Last edited: November 23, 2003


Puerto Rican activists "turn venom into medicine"

Washington Blade January 23, 1988

by Kai Wright

Public discussion about Gay civil rights has reached an unprecedented level in the United States territory of Puerto Rico. As the legislature came back in session on Jan. 12, Gay civil rights activists geared up for battles on three Gay-related bills.

Activists say two key events in 1997 -- Gay-related legislative hearings and a conference of Gay activists -- have forever transformed the Caribbean island's Gay community, fostering a much-needed political awareness.

"It's been great," declared Ronnie Billini, communications director of the Foundation for Human Rights, which is less than a year old. "Within our community, they're saying, 'Being in the closet is not too productive.' People are saying, 'We don't have any rights here.' And we're only going to get them through legislation."

This growing awareness has, most recently, spawned a campaign to repeal the local sodomy law. No bill has yet been introduced to the legislature, but Billini said activists have secured commitments from representatives to do so. In addition, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is preparing for a court challenge to the law. Michael Adams in the ACLU's New York office said his group expects to file that challenge next month, with a Lesbian minister, Margarita Sanchez, as the lead plaintiff.

The repeal campaign began in earnest last Nov. 11 when, publicly challenging the law, Sanchez turned herself in to the police, acknowledging that she participated in same-sex sexual acts. Sanchez is a spokesperson for the approximately 15-group coalition that banded together last fall to advocate the law's repeal. But, according to Billini, the police refused to arrest Sanchez, arguing that the law does not apply to Lesbians and decrying what they saw as an effort to garner publicity about a rarely enforced, and therefore dead, law. The local press covered the event.

A week later, the coalition group staged a vigil outside the capitol building in San Juan, calling for legislative action to repeal the law. According to Frankie Cruz, a legislative aide for House of Representatives Judiciary-Penal Committee Chairperson Augusto S nchez, press coverage of the demonstration led the committee to move more quickly on planned hearings on the law. The hearings are part of a larger "investigation" of the penal code not due for completion until the end of 1999. But after the vigil, the committee decided to hold public hearings on the sodomy statute, Article 103 of the penal code, from Dec. 1-5.

According to Billini, those hearings also garnered substantial press coverage -- partially due to a chaotic atmosphere created when the anti-Gay Rev. Jorge Raschke collapsed on the capitol steps after giving testimony at the hearing. Raschke, an Assemblies of God minister, has led anti-Gay groups in decrying Gay civil rights efforts. He has remained out of the spotlight since his apparent health problems during the hearings.

Earlier, a conservative member of the New Progressive Party, Rep. Alba Rivera, introduced two Gay civil rights bills to the House. Those bills call for the creation of a domestic partnership law and a general anti- discrimination ordinance protecting Gays. Rosa Campos, legal council to Rep. Rivera, said the increase in public conversation about the rights of Gays last year led the office to study each issue and decide to introduce the bills, which have neither had hearings nor reached the House floor yet.

Campos said the bills are primarily a response to legislation proposed last year which would have banned same-sex marriages. The same-sex marriage ban bill narrowly passed in the House, but failed in the Senate. The public hearings for the legislation were scheduled to coincide with a National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO) conference held in San Juan in October. Hundreds of LLEGO conference attendees protested outside the hearings and the conference itself garnered substantial print, radio, and television media coverage. National and local activists questioned whether the hearings were intended to counteract potentially positive coverage of the LLEGO conference.

In the end, Billini credits the whole episode, both the hearings and the LLEGO conference, as one of two major sparks of an increased political awareness within the Gay community -- an awareness she believes makes the current legislative campaigns feasible undertakings.

The other of those sparks was the controversy from which Billini's Foundation for Human Rights emerged. Last January, Puerto Rico's Department of Health adopted regulations requiring people with HIV/AIDS to report the names of all their sex partners over the past 10 years. In May, due in large part to pressure from the Foundation, the department repealed that statute.

"It's exciting to see that we've been able to turn venom into medicine," said Billini, referring to the positive public education opportunities the two controversies inadvertently produced.

"We had an agenda to educate our legislators and help create a coming out for the Gay and Lesbian community in Puerto Rico," said Billini of activists' goals.

Cruz, who will author a report on the sodomy statute's December public
hearings, said the committee is in a wait-and-see position on the sodomy law.

He said its members are split on what action to take, but whatever that action, it is not scheduled to occur until a complete review of the penal code is completed in the next two years. But, said Cruz, if Gay civil rights activists manage to get repeal legislation introduced this session, the committee will be forced to move early.

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