Case Puts Focus on Gay Rights
Sentinel, May 14, 2001
633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801
By Iván Román, San Juan Bureau
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico A judge found probable
cause last week that Leandro Antonio Ruiz violated an order to stay away from
his boyfriend in the southwestern agricultural town of Yauco.
For the case to go forward, Juan J. del Valle had to be given immunity so
he could talk freely about whom he sleeps with and not face charges under the
islands sodomy law.
This situation ridiculous to some, immoral to others is the first
domestic-violence case among same-sex couples to be played out in a Puerto
Rico courtroom since 1999 when the previous administration stopped offering
gays and lesbians that protection.
Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodriguez, in office since January, reversed her
predecessor last month and ordered prosecutors to apply Puerto Ricos fairly
progressive domestic-violence laws to same-sex couples because the islands
constitution mandates equal protection under the law.
The Ruiz/Del Valle case came up almost immediately, giving the move its
first true test in a trial that resumes May 24. Ruiz, 18, is charged with
assault and violating an order requiring him to stay away from del Valle, 29,
after he hit him in the arm and bit his chest during an argument.
"The judge was able to get beyond the way people traditionally see
domestic violence and understand that here is a person with a different view
of what a relationship is," said prosecutor Luis Guillermo Zambrana, who
coordinates domestic-violence cases in Ponce.
Studies by the national Anti-Violence Project in New York City put states
such as Florida near the top of the list of places where protective orders are
unavailable to victims of domestic violence among same-sex couples because the
victims would have to acknowledge an "illegal sexual relationship."
The existence of sodomy laws criminalizing homosexual acts would support the
argument that domestic-violence orders were not intended to protect same-sex
Ruizs attorney, Lillianet Cortes Soto, used precisely that argument as
she tried to get the charges dismissed. But Ponce Superior Court Judge Elisa
Figueroa Baez didnt buy it and agreed with prosecutors that the
domestic-violence law is a special statute that supersedes the criminal code.
She also sided with prosecutors that domestic-violence law is written in
language neutral enough that it applies to any two people living together.
But to get around the islands sodomy law, del Valle was given immunity
from prosecution so he could talk freely about this relationship with Ruiz.
"They shouldnt have to give him immunity at all," said Eric
Ferrero of the American Civil Liberties Unions Lesbian/Gay Rights Project,
which has a lawsuit challenging the sodomy law before the Puerto Rico Supreme
Court. "You shouldnt have to get immunity to get protection."
Gay-rights activists called the judges decision a victory. Carlos
Sanchez, president of Pro-Life of Puerto Rico, an anti-abortion group that
opposes gay rights, called last weeks hearing a "laughingstock."
"This kind of special law was made for married people, [straight]
couples that live together and have had children," Sanchez said.
"This wasnt done for two guys who get in a fight. This is a political
favor for the homosexual community for their support in the election last
Gov. Sila Maria Calderon said Rodriguez didnt consult her before making
the decision but agreed its the right thing to do. Responding to
conservative groups fears that this is a first step toward legalizing gay
marriage, Calderon said she was not ready to change the Civil Code to allow
But first things first, activists say. On two fronts, they are working to
change the sodomy law. Besides the ACLU lawsuit, which alleges the law
violates the right to privacy, theyve also drafted amendments to the Penal
Code that go before the new Legislature this year.
"That needs to be done," said gay activist Jose Joaquin Mulinelli,
who co-anchors a weekly public-affairs show called Coming Out of the Closet.
"In the measure that were thought of as criminals, that is going to
prevent a whole series of other things."
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