Pedro Julio Serrano is the executive director of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a nonprofit organization in Puerto Rico that focuses on political movement support for LGBTQI+ people. He shares his story as an openly HIV+ and gay man in Puerto Rico and takes us on a historical journey on the progress the island has made in terms of LGBTQI+ policies and laws.
By Iván López-Justiniano | Alturi
How did you get involved in activism?
Well, I actually did not start being an activist, I started as a politician. I was the first political candidate in Puerto Rican history to announce my sexual orientation as gay and also come out as HIV positive. This was back in 1998. I ran with the Partido Nuevo Progresista, which still continues to be a homophobic political party. I quit politics and became an activist. A few years after renouncing politics I founded Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a non profit organization that not only fights for LGBTQI+ equity but also advocates for social justice, environmental justice, and justice for every human. We cannot build a society without intersectionality and transversal justice. This is why I became involved in activism. I remember that what initiated everything was when I watched on the news that they were announcing a new law to amend the constitution to prohibit marriage equality, which was already prohibited in Puerto Rico. I saw this as a homophobic attack. This new proposed law made me testify before the Senate. I remember thinking, “why isn’t there anyone like me here?” This is what made me run for politics, and the rest is history, as they say.
Seeing so much ignorance from our elected politicians made me realize that the problem was not only in the Senate. Even though there is institutionalized homophobia, we needed to change the minds and hearts of people. Politicians respond to their voters, therefore if it was normalized to be homophobic, we needed to mobilize society to change this behavior. I wanted to change the minds and hearts of people to demand change from their politicians and I believe that we have achieved this.
What inspires you to do this work?
In 1994 I received results from my HIV test as positive. At that time this was a death sentence. I wanted to move forward and not let my HIV status stop me. During this time I started giving talks in schools about the importance of safe sex. Now that we are in different times, we know that undetectable means intransmissible, and what is important is to get tested and start treatment. I wanted to share my story. I was infected in my first sexual relationship. During 1997 I started realizing and learning more about the stigma that exists with HIV. Puerto Ricans, like many others, saw this as a gay issue. Therefore, I knew that I had to play a role in changing people’s mindsets around HIV and gay sex. Society only sees the LGBTQ community as a sexual identity, always being labeled and discussed around sex topics, but we are humans and sexuality is only a part of our identity. This inspired me to start my activism and promote change in Puerto Rican society. I was able to see this change in my own family. My family changed from denial and rejection to total celebration of my sexual orientation. I was able to see all the phases from rejection, to denial, then tolerance where the “issue” was not discussed, then respect and acceptance. Now they not only celebrate me, they have also become involved in activism. I want to make this happen in every Puerto Rican family. I knew that for the changes I wanted to see happen, we needed to involve Puerto Rican families to promote recognition of LGBTQI+ people as human. We do this by focusing on the media and learning from feminist frameworks to make the personal political. I used my story to personalize the issues and make families think “this could be my son, grandson, or brother,” and utilize me as a reference point.
What is your focus in your work?
I work in different communities. During my activism I have learned that solidarity is a practice, not merely a theory. You have to be present in fights that may not be directly affecting you but that cause oppression. We need to all deal with the same issues around oppression and being different. I have been alongside different communities in Puerto Rico like the community from Barrio San Mateo de Cangrejo when dealing with expropriation, public housing communities, people with disabilities, feminist movements, antiracism fights, migrant communities, teachers, students, unions, and more. We have always been present in these fights and Puerto Rico Para Tod@s attempts to visualize the union between these fights and the LGBTQI+ community. We wanted these communities to know that LGBTQI+ people were there alongside them. In all of these communities, there are LGBTQI+ people and sometimes they are invisibilized because the focus of the fight can be different. We wanted LGBTQI+ people in every movement to be seen and celebrated. Solidarity has made these groups also be present in LGBTQI+ fights. This has created a space of collaboration that is very important in Puerto Rico.
What pushes you to continue using your voice to speak about LGBTQI+ issues?
I am going to give you an example that is as recent as yesterday. We were in a protest led by the transgender community in Puerto Rico because of the inaction of the government to deal with the violence that is occurring. We have had six murders of trans folks this year. One of the survivors of transphobic violence and hate crime was there and shared: “I want to thank one person. When I was attacked there was only one person who defended my gender identity publicly and demanded that I was treated as a trans woman and that person was Pedro Julio Serrano.” This is what keeps me going, knowing that we can have an impact on another person’s life and give them the dignity they deserve when others deny it.
What is it like to be LGBTQI+ in Puerto Rico?
There is a famous Puerto Rican phrase that I think captures my sentiment: “small town, big hell.” I think it is very challenging because in Puerto Rico everyone knows each other and everyone talks about everyone. If you are still in the closet and people do not know about your sexual orientation or gender identity, someone can out you without your consent. We still have politicians who do not understand what gender perspective means or that are against LGBTQI+ rights. Right now we have a candidate running for governor who is publicly homophobic. There is a great influence from churches in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is the nation with the most churches by miles square in the world and this affects our reality. We have to deal with internalized homophobia and colonialism. We have to put into perspective that the minds of some Puerto Ricans are a colonized mentality, and we are beginning to learn how to be free.
I do have to mention that Puerto Rico is ahead in terms of LGBTQI+ laws and policies compared to the majority of US states. LGBT Map ranks us ahead of many states in terms of laws, policies, and protections for LGBTQI+ people. This showcases the fight for equity in Puerto Rico, we have no Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, or National LGBTQ Task Force. Everything is based on volunteer work. There are no big LGBTQI+ organizations employing activists here. This example portrays the spirit of fight that Puerto Ricans have, even with all the barriers that I have mentioned. I see LGBTQI+ people in Puerto Rico with so much resilience, strength, and desire to change society. Additionally, LGBTQI+ people in Puerto Rico are always present in other political movements that happen on the island. We do not see our fight as individual; rather, a collective movement to fight against injustices. I feel very proud of LGBTQI+ people in Puerto Rico and what we have accomplished.
What laws impact LGBTQI+ people?
In Puerto Rico, all the laws that exist cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. We have laws and policies around hate crimes, as well as protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, domestic violence, and same-sex marriage. Both federally and nationally, there are gender transition options in birth certificates and licensure, same-sex couple benefits, and adoption rights.
What is currently happening in Puerto Rico that pertains to LGBTI+ people?
Currently, we are experiencing a wave of violent hate crimes. There have been twelve murders of LGBTQI+ people in the last fifteen months. We are seeing rampant acts of homophobia and transphobia that are very alarming. The majority of political candidates are either unaware or are publicly homophobic, and the new Civil Code endangers LGBTQI+ people. When I started doing activism LGBTQI+ topics were never discussed and politicians tended to evade the topic. Now if politicians are against LGBTQI+ rights or do not know how to express themselves on this matter, they can lose votes. I would say that now LGBTQI+ people are finally in a position of power when it comes to politics. When I started twenty years ago, the words LGBTQI+ and power were never seen as hand in hand. Now they are.
What has changed in the past few years?
Change has been so radical in terms of society. We have been able to kick out local TV programs because of homophobic behavior. Society has changed so much that even conservative political candidates have to state that they will recognize and protect LGBTQI+ rights because they know that even to their followers, taking away LGBTQI+ rights is not desired. Yesterday I was at a protest and there was a 15-year-old trans person; this shows where we have moved as a society. I also direct a transgender health clinic in San Juan and the biggest HIV clinic and we have youths as young as 14 years old that come to the clinic with their parents to start their gender transition. We have couples who are 60+ years old who bring their spouses to start their gender transition as well. We have advanced so much that the majority of LGBTQI+ people no longer live in fear.
What organization are you affiliated with?
Puerto Rico Para Tod@s is a non profit organization and the only one that has led two judicial cases: for gender transition options in birth certificates and for marriage equality rights. We boycotted a local TV show because of homophobic comments and we got it off the air. We have been present in all the political movements in Puerto Rico and we educate different organizations to move them against homophobia and transphobia. We also focus on the media to change the perception of society about LGBTQI+ people in Puerto Rico. The name translates to Puerto Rico for All and this really symbolizes what we hope for: an organization that is for everyone. I feel very proud of what we have accomplished in the last seventeen years and we are grateful to be able to continue doing the work.
How does your organization operate?
We operate as a non profit that is based on volunteer work. All the funds that we receive are directed to advocacy work and direct services. We work in different legal cases and develop our own material to give training to schools and universities. We also provide training for advocates to support us in continuing the fight. We need to start moving leadership to a new generation.
What is your role?
I am the founder and executive director. We have a Board of Directors that decides the mission and objectives of the organization and give input in our programmatic services. I am also the face of the organization that is publicly showing up in different political movements.
If readers want to support their work, how does funding explicitly benefit the organization?
We provide training to activists and advocates so they can continue the work. We also lobby and prepare testimonies for the legislature, develop studies and surveys to showcase the level of discrimination that LGBTQI+ people experience, and give direct services to LGBTQI+ youth experiencing homelessness and provide permanent housing. We have also supported LGBTQI+ folks affected by the hurricanes, earthquakes, and pandemic experienced in the last years. We really want to dispel the myth that Puerto Rican society is inherently homophobic and display all the progress we have made in the last years.
Readers can donate funds at the following link: https://www.paypal.com/biz/fund?id=NVXF4EV58VGJW.
*Responses have been edited and translated for clarity and length