CW: discrimination and violence toward LGBTQIA+ communities, transphobia, murders of trans women in Puerto Rico
Movements advocating for equity and respect for LGBTQIA+ people in Puerto Rico have been active for decades. While some progress has been made, LGBTQIA+ communities are far from having social and structural safety. The establishment of online and in-person safe spaces has been one method to create that sense of security, however temporary, from discrimination, physical violence, and microaggressions that target LGBTQIA+ people. But as some of these safe spaces have opened and closed over the years, it’s still unclear how much queer and trans communities can depend on them for longer-term stability.
For one, LGBTQIA+ communities are not monolithic—their needs and priorities can differ considerably based on personal experiences, age, socioeconomic status, work status, gender identity, sexuality, and whether they can be out safely. Additionally, there are considerable cultural differences between the San Juan metro area and the rest of the island.
“In the southern area, the central area, and the western area, the thoughts, traditions, and perspectives maintained are [not as accepting of LGBTQIA+ people],” said Ricarde J. Pérez Burgos, a member of Diversxs, a group with ties to Amnesty International Puerto Rico. “It’s not that no groups or people exist that think differently, but the reality is that it’s not the majority.”
Safe spaces are important for mental health; they can be, but aren’t always, physical spaces, and they can be harder to find for marginalized people. More concretely defined, a safe space allows LGBTQIA+ people to exist as their whole selves in alignment with their gender expression and show affection for their partners with complete safety and without hesitation. Essentially, a safe space centers the needs and perspectives of those who are marginalized as a means of respite from broader spaces, such as political institutions, schools, and social groups, where the voices of those with power and privilege–-particularly white cis heterosexual men–are dominant. These are spaces where people can live their lives without fear and instead be accepted and celebrated for who they are.
Establishing and maintaining safe spaces can be fraught with their own complications, but they have made a positive difference for marginalized communities. The reality is that navigating the different needs and concerns that LGBTQIA+ Puerto Ricans live with daily can make finding safe spaces a challenge for most everyone.
Finding a safe space in Puerto Rico
LGBTQIA+ communities in Puerto Rico comprise a wide variety of needs, and what’s safe for one group doesn’t always translate into safety for others. Addressing the specific concerns of the elderly, particularly at-risk queer folks, and others requires multiple approaches, a fact that many LGBTQIA+ organizations and groups are trying to integrate into the creation and maintenance of their own spaces.
For instance, elderly LGBTQIA+ people face their own set of challenges with accessing comprehensive health care and housing, and safe spaces can help make a difference. After returning to Puerto Rico in 2014, Wilfred Labiosa founded Waves Ahead, a nonprofit that serves several LGBTQIA+ communities, emphasizing people 50 or older.
“We start at age 50 because research has shown that [there is] a lack of [preventative] services [available to] LGBTQIA+ people,” Labiosa said. “They get diagnosed with conditions from cancer to tobacco use to diabetes at an earlier age than their heterosexual counterparts.”
This has an impact on their mental health as well. One of the ways Waves Ahead addresses health concerns is by providing people with mental health sessions, yoga, meditation, nutrition sessions, and more.
More than 16% of Puerto Rico’s total population is elderly, according to the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University, and about 40% of the elderly population lives at or under the poverty line. Housing is imperative for this population. Waves Ahead has opened a shelter and transitional housing program for LGBTQIA+ seniors in the southwestern town of Cabo Rojo that is projected to help at least 30 people.
Waves Ahead currently runs four community centers throughout the island in Cabo Rojo, Loiza, Maunabo, and San Juan, with plans to open a fifth in Isabela. In addition to serving as a physical safe space for elderly queer folks, Labiosa says that they also provide training for other LGBTQIA+-friendly centers. Still, Labiosa says that finding safe spaces can be difficult.
The availability of queer- and trans-friendly facilities that provide a safe environment is particularly vital for trans women who are regularly subjected to physical danger in Puerto Rico. In October 2020, the Human Rights Campaign announced that of the reported 30 transgender and gender non-conforming people who had been murdered in the U.S., six had been murdered in Puerto Rico. The current governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, approved a law in August 2021 that designates femicides and transfemicides as first-degree murder, but often the cases of transfemicides go unresolved.
For some advocates, creating a safe space for trans women means raising the public visibility and awareness of how deeply trans people are in danger from discrimination and physical violence. A year after Michelle Ramos Vargas, a trans woman, was murdered in San Germán, a town in western Puerto Rico, Joanna Cifredo organized a march from Mayagüez to the capitol building in San Juan, in the northeastern part of the island. Ramos Vargas was the same age as Cifredo when Ramos Vargas was murdered, and Cifredo planned the march to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Ramos Vargas’ death.
Cifredo said that she had less support in her mission than she’d hoped—some people close to her told her that she was crazy—but the support she did find in her community, no matter how little, still made a difference. The march also integrated several vigils to remember other trans people who had been murdered and highlight their cases.
Cifredo said that transmisogyny in Puerto Rico is rampant and that there are no safe spaces for trans women in Puerto Rico. So trans women have had to create their own systems for survival, like traveling together and ensuring that they are not alone.
“We know that we can’t depend on the state, and in many cases, we can’t even depend on our own collective,” Cifredo said. “Trans women are specifically marginalized even within our own collective.”
Virtual spaces aren’t automatically safer
Although connection to the internet isn’t consistent throughout Puerto Rico, safe spaces online can be an option for LGBTQIA+ Puerto Ricans who have less access to friendly and inclusive physical spaces and communities. But online spaces can also be hostile to LGBTQIA+ folks, and creating and maintaining online safe spaces often requires different tools, skills, and resources than safe physical spaces.
The dynamics of running online and in-person safe spaces are not the same, although talking about accessibility is important in both cases. In the case of online spaces, a level of media literacy and knowledge is needed to participate, and not everyone has that knowledge. Even if some safe spaces can be created online, the number of people in Puerto Rico with access to a computer and reliable internet differs, an aspect that often falls along lines dividing the metro area and other parts of the island.
Pedro Julio Serrano, an activist of 25 years who now works at Waves Ahead, acknowledged that for some people the amount of online hatred can be overwhelming. One component of online hate is the use of offensive transphobic and queerphobic Puerto Rican slang, an issue that Serrano thinks moderators need to understand more deeply. Pérez Burgos said that using social media tools to have more control over what shows up in a feed, who can edit posted content, and activity notification to spot harassment or attacks can also be helpful for both moderators and individual users.
Even with observant, informed, and engaged moderators curating online spaces and individual LGBTQIA+ users being savvy about tools like filters and block options, they are still ultimately at the mercy of social media users. While most social media platforms have policies against hate speech, the degree to which they enforce those rules is inconsistent at best. A recent report by GLAAD found that, “Instead of protecting their users […] the tech companies are safeguarding information about how they respond to those attacks, revealing few details about how often they take down posts or accounts that push hate speech or harass LGBTQ users.”
Additionally, the reality is that the amount of hate and threats of violence directed at LGBTQIA+ people online isn’t limited to virtual spaces. As all too many queer communities know, that hatred regularly manifests in physical violence and harassment that have claimed countless LGBTQIA+ lives.
“That virtual world of social media and content on the internet and on different platforms, at the end is a reflection of the real world,” Pérez Burgos said.
Potential solutions and their obstacles
Solutions for safe spaces require those in power to address them at both the micro and the macro level, Labiosa said. On the macro level, the government must implement more policies supporting and protecting LGBTQIA+ communities. Ínaru Nadia de la Fuente Díaz, co-founder of La Sombrilla Cuir, added that the government itself presents obstacles that add to the problems LGBTQIA+ people face. While there is talk about diversity and inclusivity, LGBTQIA+ communities and individuals doing advocacy work say they aren’t seeing results on the ground.
Advocates say that part of the issue has to do with how funding is prioritized by the government. For example, the government could address the lack of comprehensive public transportation, which is acutely felt by various communities, including LGBTQIA+ people. According to Pérez Burgos, the western, southern, and eastern parts of Puerto Rico don’t have any train lines or larger systems of transportation, which makes access to events, communities, health and financial resources, and higher education even more difficult and reinforces isolation and lack of exposure to different ideas.
The divide between the San Juan metro area and the rest of Puerto Rico contributes to this dynamic as well, Pérez Burgos said.
“It’s different, for example, in the San Juan area, because like the AMA [public bus] transportation system, there’s a lot of Uber and private pay, and they have the urban train,” Pérez Burgos said. “So the opportunity to study is more present because they have more access to public transportation, and that makes a difference.”
Advocates said that a lack of funding continues to hinder creating and maintaining safe spaces and educating people. Labiosa said that Waves Ahead applies for federal funding as a nonprofit organization, but those federal applications can be challenging, and many local organizations are competing for federal funding.
On the micro level, advocates point to education about LGBTQIA+ issues as a key component to making Puerto Rico safer for queer and trans folks, both within their own spaces and in public life. Sombrilla Cuir has been providing free education about LGBTQIA+ identities and issues, often to groups that reach out to them, using money from their own pockets.
While some advocates mostly focus on education as a tool to create more understanding and awareness for LGBTQIA+ communities among the general public, de la Fuente Díaz argued that workshops about inclusive language or sensitivity aren’t enough. They said that the Department of Education needs to institute a curriculum that’s specifically trans feminist, not just inclusive of a gender perspective. However, at this time, the Department of Education has yet to officially support a gender perspective curriculum to begin with.
Beyond education in schools, de la Fuente Díaz said that professionals, like those in health care, law, and news media, also need training and education around LGBTQIA+ issues. They noted that education and awareness around intersecting issues, such as racism, functional diversity, and how to resolve conflict, would also contribute to LGBTQIA+ folks’ safety. According to de la Fuente Díaz, LGBTQIA+ communities aren’t immune to complicated internal conflicts, some of which can also be violent, and greater education around those problems can also lessen those risks.
Safe spaces for young people still in school also need to be a priority, Serrano said. LGTBQIA+ youth are coming out about their identities at an earlier age, and they should be able to do so safely among their peers and teachers, he argues.
“They need to feel protected, and they need to feel respected; they need to feel celebrated,” Serrano said. “I think it’s imperative that the schools create those safe spaces for LGBTQ+ children and questioning children. It’s part of education.”
While these obstacles are nothing new to LGBTQIA+ advocates and supporters, giving up isn’t an option. They continue to spend their time, energy, and money, often at personal risk not only carving out safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ people in person and online, but also making Puerto Rico safer for queer communities as a whole.
“We’re fighting, [but] I’m tired, [and] my community is tired,” Cifredo said. “I wish we didn’t have to fight, but that is what we got, and we have to keep fighting the battle for those of today, those that’ll come tomorrow, and those that came before us.”