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A failed commitment to promote LGBTQ-inclusive education in Puerto Rico

Island has highest rate of gender-based violence in country

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Gender identity, gender expression, identity, biological identity, transgender women, trans masculinity and machismo, among other things, cannot be mentioned within Puerto Rico’s public system right now. Is this another version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill? No, but it’s not too far from it. The above is happening in Puerto Rico, the territory with the highest rates of gender-based violence in the entire country.

Puerto Rico Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos on March 10 signed a circular letter (Number 032-2021-2022): Equity and respect among all human beings that create a curriculum of gender equity within the public instruction system. The approval of this circular letter happened after a written commitment adopted in the Executive Order 2021-013 from 2021, where Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency on the island because of gender-based violence. Puerto Rico has the highest rate of crimes against women, trans people and the LGBT+ community in the U.S. After the alarming rates on the island and years of continuous claims from human rights organizations, the government of Puerto Rico decided to declare an emergency in the territory.

The executive order from 2021 created the Committee for the Prevention, Support, Rescue and Education (PARE) to draft a curriculum to address gender-based violence. The purpose of the curriculum was to influence Puerto Rico’s public education system regarding inequity among genders and create a new interdisciplinary concept of a gender perspective for future generations. Unfortunately, Ramos didn’t sign a gender perspective education circular letter as required by Executive Order 2021-013, but issued a letter that does not meet the department’s current needs and our Puerto Rican society related to the gender-based violence that our island has been suffering for decades. It is just another useless public policy.

The recent approval of the circular letter is a mockery of a decade of effort and hard work from feminist organizations against gender-based violence and an apparent contradiction to the commitment made by Pierluisi to develop a curriculum with a gender perspective in the Jan. 25 executive order. When we speak of a gender perspective, we refer to a conceptual tool that seeks to show that the differences between women and men occur not only because of their biological determination but also because of cultural differences. The purpose of education with a gender perspective is to question the stereotypes with which we are educated and open the possibility of developing new concepts and solving the social imbalances between the genders. In short, the gender perspective seeks to modify the social structures that reproduce inequality, inequity, discrimination, prejudice, and violence; and achieve true gender equality. But to achieve this, it needs to be done in a transversal, intersectional, holistic and multidisciplinary way within the Department of Education. Not through another nice “statement.”

The circular letter approved on March 10 went from a curriculum that sought to address inequalities based on biological and cultural differences and gender identities to becoming one more public policy of values and principles. Everything changed when Ramos decided to negotiate with the senator of the Dignity Project (Religious Party), Joanne Rodríguez Veve, and the New Progressive Party (NPP). Among the changes achieved by the faith-based sector were ignoring and removing the existence of the concepts of gender expression and identities. According to the faith-based sector, concepts that promote homosexuality and distance us from the traditional (“normal”) family. The gender perspective, if approved, sought that our students could begin to educate themselves on the importance of understanding that there is nothing wrong with having gender identities that are not consistent with cultural concepts and stereotypes imposed on them by our society. An education that teaches us that colors, clothes, toys, jobs, sports, professional aspirations, behaviors, ways of speaking, expressing ourselves, walking, interacting, thinking, accessing services, strengths, access, learning, values, quality of a person, intelligence, thoughts and limitations should never be defined by your gender or your biology.

When we compare Republican states in the U.S., such as Florida, which recently passed legislation (“Don’t Say Gay”) that prohibits the use of the word “gay” in public institutions, you realize that Puerto Rico is not far from it. Why did Ramos agree to this negotiation? Why did he walk away from his true calling to do justice to our students? Was it a quid pro quo to be confirmed by Puerto Rico’s Senate? We don’t know. Unfortunately, today we go back again after so many years of effort and work. It is unfortunate that instead of choosing to change generations and create a better society, the secretary of education decided to continue perpetuating the ignorance of our culture. It is unfortunate that the secretary of education, instead of putting himself on the right side of history and with his actions helping to eradicate future gender-based violence based on a macho concept and patriarchy attached to our society, decided to look to the side. He chose to ignore the deaths of hundreds of women whose memories cry out for justice, natural justice, not fictitious, not another worthless piece of paper that will be useless like the thousands of circular letters approved by the department throughout the decades.

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Club Q another example of how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric leads to the death of queer, trans folks

The LGBTQ community deserves to feel safe from hate and violence

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It was 7:15 a.m. and I had just landed after traveling across the country from working with my military unit. My phone started ringing. “Did you see it? and “How are you feeling?” were the messages that started pouring in. Then I saw the news: “Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ Club Q Shooting.” I was struck with the same feeling I had seeing the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting – fear and horror.

In 2016, I was still struggling with finding enough self-love to share my sexual identity. I vividly remember watching my parents’ television as the details of the shooting rolled in. I felt like coming out would put me at risk for further hate and unfathomable violence. For those who do not have a strong support system, small online acts of hateful rhetoric can deter someone from their journey to acceptance and happiness. At that moment, I was too young to understand the full extent of these actions but one thing was perfectly clear – the LGBTQ+ community is hated for simply existing.

I’m a soldier in the U.S. Army. I choose to put on the uniform to help protect the people of our country and at times, the hateful actions committed by fellow Americans has made me feel powerless. The idea of a “war zone” should only be familiar to soldiers like myself, not children in a school or people looking to have a fun night with their friends at a bar or club.

A few times over the past 24 hours, I found myself pondering the same question: “How can the sheer existence of queer and trans people be viewed as such a threat to others that they resort to murder?” The simple answer is that our society has allowed for this type of rhetoric to receive attention and sometimes even praise. As a result, five people in Colorado Springs were killed and 25 injured at an LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q. In a heroic attack, two unarmed citizens inside the club stopped the gunman to protect others. These men were not armed with heavy weaponry, but rather a will to live and bravery in their hearts. If these civilians were able to act so quickly here, I wonder why the police had to wait for more than an hour to intervene in Uvalde.

Many Americans are now numb to the news of gun violence. For the past few years, we have watched our lawmakers stand impotently and choose their political party over protecting human beings. Sandy Hook seemed unimaginable and like a bad dream. When we saw that there was little action taken by lawmakers in the wake of six-year-old children being slaughtered in their elementary school classrooms, my heart was shattered. Today, nearly a decade later, there has been little to no movement on legislation to combat horrific gun violence. Instead of Congress taking action, American people have witnessed more than 27 additional mass shootings in schools alone and thousands more injured and/or killed.

From Pulse, to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ remarks on Obergefell vs. Hodges, to book bans (including one in my hometown), to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill being proposed nationally, I am worried that we are being pushed backwards in time. More than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced this year and there have been more than a dozen attacks on our community. This mass shooting came on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, directly threatening the safety and existence of those who are simply trying to be themselves. In the recent midterm elections, candidates ran on anti-LGBTQ platforms, categorized members of our community as “groomers,” and directly invalidated our existence. Although they did not pull the trigger, these politicians have ignited bigotry and homophobia to the point where their words are now weaponized.

These survivors are now going to be faced with mental health struggles, likely including post-traumatic stress, which will directly affect their daily lives. Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work with those struggling from traumatic experiences by using sound bytes to counteract feelings of fear and anxiety. Through my work in this field, I know the mental journey that these Club Q survivors are about to endure. I hope that anyone who is struggling knows that there are resources out there to help.

Today, I use my voice as an activist to work with victims of gun violence and those in the LGBTQ+ community who have been affected by hateful actions to remind people that we are human – just like them. The families of gun violence deserve better. The LGBTQ+ community deserves to feel safe from hate and violence. Children’s families deserve better. We as humans deserve better. We want effective policy and change over “thoughts and prayers.” The louder we resist, the weaker hate and fear become.

Brian Femminella is a Gen-Z LGBTQ+ activist and tech entrepreneur. He is an outspoken voice in the queer and trans community, including through his work in the military as an Army Officer.

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Commentary

My suicide ideation: A journey to self-love

It is much harder for those of us on the margins

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Jessica Arends is a writer who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.

(Editor’s note: This piece is a response to last week’s Blade cover story by David Lett recounting his suicide attempt. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, call 988 or one of many LGBTQ-specific advocacy groups offering support. If you would like to share your own story of overcoming isolation, depression, or suicidal ideation, email us at [email protected].)

Perhaps it was the grinding loneliness of the pandemic, but about two years ago my fantasies of being with women became daily distractions. I could not be fully present with my husband and felt a constant tug for something more, something outside of a life I had spent 18 years cultivating. I lived in a constant cycle of fantasy, guilt, denial, back to fantasy.  

My supportive husband was willing to try an open marriage, but non-monogamy did not agree with my Christian upbringing. Then, as most stories go, I met someone. She was funny, attractive, and OK with the situation, so we gave it a shot. Each date sailed me up into unprecedented heights and hollowed out an equally deep pit of despair. “Yes! I am like this. . . Oh, dear God, I am really like this!” It was like coming home to who you knew you always were only to find you were now among those most judged, wicked, and despised. With each queer book we read and lesbian drama we watched, I discovered deep and integral parts of me debilitated and atrophied by shame. They started to heal.

The more these parts of me solidified, the more other parts unraveled. A cascade of questions and doubts plagued me. If I was not heterosexual, what else was not true about me? Was my life just a string of acts meant to fulfill social expectations? My career, education, even my friends. Was I me or just performing someone not me for others? The great irony of living by the rules of others is that we live for no one. Without the willingness to bravely share who I truly was, no matter how broken, that primal quest for connection, love and belonging would never be satisfied.

Hence I navigated that precarious path of how out to be — how to stay honest to myself but not cause discomfort. My husband remained open, but my late nights and emotional distance took a great toll on our relationship. I would return home to neatly folded laundry, well-prepared meals and enormous guilt. It was liberating and devastating all at once.

Staying with my husband seemed impossible, but the fear of being alone and rejected from family at age 45 was unbearable. This innate thing inside of me was destroying my life. I imagined cutting myself open and tearing out those parts, but when I looked closely I found they were inseparable — my queerness is fully entwined with my heart, head, and gut. I broke under the weight of this agony and spent weeks in and out of crying spells.

One day I found myself down by the tracks. The sound of a train thundering by broke through my numbness. With a few steps, I could surrender and be free from this torment. I stepped through the thin line of brush that separated me from the tracks. They seductively glistened in the sunlight. Relief. Yes, the final silence of death could take away everything.

Another train raced by, the horn deafening. The blast of wind pushed me away. I collapsed sobbing. I needed help if I was going to survive this. 

Thanks to therapy, acupuncture, yoga, LGBTQ support groups and caring friends and family, I am slowly opening the door to self-love. It is much harder for those of us on the margins. The love from others is no substitute, be they a long-time partner, new girlfriend or family member. Unlearning my self-hatred meant letting go of the deeply held but deeply flawed promises of the straight life: be they heteronormativity, monogamy, gender conformity, the picket fence  — you name it. I had to break my own heart. Only then I could truly love myself.

Jessica Arends is a writer and artist.

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Opinions

Left-wing candidates hurt Democratic Party

We will lose more elections if we nominate socialists

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran for and lost the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. President. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

We are seeing time and time again how left-wing candidates are hurting the Democratic Party. While I agree with much of what some like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are supporting, we are seeing left-leaning candidates supported by them losing in the general election in most of the country. 

While Trumpers are so much worse in what they stand for, the one similarity we are seeing, as we did in the mid-term elections, is these candidates also can’t win a general election.  The reality is, the majority of the country is moderate. In fact, in many areas the general election voter is moderate-leaning right.  

We witnessed that last year in the Buffalo, N.Y. mayor’s race where a Democratic Socialist won the Democratic primary, and then was defeated in the election by a write-in moderate Democrat. In New York City the moderate candidate, Eric Adams, won the mayor’s race. 

In the mid-term elections we have seen the same thing. A left-wing candidate can win a Democratic primary, then lose in the general election. James Hohmann recently wrote about this in the Washington Post in a column titled “The Democrats have a ‘candidate quality’ problem, too.” He wrote, “Consider the 5th Congressional District of Oregon. Leading Republican and Democratic operatives agree that Rep. Kurt Schrader would have handily won reelection if he’d made it to the general in a district Biden carried by nine points. But he didn’t. Instead, a more liberal Democrat, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, won the nomination in May and then lost the seat to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer last week by 8,500 votes.” Another example he uses is “Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) narrowly beat back a primary challenge from his left in the primary and then easily won in the fall. In a neighboring district of the Rio Grande Valley, however, outspoken liberal Michelle Vallejo beat a moderate by just 30 votes in a primary runoff. Then she lost to Republican Monica De La Cruz by nine points. The GOP picked up a number of seats in New York state under similar circumstances.” I would propose Alessandra Biaggi’s primary against Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), supported by AOC, cost him the seat in the general election in the new 17th district in New York. 

It’s good that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who will most likely be the new Minority Leader, is a moderate. There is a story on ABC News about the potential new leadership of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives. “Jeffries, first elected in 2012, has long been considered Pelosi’s heir apparent, rising through the ranks to land a perch in the party’s House leadership.”

In a statement after Pelosi’s speech on Thursday, he called her “the most accomplished” speaker in the country’s history but did not allude to his own plans. A 52-year-old descendant of enslaved people, Jeffries could be a potential history-maker himself if Democrats retake the House in future cycles: He would be the first Black speaker. Jeffries has a reputation as a capable operator inside the conference with sharp media skills to sell a Democratic message to the public (and a penchant for referencing Biggie Smalls in floor speeches). However, he could face some opposition from the most vocal progressives in the House, who labeled him a centrist. “I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now. That’s been my career, that’s been my journey and it will continue to be as I move forward for however long I have an opportunity to serve. There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” he told The Atlantic last year.”

It could easily be concluded Democrats lost the Wisconsin Senate seat because the disgusting incumbent, Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), could tie his Democratic challenger to the ‘Squad’ and bring up his original support of the slogan ‘defund the police’. While some will say newly elected Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman was also tagged with the left, he was lucky he had such a crazy Trump supported Republican like Dr. Oz to run against, and a moderate Democratic candidate for governor, Josh Shapiro, on the ticket who won big. 

If Democrats are to retake the House and win the presidency in 2024, we will need moderate congressional candidates and a moderate to head the ticket. He/she/they can be for moving forward legislation on climate change, LGBTQ equality, choice, and a host of other issues that progressives like; but they can’t be seen as left-wing or socialist. If they are, Democrats will lose. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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