|| my perspective ||
The face of gay Puerto Rico
By Pedro Julio Serrano
From The Advocate, December 23, 2003
Back in 1998, I did something no one else had ever thought to do in Puerto Rico: I announced my candidacy as the first openly gay man to run for public office—an at-large seat in the House of Representatives. I was 23 years old, and I had never been in a closet. (I’m claustrophobic, you see, and that’s the only phobia I condone.) As political director of the Human Rights Foundation—which advocates equal rights for gays—I had always been open about my sexuality.
But I never imagined what would happen when I announced my candidacy. Leaders of the New Progressive Party, which I worked for all my life, abandoned me. Some said they didn’t even know who I was.
I stood firm. I left that party to run as an independent. But independents cannot receive campaign funds from the government and must get twice as many signatures as candidates from the official political parties to qualify for the same races.
I received death threats. People vandalized my car, my apartment. They harassed me, and they tried to break my spirit. They even tried to kill me. Four men stopped me in the middle of a road and came out of a pickup truck with shotguns. They shouted things like “Fucking faggot, we’re going to kill you—we’re going to silence you.” Just then another car came by and honked, and the men got into their truck and left. I started crying as I shook from terror. Maybe they were trying just to scare me—and they did, but only for a few moments. I resolved to fight on.
I had many memorable moments during my campaign. Once in the Plaza Las Américas, the biggest shopping mall on our island, a woman stopped me to thank me. She started crying and told me that she was at the mall to meet her son, whom she had thrown out of her house 13 years earlier when he had told her he was gay. She said that after hearing me talk about the love and acceptance my family has always shown me, she called her son to ask for forgiveness.
I had to withdraw my candidacy for the election of 2000 because of the lack of funds and the absence of an organizational structure to support me. I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for LLEGO, the National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization. I had found my calling: political activism for the cause of gay equality.
But after three months of exile, I went back to Puerto Rico because my work and my soul were with my people. The fundamentalist sectors of our country, led by two or three evangelical leaders, do not represent the Puerto Rican people. At their last gathering only 3,000 people showed up to cry out their intolerance. For our last LGBT pride parade, in June, we had more than 8,000 people showing their true colors.
Recently, after much fighting and lobbying, our senate voted to strike down the sodomy law on our island—just one week before the landmark Lawrence v. Texas ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all the country’s sodomy laws. This vote showed that we as Puerto Ricans can come together to celebrate diversity, respect our differences, amend the errors of the past, and give justice to all of our people.
There is much work to be done. I am a constant presence on our media outlets. I look straight into the camera and address the people of Puerto Rico; I say that gay people are human beings, that we are the brothers, fathers, and sons of everyone on our island, and that love will always prevail against injustice. During one recent television appearance I showed an open letter that my father wrote to the media, stating that he loved me, he supported me, and most important, he raised me and my brothers with the strongest moral values.
Intolerance, prejudice, and discrimination are not Puerto Rican values. Love, acceptance, inclusion, and respect are our true values.
I will not rest until my people come together with respect for our differences, with the increased knowledge that our diversity provides, and with the cultural enhancement of our many unique identities. We can come together. Puerto Rico is not just for some; Puerto Rico is for all.