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The illegal status of Puerto Rican queers makes them, in a way, the most Puerto Rican of all Puerto Ricans.

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Vieques: Puerto Rico Under Fire
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Vieques and Queers:
Common Ground

by Kelly Cogswell and Ana Simo

JUNE 9, 2000. In Puerto Rico, any perfectly respectable citizen caught having sex with someone of the same gender can be sent to the slammer for 10 years. And someone living in Vieques can get cancer at a rate 27% higher than someone living elsewhere in Puerto Rico, or could even get blown to smithereens by an errant U.S. Navy bomb. If you're queer and Viequense, you'll probably need a good lawyer.

Of course Puerto Rican authorities fatuously claim that hardly anyone has ever done time under their imported, typically Anglo-Saxon sodomy law, and that only one guy has ever been blasted into the hereafter by a bomb on Vieques. But the sodomy law is as entrenched in the legal system as the U.S. Navy is on Vieques, and both are a sword of Damocles hanging over the respective populations. Oppressing, abusing, and humiliating them. Keeping them in line.

Puerto Rican Pride
Amparo Fidalgo, a speaker at Puerto Rico's June 4 Gay Pride rally at Luis Muñoz Rivera Park, knows the score. "Just as we demand peace for our bombarded, contaminated, and abused Vieques, we demand peace for lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual and transgendered people bombarded with taunts, contaminated with homophobia, abused by violence," she told a cheering crowd.

Fidalgo asked them, among other things, to persist in demanding the repeal of the Puerto Rico sodomy law. Nicaragua is the only other Latin American nation with a sodomy law. The U.S. itself has 16 states with sodomy laws. Among the former British colonies in the Caribbean, a whopping 8 have sodomy laws.

Enforced, or not, the sodomy law is a kind of unofficial death penalty for lesbians, gay men, bi- and transgendered people. As Fidalgo reminded the crowd, three queers had recently been brutally murdered in Puerto Rico. The law also incites harassment, beatings, discrimination, and internalized homophobia.

Likewise, the colonial status of Puerto Rico leaves it vulnerable to abuses by the U.S. You get Vieques redux, CIA/FBI interference in politics, surveillance files ("carpetas") delivered up by 6-year-olds. Even worse, the status fosters apathy, corruption, and self-hatred. Who is it enforcing the U.S. government's bidding on Vieques? Puerto Ricans.

Forging Alliances
In Puerto Rico as everywhere else, we all move forward together, or not at all.

This simple idea was apparent at the 10th annual gay rights march in San Juan, which preceded the rally, both organized by the queer Rainbow Pride Coalition. For the first time, a number of non-queer organizations joined the Pride Parade, among them the groups All Puerto Rico with Vieques, and the Women's Coalition for Peace.

p.r. protesterFidalgo explained the alliance. "It shouldn't be strange to anyone that, as people embodying civil disobedience in our very existence, we support the fight of others who, like us, understand that there are some basic rights that should never be violated. Just as we are the owners of our own bodies, we are the owners of our lands and our dreams," said Fidalgo, speaking on behalf of the Rainbow Pride Coalition. Behind her was a placard featuring the map of Vieques emblazoned with the gay coalition's flag and the word "Peace."

Instead of alliances, it is more common to hear the voices of bigotry snarling, "Don't muddy the pure issue of our nationhood with your sexual hangups." Or... "Don't muddy the issue of gay rights with all that gender stuff." "Don't mix up lesbian issues with race." "Or class." "Or..." Every minority jockeys for top underdog position.

Each wants their oppression to be distinct. And their oppression to be the best and the baddest. Here's a news flash: the liver, brain, and heart are all separate, but rip one out and see where it gets you.

A Decade of Queer Activism
It's high time Puerto Rican queers were welcomed. After all, they have plenty of practice in demanding civil liberties. They've been marching for gay rights and against the odious sodomy law for a decade. The lesbian cleric Margarita Sanchez de Leon, party to an ACLU suit to challenge the law, even tried to become a test case by turning herself in to the sex crimes unit and demanding to be arrested. But the male district attorney said she couldn't commit sodomy without a "virile member" and wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot legal pole.

There have been weekly protests against the Cro-Magnon Puerto Rican legislators in front of the Capitol Building in San Juan, and individual lawmakers have been lobbied. So far, not a single legislator has had the courage to present legislation on the issue, which is dangerously being defined for the entire country by a growing array of loudmouthed, fire and brimstone, Bible Belt-style televangelists.

Cowardly legislators say action is unnecessary, because, you guessed it, the law is rarely enforced. The most successfully repressive laws are those that don't even need enforcement, as the disingenuous legislators know perfectly well.

The Puerto Rican political class behaves not much better than the government and the legislature. All three major parties mostly pretend queers don't exist. Most progressive groups are visibly uncomfortable with us, even those who pay theoretical lip service to the cause. Sound familiar?

Not too long ago, historically, that's the way it used to be in major U.S. cities. It was also only a few years ago that the U.S. military was poisoning entire populations in Kentucky and Arizona, as they're now doing in Vieques. Not anymore.

Puerto Rico is lagging behind the queer curve—and the environmental, civil rights and so many other curves Americans now take for granted—not just because it is a Latin American culture, but, above all, because it is a colony of the U.S.

The real tragedy of Puerto Rico's anti-gay sodomy law is that it disenfranchises, humiliates, and often kills some of the best and brightest of Puerto Ricans: more than for her queer children—many of whom leave permanently for the States—it's a loss for Puerto Rico. The smaller and more embattled a nation is, the less it can afford to destroy any of its own people.

Puerto Rico has long been paralyzed politically by the fratricidal dispute over its status vis a vis the United States. It is ironic that in a nation whose condition in the world is tenuous at best, an entire class of citizens have been made even more tenuous by a sodomy law imported from the colonial power.

The illegal status of Puerto Rican queers makes them, in a way, the most Puerto Rican of all Puerto Ricans: they embody, in the flesh, the illegal status of their homeland in the world--like the people of Vieques.

Related links:

Puerto Rico GLBT Organizations.

ACLU Puerto Rico Sodomy Law Challenge.

Lavender links: Puerto Rico

For up-to-the-minute info on Vieques protests go to Vieques Libre.

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo


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