At least 18 gay or transgender people have been killed in Puerto Rico in the last year and a half. Puerto Rico has about the same population as Oklahoma and is about two-thirds the size of Connecticut. So ponder this: How would the LGBT community react, if there 18 Connecticut queers got murdered in the last 18 months?
Puerto Rico is part of America, you realize.
Puerto Rican-born pop singer Ricky Martin joined GLAAD in urging President Obama to speak out against the island territory’s anti-LGBT violence. But Obama didn’t. Why not?
Obama’s trip marked the first U.S. Presidential visit to Puerto Rico since JFK. His speech had mostly feel-good mentions of recent Puerto Rican contributions to mainland culture as well as his usual mentions of alternative energy, better jobs, education, and such. But his visit only lasted four hours; just long enough—by Jon Stewart’s estimation—to court the 847,000 Puerto RIcans needed to win Florida electoral votes in 2012.
Maybe Obama feared that mentioning dead queers would have made his feel-good speech a bit of a downer.
His speech did acknowledge Republican Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño however, a man who aggressively worked to strengthen the island’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And according to Pedro Julio Serrano, communications manager for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the constitutional ban is only a small part of the island’s larger homophobia problem:
“Part of the problem is we have a government that’s been silent on these murders,” said Serrano. “The president of the Senate has called LGBT people ‘twisted’ and ‘mentally ill’ and that incites violence.” He added: “Also we have religious leaders that have been using language that also incites that violence, and we hold them accountable for these crimes as well.”
The administration’s silence on this issue amounts to a tacit endorsement of the violence and homophobic politics there. He might think that the Puerto Rico LGBT community has been watching the developments of queer politics on the mainland and finds hope there, but his speech demonstrates the importance of speaking directly to a region’s cultural issues and he didn’t do that.
If Obama’s Puerto Rican relations are to amount to anything more than a quest for votes, he has to ask the island to face its challenges instead of just painting a rosy picture for its future.