy as a form of child abuse, including “institutional abuse,” as established in the Child Safety, Well-being and Protection Act of Puerto Rico. However, legislators keep debating the bill’s approval under the assumption these therapies do not happen on the island anymore.
Over the decades, conversion therapies used to “cure” homosexuality included hypnosis, lobotomies, inducing nausea, vomiting, paralysis, electric shock, chemical castration, among other things. In Puerto Rico, conversion therapies exist, and they are far from being what they once were in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Conversion therapies that are practiced today in Puerto Rico, the United States and around the world occur with the consent and the enforcement of the religious sector and health professionals with faith-based beliefs. We focus on our minors’ physical abuse, forgetting the emotional and psychological abuse that continues to occur in each corner of Puerto Rico, in doctor’s offices and churches. To forget this fact on purpose and use it to defend the non-existence of reparative therapies in Puerto Rico by our majority legislators (members of the Popular Democratic Party) is irresponsible and ignorant. It threatens the best welfare of our minors and their responsibility as state entities to ensure it.
In 2018, Senate Bill 1000 favored eliminating conversion therapies on the island. It would have allowed the survivors of these therapies to relate their experiences and traumatic processes to psychological clinics and churches. Several victims of these therapies told their stories during public hearings. Some of their stories are the following:
Survivor Caleb Esteban said that he received therapy at a counseling center when he was between 14- and 15-years-old. He later learned that the counselor had no education to give mental health treatment, but she was there because she was a church leader. He said that the therapy consisted of performing exorcism-type prayers to get rid of the “demons.”
Another survivor, Sofia Padrón, said she “was taken at 16 by my mother to a psychologist because I was attracted to women. The psychologist said that he treated me as a pastor, not as a psychologist, that same-sex attraction was a temporary phase and that I was confused. He told me that I couldn’t be happy and that my attraction to women was not normal …”
Alvín A. Rivera was 14 – and 15-years-old in 2014 and 2015 when he was taken by his mother to the church because he felt attracted to men. There, the pastor, who was also a psychologist, performed exorcisms to combat his homosexuality and charged his mother for these services. After several occasions, the pastor told Alvin and his mother that he “was cured” that he “had managed to free him from his demon.”
Alejandro Santiago between 2008-2013 attended his church. There, the pastor recommended fasting and long hours of praying to cure him of homosexuality and “not behaving as a man should behave.” The fasts began at 5 a.m. and ended at midnight. Sometimes they summoned the congregation of the church for a prayer circle to cure Alejandro of his homosexuality. Sometimes Alejandro stood in front of hundreds of people to claim the homosexuality demon had been released from his body. Alejandro suffered from depression and anxiety for many years after this. Today, he is a human rights activist.
The stories mentioned above are just a few of the many others happening in Puerto Rico every day. However, legislators persist in the narrative that conversion therapies do not exist in Puerto Rico. The new position of the legislators confirms again that the stigma and prejudices towards homosexuality continue. Unfortunately, this only creates more bigotry and more significant harm to the most vulnerable.
About 28 percent of LGBTQ youth who have undergone the above conversion therapies have attempted suicide, compared to 12 percent of LGBTQ youth who had not undergone conversion therapy, according to the Williams Institute. Suicide rates among LGBTQ youth who have undergone conversion therapies, such as the ones mentioned above, are extremely high, and these practices in Puerto Rico are a clear example of how the state fails to fulfill its duty to ensure the best welfare of our minors.
The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has upheld the state’s duty to protect minors on countless occasions. The constitutional right to religious freedom or parents’ power over their children is not absolute, and it yields to the state’s responsibility to ensure that our minors do not suffer from emotional abuse, such as those currently caused by reparative therapies on the island. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that these minors are protected, or we will continue to be responsible for the increase in numbers of depression and suicide in Puerto Rico. On three different occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decisions that allowed New Jersey’s anti-conversion therapy law to remain in effect. The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear challenges to California’s anti-conversion therapy law in May 2017 and in June 2014 it left in place decisions from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the law’s constitutionality.
There is extensive scientific evidence on the harm that conversion therapies do to minors, including those that not physically invasive. Conversion therapies constitute mistreatment of our children, and this must be established through legislation in Puerto Rico. Health professionals and members of the religious sector charge for these exorcism services, therapies, and spiritual sessions. Parents and minors themselves believe that they will have “a normal” life upon completion of these therapies. These practices promote depression, anxiety, and invalidation in our youth. They are not practices of love or an affirmation of the love of God, and they result in increased suicide rates and low self-esteem in our society. Our minors’ lives and their emotional state are again in Puerto Rico’s legislators’ hands. Hopefully, this time they will listen and vote to prohibit these tortures on the island.
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Bearing witness to the unimaginable
Israeli Embassy on Friday showed raw footage of Oct. 7 attack
(Editor’s note: This oped contains descriptions of graphic violence and depictions of anti-Semitism.)
We journalists all too often find ourselves in a position where it is necessary to bear witness to the unimaginable. One such moment happened on Friday.
The Israeli Embassy in D.C. invited me and five other journalists to watch raw footage of Hamas’s surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7 as it happened. Videos from that awful Saturday had already circulated on social media and appeared in news reports. I had seen many of them, so I did my best to brace myself for what I was about to see. Words cannot begin to describe the horror that we saw.
• Militants tried to decapitate a man with a garden hoe while he was still alive.
• A home security camera system in Netiv HaAsara, a settlement that borders Beit Lahiya, a town in the northern Gaza Strip, shows a man and two of his sons running to a bomb shelter. Militants a few seconds later threw a grenade into it. They brought the two boys back into the house. One militant took what looked like a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and drank from it before he put it back and walked away. One of the boys repeatedly asked his brother “Why am I alive?” before they escaped. Their mother returned with local security personnel and found her husband’s body in the bomb shelter’s entrance. (Embassy spokesperson Tal Naim told us after we watched the footage that militants killed the older son in Zikim, at a nearby kibbutz. The oldest of the two boys who survived the grenade attack lost vision in one eye.)
• A video showed militants throwing grenades into a bomb shelter in which people had taken shelter. One militant said the “dogs are scared.”
• A video shows militants throwing Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a 23-year-old American Israeli who was attending the Nova music festival in Re’im, a kibbutz that is roughly three miles from Gaza, into the back of a pick-up truck. A grenade that militants had thrown into a bomb shelter in which Goldberg-Polin and others had sought refuge severed part of his arm. The injury was clearly visible in the video.
• Body cameras that first responders wore when they arrived at the music festival after the attack recorded burned bodies in the back seat of a car and in nearby bushes.
• Videos that militants recorded show decapitated Israeli soldiers.
• The footage included pictures of charred bodies of babies and young children.
• Militants in Gaza recorded gunmen removing an injured woman from the trunk of a Jeep and forcing her into the backseat of a car.
The Israeli government has said roughly 1,200 people have been killed, including at least 260 people who militants murdered at the Nova music festival. The Israeli government also says more than 5,000 people have been injured in the country since the war began. Goldberg-Polin and Yarden Roman-Gat, whose gay brother, Gili Roman, spoke with the Washington Blade on Oct. 30 in D.C., are among the more than 200 people who are currently being held hostage in Gaza.
Hamas rockets have reached Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ben Gurion Airport, and other locations throughout Israel. Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah, another militant group, have exchanged fire across the Israel-Lebanon border.
The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says more than 13,000 people have died in the enclave since Oct. 7. The Israeli government has cut electricity and water to Gaza and has stopped nearly all food and fuel shipments.
Calls for a ceasefire growing louder
The footage that we watched was 43 minutes long and included videos that militants and their victims recorded on cell phones and GoPro cameras and clips from traffic cameras in southern Israel and CCTV. We were not allowed to bring cell phones into the room where we saw it.
A group of pro-Palestinian protesters was outside the embassy when we arrived. One woman who was standing a few feet away from us as we waited to go through security said she and her fellow protesters were “not there to make us feel comfortable” about what has happened to Palestinian civilians in Gaza since the war began.
• Dozens of premature newborn babies were inside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City when Israeli soldiers raided it last week. The IDF claims Hamas has an operational headquarters and tunnels underneath the hospital. The New York Times on Monday reported 28 of the babies who had been at the hospital are now receiving medical care in Egypt.
• The Committee to Project Journalists on Tuesday said 45 Palestinian journalists have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7.
• U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on Sunday said “the killing of so many people at schools turned shelters, hundreds fleeing for their lives from Al-Shifa Hospital amid continuing displacement of hundreds of thousands in southern Gaza are actions which fly in the face of the basic protections civilians must be afforded under international law.” Türk is among those who have called for a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the U.S. and around the world have increased since Oct. 7.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank have also stepped-up attacks against Palestinians.
The Israeli government clearly wants the world to understand the barbarity of what happened on Oct. 7, and that is why it has shown footage of that horrific Saturday to journalists and lawmakers. The footage left me deeply shaken, and perhaps that was the point.
LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kakuma continue to suffer
Refugee camp initially established as a safe haven
In the midst of the ongoing refugee crisis, it is crucial to shed light on the often overlooked and harrowing experiences of LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers.
Kakuma refugee camp, situated in Northwestern Kenya, is one such place where the struggle for survival is compounded by discrimination, fear and a lack of protection for the vulnerable individuals.
Kakuma refugee camp was initially established as a haven of hope for those fleeing persecution and violence. However, for LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers, the camp has become a living nightmare. In our countries of origin, we have faced unimaginable horrors including violence, discrimination and even death threats due to our sexual orientation or gender identity. Sadly, these challenges persist even within the camp walls.
We face relentless discrimination and stigmatization from our fellow refugees and the natives. We are often subjected to verbal and physical abuse which significantly impacts our mental health and well-being. The stigma attached to our sexual orientation or gender identity further isolates us from accessing essential services and support, leaving us in a state of vulnerability and despair.
Lack of protection and legal support
One of the most alarming aspects of the situation at the Kakuma refugee camp and Kenya-at-large is the absence of adequate protection and legal support for LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers. In many cases, we are denied access to asylum procedures or face prolonged delays due to our sexual orientation or gender identity. This leaves us in a state of limbo, vulnerable to exploitation and at risk of further persecution.
Additionally, governments and international organizations need to allocate more resources to ensure the safety and well-being of LGBTIQ folks in refugee camps. Legal frameworks must be in place to protect our rights and ensure access to asylum procedures without discrimination or prejudice.
The plight of LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers in the Kakuma refugee camp and Africa-at-large is a reminder of the urgent need for change and increased support for vulnerable populations. By addressing the discrimination and lack of protection we face, we can work towards creating a more inclusive and compassionate world for all individuals regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity. It is time to amplify our voices, acknowledge our struggles and work together to improve our lives.
Kieynan Gant is a refugee who lives in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.
A new day in Virginia
Democrats on Tuesday regained control of the House of Delegates
BY NARISSA RAHAMAN | Today is a new day in Virginia.
Across the commonwealth, Virginians came out in droves to vote for pro-equality candidates, gaining back pro-equality majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, which will serve as a solid, important check on the anti-LGBTQ+ actions of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his administration.
Virginians also elected the most openly LGBTQ+ officials to the General Assembly in its history, creating the largest, most diverse LGBTQ+ Caucus in the commonwealth. Let’s take a moment to welcome to the newest members of our LGBTQ+ Caucus, Dels.-elect Adele McClure, Rozia Henson, Joshua Cole and Laura Jane Cohen, and congratulate Sen.-elect Danica Roem for once again making history. Tuesday’s results show that Virginians aren’t just pro-equality; Virginians are invested in electing candidates whose identities and values match the broad diversity of our population — whether you are gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, pansexual, Black or Asian. We are so thrilled to be able to protect and expand the rights of LGBTQ+ Virginians with these incoming elected officials, whose steadfast support of their own community will be a welcome and important presence in the General Assembly for many years to come. Thank you for helping create a General Assembly that is more reflective of the beauty of our community and the promise of our commonwealth.
These results show what we already knew: Extremist, anti-equality candidates don’t win elections. We are looking forward to working with them in the upcoming session to secure and expand our rights and protect our lives and livelihoods. On the heels of a session in which lawmakers introduced the most anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the legislature’s history, it’s more important than ever to fill the halls of the General Assembly with pro-equality champions, and we’re thrilled that we’ve done just that.
On the heels of the governor’s anti-transgender model policies we are seeing right-wing, anti-LGBTQ+ school board candidates lose their races. The Spotsylvania School Board, which was the first school board to adopt the governor’s model policies this year, flipped. Many first-time candidates won their races, after running on the importance of protecting trans students. In Albemarle County, Allison Spillman (a mother of a trans kid in public schools) defeated Meg Bryce (the daughter of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.) Candidates who boldly ran on protecting LGBTQ+ kids won, across the commonwealth, after a year of anti-trans policies and rhetoric from Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his administration. The results of these local races, many yet to be called, will provide us with a roadmap to defeating Gov. Youngkin’s anti-trans education policy.
Elections don’t solve everything. They are one tool we use in our toolbox to achieve liberation for our community. Anti-equality lawmakers, even in the face of last night’s defeat, will be more emboldened to wage baseless attacks against our community in the hopes of grabbing back the power voters rightfully denied them on election night. We’ll continue to remain vigilant — during the General Assembly session and school board meetings — while reminding ourselves that we are better positioned to defeat anti-LGBTQ+ attacks.
Let’s continue to care for our community by showing up, speaking out, sharing our stories and living our lives openly, authentically and unapologetically.
Today we celebrate, tomorrow we get back to work.
Narissa Rahaman is the executive director of Equality Virginia.
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