Last edited: November 23, 2003

Summary/Context of Sanchez v. Puerto Rico

ACLU Lesbian And Gay Rights Project/AIDS Project


Puerto Rico’s nearly-100-year-old sodomy law states that "any person who has sexual relations with a person of the same sex, or commits the crime against nature with another human being" has committed a felony, which can result in up to a 10-year jail sentence and/or a $1,000 fine. The law is commonly interpreted to outlaw any sexual activity between members of the same sex, and anal sex between any people. Like all sodomy laws (which 18 U.S. states still have), the mere existence of Puerto Rico’s sodomy law is a threat to lesbians and gay men, as it can be used to intimidate them and deny them other legal rights. But Puerto Rico’s law has also been a more direct threat in recent years. Rev. Margarita Sanchez, the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the sodomy statute, was threatened with arrest while testifying before Puerto Rico’s legislature. Just weeks later, a top Puerto Rico Justice Department official announced that the government would prosecute people under the sodomy law if they had enough evidence for conviction. In an unrelated case in 1999 involving domestic violence between a gay couple, an appeals court ruled that Puerto Rico’s law protecting people from domestic violence cannot apply to lesbians and gay men, since the very nature of their relationships is criminal under current law.

Legal Claims

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in Puerto Rico Superior Court on behalf of Sanchez, five other lesbians and gay men, and the ACLU’s straight and gay members in Puerto Rico. The lawsuit seeks to strike down the sodomy statute under both the U.S. Constitution and Puerto Rico’s Constitution. In particular, the ACLU asserts that:

  • The sodomy law violates citizens’ equal protection and privacy rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution by criminalizing private, non-commercial consensual intimacy between adults.
  • The law violates the Puerto Rico Constitution’s explicit privacy guarantees, which go much further than the federal Constitution as a result of what the ACLU says is a "societal decision" Puerto Rico intentionally made to clearly recognize individuals’ privacy rights.

Broad National Implications

In 1961, all 50 states and Puerto Rico had sodomy laws. Since then, most states have either voluntarily repealed the laws or courts have found them unconstitutional. In recent years, courts in Montana, Kentucky and Georgia have all struck down those state’s sodomy laws.

Puerto Rico’s sodomy law is particularly important to the broader struggle against anti-gay sodomy laws in part because it clearly illustrate how sodomy laws are used to silence and intimidate lesbians or gay men, or even to directly discriminate against them.

The legal battle over Puerto Rico’s sodomy law also crystallizes a paradox with national and international implications. Puerto Rican culture is, in many ways, hostile to lesbians and gay men. But at the same time, Puerto Rico has a long-standing cultural commitment to individual privacy. Both of these cultural leanings are common in many Latino communities in the U.S. and abroad. Legal and political debate about the sodomy law forces this paradox to the surface, and causes people within these cultures to more clearly examine lesbian and gay equality in the context of their broader beliefs.

Eric Ferrero, Public Education Director
The American Civil Liberties Union
Lesbian and Gay Rights Project/AIDS Project
125 Broad St., 18th Floor
New York, NY 10004-2400
Tel: 212-549-2568; Fax: 212-549-2650

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