Last edited: January 07, 2005

Puerto Rico’s Sodomy Law Just “Tip of the Iceberg”

And Reverend Margarita Sánchez de León vows to smash it.

The 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 law.

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 now?

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 change?

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 Calderón?

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 us.

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 sodomy law?

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 colonialism.

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 conservative position.

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 shameful.

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