Guest Blogger

Puerto Rican Sodomy Law - An Irony of Gay History

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 15, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Puerto Rican sodomy law, Puerto Rico, sodomy, sodomy laws

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Carlos Mock has published three books and is the Floricanto Press editor for its GLBT series. He was inducted in the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame in October of 2007. He grew up middle-class in the suburbs of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

carlos-mock.jpgPuerto Rico is lagging behind the queer curve--and behind the environmental, civil rights and other curves that Americans now take for granted--not just because it is a Latin American culture, but, above all, because it is a colony of the U.S. Until the important Lawrence decision in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme court decriminalized sodomy, any perfectly respectable citizen in Puerto Rico caught having sex with someone of the same gender can be sent to the slammer for 10 years..

Of course Puerto Rican authorities fatuously claim that hardly anyone has ever done time under their imported Anglo-Saxon sodomy law. But the sodomy law is as entrenched in the legal system as the U.S. colonial powers are on the island, and both are a sword of Damocles hanging over the respective populations. Oppressing, abusing, and humiliating them. Keeping them in line.

Amparo Fidalgo, a speaker at Puerto Rico's June 4, 2000 Gay Pride rally at Luis Muñoz Rivera Park, knows the score. She told a cheering crowd: "We demand peace for lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual and transgendered people bombarded with taunts, contaminated with homophobia, abused by violence."

Fidalgo asked the crowd, among other things, to persist in demanding the repeal of the Puerto Rico sodomy law. Nicaragua is the only other Latin American nation with a sodomy law.

Enforced, or not, the sodomy law is a kind of unofficial death penalty for lesbians, gay men, bi- and transgendered people. As Fidalgo reminded the crowd, three queers had recently been brutally murdered in Puerto Rico. The law also incites harassment, beatings, discrimination, and internalized homophobia.

Likewise, the colonial status of Puerto Rico leaves it vulnerable to abuses by the U.S. You get Vieques redux, CIA/FBI interference in politics, and "carpetas" (slang for FBI surveillance files). Even worse, the island's status fosters apathy, corruption, and self-hatred in its people.

We All Move Forward Together

In Puerto Rico as everywhere else, we all move forward together, or not at all.
This simple idea was apparent at the 10th annual gay rights march in San Juan, which preceded the rally, both organized by the queer Rainbow Pride Coalition. For the first time, a number of non-queer organizations joined the Pride Parade, among them the groups All Puerto Rico with Vieques, and the Women's Coalition for Peace.

Puerto Rican protester Fidalgo explained the alliance. "It shouldn't be strange to anyone that, as people embodying civil disobedience in our very existence, we support the fight of others who, like us, understand that there are some basic rights that should never be violated. Just as we are the owners of our own bodies, we are the owners of our lands and our dreams," said Fidalgo, speaking on behalf of the Rainbow Pride Coalition. Behind her was a placard featuring the map of Vieques emblazoned with the gay coalition's flag and the word "Peace." LGBT mainlanders will remember reading about Vieques in the newspapers - how Puerto Ricans were protesting use of part of the island by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice. (The Navy finally abandoned the bombing range.)

Instead of alliances, it is more common to hear the voices of bigotry snarling, "Don't muddy the pure issue of our nationhood with your sexual hangups." Or... "Don't muddy the issue of gay rights with all that gender stuff." "Don't mix up lesbian issues with race." "Or class." "Or..." Every minority jockeys for top underdog position.

Each wants their oppression to be distinct. And their oppression to be the best and the baddest. Here's a news flash: the liver, brain, and heart are all separate, but rip one out and see where it gets you.

Demanding Civil Rights

It's high time Puerto Rican queers were welcomed by the mainland. After all, they have plenty of practice in demanding civil liberties. They've been marching for gay rights and against the odious sodomy law for a decade. The lesbian cleric Margarita Sanchez de Leon, party to an ACLU suit to challenge the law, even tried to become a test case by turning herself in to the sex-crimes unit and demanding to be arrested. But the male district attorney said she couldn't commit sodomy without a "virile member" and wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot legal pole.

There have been weekly protests against the Cro-Magnon Puerto Rican legislators in front of the Capitol Building in San Juan, and individual lawmakers have been lobbied. So far, not a single legislator has had the courage to present legislation on the issue, which is dangerously being defined for the entire country by a growing array of loudmouthed, fire and brimstone, Bible Belt-style televangelists.

Cowardly legislators say action is unnecessary, because, you guessed it, the law is rarely enforced. The most successfully repressive laws are those that don't even need enforcement, as the disingenuous legislators know perfectly well.

The Puerto Rican political class behaves not much better than the government and the legislature. All three major parties mostly pretend queers don't exist. Most progressive groups are visibly uncomfortable with us, even those who pay theoretical lip service to the cause. Sound familiar?

The real tragedy of Puerto Rico's anti-gay sodomy law is that it disenfranchises, humiliates, and often kills some of the best and brightest of Puerto Ricans. More than for her queer children--many of whom leave permanently for the States--it's a loss for Puerto Rico. The smaller and more embattled a nation is, the less it can afford to destroy any of its own people.

Puerto Rico has long been paralyzed politically by the fratricidal dispute over its status vis a vis the United States. It is ironic that, in a nation whose condition in the world is tenuous at best, an entire class of citizens have been made even more tenuous by a sodomy law imported from the colonial power. The illegal status of Puerto Rican queers makes them, in a way, the most Puerto Rican of all Puerto Ricans: they embody, in the flesh, the illegal status of their homeland in the world!

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What a great post, Carlos. Puerto Rico is the "unknown" America here in Indiana. We don't have a large Puerto Rican population and those who live here get branded as "Mexicans" along with all other Hispanics.

Thanks for the info.

Outstanding post!
So often Americans forget that they still have a colonial empire that once stretched from the Philipines to Puerto Rico.

Bill of Baskerville | October 16, 2008 10:01 AM

if "anglo-saxon sodomy laws were imported" then so was homosexuality and the pride parade. in fact, placing blame for the prevalent lack of gay pride and acceptance on anyone other than the puerto rican populace and its elected officials only circumvents focusing on reality.

it is up to you to the puerto ricans to elect those who honestly reflect their diversity of beliefs and lifestyles -- unless you prefer a society that is not ruled by the majority. so instead of pointing fingers, why not run for office yourself?

in any case, the operative word in your post is "imported." note: that does not translate as "imposed."

I really, just substantively don't understand this post and its confused timeline. You cite to Lawrence, which should mean (talk about imperialist imposition!) that Puerto Rico cannot enforce any sodomy law. And then you continue to cite events that happened well before Lawrence (e.g., a gay pride parade in 2000).

Well, what are you asking for -- a repeal of the law now? I get that its presence on the books is pernicious, but there are for more pressing agenda items, including keeping a ban on marriage equality out of the Puerto Rican constitution. There's already queer activism in Puerto Rico, and though it could, obviously, have more support from the mainland, there's a way in which that support is not always appropriate. So what, precisely, is your argument here, besides severe disgruntlement with the lack of independence?