Puerto Rico’s Sodomy Law Just “Tip of the Iceberg”
And Reverend Margarita Sánchez de León vows to smash
Gully, March 14, 2003
Reverend Margarita Sánchez de León is a leading
opponent of Article 103 of Puerto Rico’s Penal Code, which criminalizes
same-gender sexual relations. A prominent human rights activist, Reverend Sánchez
de León is Executive Director of Amnesty International-Puerto Rico and a
member of the progressive National Ecumenical Movement of Puerto Rico.
She is an ordained minister of the predominantly gay
Metropolitan Community Church of Puerto Rico, and was lead plaintiff in a
legal challenge to the sodomy law brought by the ACLU. The lawsuit ended last
June when the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled that Article 103 was not
unconstitutional. THE GULLY caught up with her in New York City, where she was
seeking support for her cause.
The Gully: Last June Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court
ruled that the sodomy law was not unconstitutional. What have you and other
Puerto Rican activists been doing since then?
Sánchez de León: We are focusing on Puerto Rico’s
House of Representatives. In April, or May, they are going to discuss a
revision of the Penal Code. At Amnesty International, we are going to focus on
public activities, on public education around the issue of the sodomy law.
Every struggle has different steps. Public discussion is
essential. Without that, it’s very difficult to pressure the legislature. We
will also continue to lobby, to educate, to hold demonstrations. All of this
is important to create change. In the future, we may have to do something more
forceful than lobbying. Lobbying is important, but it’s too quiet.
TG: In 1997, you and other activists walked into
Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice, “confessed” to violating the sodomy
law and asked, in vain, to be arrested. The campaign against the sodomy law
took off after that. What made you do it?
SdeL: The fight against the sodomy law is actually 30
years old, the struggle of a generation. Our action in 1997 just brought the
fight out into the open. It triggered a big controversy in Puerto Rico. It had
a big impact there, and even in some communities here.
That was a big blow for the Puerto Rican government. They
were surprised and didn’t know what to do. For the first time, we did a
proactive action, not a reactive one. At the time, Puerto Rico’s lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender groups were all engaged in different issues;
from that point on, repeal of the sodomy law became central.
That 1997 action came out of a specific incident. Around
that time, I had gone to our House of Representatives to speak at a hearing on
a proposed law to ban same sex marriage. It was a reaction to [the movement
for gay marriage] happening then in Hawaii. I was there as a representative of
the National Ecumenical Movement of Puerto Rico, not as part of a lgbt group.
Ours was the only religious group at the hearing that was against the proposed
During my testimony, some of the legislators became
hostile, violent. One asked me, “Do you indulge in lesbian practices?” I
was there with other religious leaders. No one else was asked. I can’t
describe how I felt. You have to understand this was a public hearing. There
were legal consequences to his question. Article 103 says that any person that
has sexual relations with a person of the same sex can face up to 10 years in
jail. I was being asked to incriminate myself. I had never imagined I’d be
put in a situation like that.
I decided I was never going to be put in that situation
again. We formed a coalition around the issue. It included feminists,
students, some pro-independence political groups, Amnesty, lgbt groups. That
coalition made possible our action in 1997.
TG: Are the same groups supportive of your efforts
SdeL: Not exactly. There is now a bigger coalition
that’s working to change the law, but Amnesty isn’t part of it, though
we’re helping. This coalition is focusing right now on the issue of the
right to intimacy for all, including heterosexuals. The ACLU played a role in
shaping the new tactic.
Their thinking is, “Let’s avoid the lgbt issue and
focus on the wider issue of intimacy in order to get rid of the sodomy law.”
TG: But if you believe that education is part of
social change, isn’t that tactic just putting lgbt people back in the
closet? How does that fight homophobia?
SdeL: That is part of the reason why Amnesty chose to go
in a different direction this time. Amnesty is going to focus on lgbt issues.
Article 103 is important, though it’s rarely applied directly: it is used to
deny lgbt people their rights. For instance, if you try to bring a domestic
violence charge against a same-sex partner, it’s thrown out because the
judge says it happened as part of a criminal act anyway. Article 103 is just
the tip of the iceberg.
[In 1999, an appeals court ruled that Puerto Rico’s
domestic violence law does not apply to lesbians and gay men because the
sodomy statute “makes homosexual conduct a crime.”]
TG: What kind of things will Amnesty be doing?
SdeL: We’ll be working a lot with the press, holding
press conferences, trying to get interviews, and public exposure for our
issues. We’ve already set up three panels in three different geographical
locations throughout the island. They’ll take place in public places like
universities. We’ll demonstrate in front of the legislature. This is all
timed to coincide with their discussions on the revision of the Penal Code, in
April and May.
Already there has been a worldwide appeal through Amnesty
International, with people sending letters of support from all over.
TG: Are there any legislators out in support of a
SdeL: No. There aren’t. Not a single legislator has
come out in favor of repealing Article 103. Not even so-called progressives
like the “independentistas”(advocates of independence for Puerto Rico), of
which I am one.
TG: What about Puerto Rico’s Governor Sila María
SdeL: Where she stands on the issue will depend a lot on
how the 2004 electoral process shapes up. This week the former governor, Pedro
Roselló, returned to the island. She’ll probably face him. Before that, she
has to think of the primaries.
In Puerto Rico, the conservative churches are very well
organized. They are very effective lobbyists. They go to a legislator and say,
I have 500 people in your district and this is how they will vote. I like to
joke that we should go to them and ask for lessons. “Please, teach us how to
do that.” They are really very effective.
TG: Conservative evangelical groups have a strong
presence in Puerto Rico’s radio and television. What kind of media access do
lgbt people and their supporters have on the island?
SdeL: We don’t have access to television. Except when
we organize a major demonstration or maybe hold an important press conference.
But there is one lgbt radio program. That’s significant, because Puerto
Ricans are big radio listeners. I’m not aware of any lgbt group ever having
tried to buy time on a Puerto Rican TV station. At this time we’re not
planning to place ads in Puerto Rico’s media for the Amnesty public
awareness campaign. That costs money and we need to use our resources
sparingly. Our focus is on getting media coverage, getting them to interview
TG: The US Supreme Court may reconsider the Texas
sodomy law when it hears the case of Lawrence & Garner v. Texas on March
28. What impact would a Court ruling against Texas have on Puerto Rico’s
SdeL: It depends on the language of the ruling. It may
just apply to this particular case in Texas. Or it may apply to all 14 states
that currently have sodomy laws, as well as to Puerto Rico.
Now, that would be a big irony. Article 103 was a
colonial imposition on Puerto Rico. It came to us in 1902, imported from the
California penal code. But such is the irony of the colonial process that, if
the Texas sodomy law is now overturned, that ruling will also apply to Puerto
Rico—once more, a process of political imposition. So, yes, the ruling may
have an impact on Puerto Rico, like Roe vs. Wade. That’s the flip side of
TG: In a recent article in the San Juan daily El Nuevo
Día, Mayra Montero says that in Puerto Rico the most dangerous enemies of gay
human rights are not the strident moralists who oppose them, but those who
pretend to accept gay people but actually silence them and remain silent
themselves. Do you agree with that?
SdeL: I have not read her article, although I have heard
about it. But yes, I can tell you that in Puerto Rico there are certainly many
segments of society, particularly those that are politically liberal, that
hide when the moment comes to take a clear position regarding this issue.
As a supporter of Puerto Rican independence, a non voting
one, because I don’t vote, I think it is shameful that the Independentista
Party, whenever it has had the opportunity to make a difference regarding this
issue, has always voted with the conservatives, has always taken a
I would also like to see more people from the
intellectual sectors active on this issue.
I think that in Puerto Rico we have not yet understood
that the issue of rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
community is a human rights issue, connected to all other human rights issues,
and that no one can, today, in 2003, accurately speak about human and civil
rights if they exclude one group from their discourse. That’s shameful. Just
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