Last week I sat down with Pedro Julio Serrano–a prominent LGBT and human rights activist, founder of Puerto Rico para Tod@s, and Senior Advisor to New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito–to get to the bottom of WHY it’s relevant for all Puerto Ricans, and humans in general to care about LGBT issues and attend this historic and timely event.
G: What is the role of the LGBT faction in advancing Puerto Rico as a nation in the context of the crisis? Why does this Encuentro matter right now?
PJ: The civil rights struggle of our lifetime is the LGBT struggle. It has been clear that one of the left behind kind of segments in society has been the LGBT group. So this is the struggle of our time. LGBT people have always been a part of the solution and we have always been there and the fact that Centro decided to have a panel on LGBT issues is critical. The idea surfaced because at Centro’s last event, Puerto Rico Puerto Ricans, Monsignor Roberto Gonzalez Nieves was delivering a plenary talk, and at that same event the LGBT panel gave way. He is one of the most outspoken critics of LGBT rights, and the fact that we could co-habit at the same summit and respect our differences, but come together for the well-being of Puerto Rico was powerful, and telling.
That said, our voices are critical at this juncture because we know what resiliency is all about. We have lived our lives under so much hate, so much discrimination, so much intolerance that we know what it is to be out, down, and probably discounted and we have still thrived in the face of such adversity. So I think with our example and our stories we can help maybe help the Puerto Rican society as a whole understand how we can overcome this. If we were able to survive all this adversity and we continue to contribute to society and to Puerto Rican culture and to Puerto Rican achievements and all of that under all of that I think we can help Puerto Rico understand that even though we are in a very critical situation we can overcome it. We have and we are here. So we can bring that to the table. Of course, we are in all aspects of society so of course we can bring all of these talented individuals that identify as LGBT– there are so many of us in politics, science, arts, and activism–to have a hand in advancing Puerto Rican society as a whole.
G: Why are LGBT issues relevant to everyone?
PJ: It is everyone’s issue because there is a saying–a quote–I can’t remember who says it but–it says none of us are free until all of us are free. I don’t think you can–if you’re a person that really believes in justice, a person that really believes in equality–I don’t think you can be content with allowing individuals to be treated differently, or less than. So it is everyone’s struggle. Now it might be us who are fighting for our rights and later it might be someone else. I think all of us have faced discrimination in one way or another. So it has to be everyone’s issue. Plus, as you know, we are everywhere. We are brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, and we are everywhere. It is everyone’s issue because it is not an abstract, it’s real. It’s every day lives that are impacted by discrimination by institutionalized homophobia and transphobia. Unless we undo all of that oppression none of us are going to be free, none of us are going to thrive and be ourselves. I think it’s a collective struggle. The same way that LGBT people have been there for other struggles I think it’s time for heterosexual people to be there for our struggle. That’s how it should be.
G: Why should someone who is interested in advancing the Puerto Rico issue, and alleviating the crisis attend this event:
PJ: The thing is you have to learn all about the Puerto Rican experience. To be able to assist Puerto Rico you need to understand that LGBT people face multiple discrimination and they live in an adverse kind of world. If we are gonna face this crisis we need to understand what every person involved in it is facing. When you want to learn and educate yourself about the struggle to liberate Oscar Lopez you go to a march or you go to a rally. You go to an event to learn and it’s the same thing with LGBT Puerto Ricans, if you really want to know what they are facing, what their needs are, what their problems are, you have to be there.
So that’s why I think it’s critical for straight people to come to the Encuentro. I think it’s a learning experience and they will have their questions answered. I don’t think there is a better way of understanding your fellow human beings than just being able to be present.
G: What are some of the needs on behalf of the LGBT community right now?
PJ: So a lot of people thing that marriage equality was the end of it all and it’s not. You know it’s just the beginning. I’ve always said that equality is just the floor and we are trying to build a house of inclusion, justice and equality and you don’t build that by just achieving legal equality. Legal equality is just the floor of the house. You have to keep working to build justice. When you get to justice that’s when we get to the ceiling. And justice, what does justice mean? It means that we have all the rights for LGBT people. It means that transgender people are able to change their birth certificate to reflect their gender identity. It means they cannot be discriminated against in housing and public accommodations. For example in Puerto Rico you cannot be fired from a job because of your sexual orientation or gender identity because we don’t have public accommodation protections. So we need to meet the needs of LGBT elders because they are often left to their own for example this week I just had my grandfather–I pulled him out of the closet. He died a week ago and one of his last wishes was that I bring him out of the closet when he died. So I did, and everybody from my father down found out when I published the Op-ed where I made it public by sharing it on social media.
That’s very real that someone has to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity because of fear of being left behind and abandoned. I think that’s inhumane. He loved a man for more than 15 years and he couldn’t live a life with that man openly because he thought that he was going to be disowned and abandoned and that is harsh.
We have the same issues in the transgender community. More than 40 percent of transgender people have tried to commit suicide. Only 0.3 percent of the general population have attempted to commit suicide so that is staggering.
Somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. They are thrown out of their houses because they have to run away because they are not accepted. So i’m just telling you just some things. Adding this discrimination to those of us in the diaspora, and discrimination towards immigrants in general, is a lot. So there are multiple layers of discrimination that we have to face just because we are LGBT.
There is another myth that we are affluent. That all of us have big salaries and since we don’t have children we can spend it like we want. More than 40 percent of Puerto Rican LGBT couples are raising children under the age of 18. That’s almost half of us raising children.
There are a lot of things that we still need to overcome. Until we build that equality we won’t be where we need to be to advance justice and liberation for all of us.
G: What are some of the main goals and objectives of this encuentro for you?
PJ: First of all we don’t have an organized Puerto Rican LGBT diaspora. We used to have organizations but we don’t have them anymore. And we need to have them again. We have retos that we need to overcome. We need to know who we are and where we are, we don’t know who is doing what. We also need to hear the voices of the people doing the work, even during challenging times and an unorganized structure. We also need ask ourselves where we want to go and how do we want to insert ourselves. Not only in the crisis movement but also in the LGBT movement in Puerto Rico. For good or bad here we are able, in some way, to be a little bit freer in the U.S. because when you live in Puerto Rico –well as they say el pueblo pequeño, infierno grande. Sometimes it’s very hard to come out when so many of us know each other. When you are out here people don’t know you. You are one more. It’s easier to be who you are without the fear of being discriminated against or looked down upon at or singled out.
I think that we need to continue to strengthen the ties between the diaspora and the Patria so we can help our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico. Those are the main objectives that we need to focus on.