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Case Puts Focus On Gay Rights
By Iván Román
May 14, 2001
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A judge found probable cause last week that Leandro Antonio Ruiz violated an order to stay away from his boyfriend in the southwestern agricultural town of Yauco.
For the case to go forward, Juan J. del Valle had to be given immunity so he could talk freely about whom he sleeps with and not face charges under the island's sodomy law.
This situation -- ridiculous to some, immoral to others -- is the first domestic-violence case among same-sex couples to be played out in a Puerto Rico courtroom since 1999 when the previous administration stopped offering gays and lesbians that protection.
Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodriguez, in office since January, reversed her predecessor last month and ordered prosecutors to apply Puerto Rico's fairly progressive domestic-violence laws to same-sex couples because the island's constitution mandates equal protection under the law.
The Ruiz/Del Valle case came up almost immediately, giving the move its first true test in a trial that resumes May 24. Ruiz, 18, is charged with assault and violating an order requiring him to stay away from del Valle, 29, after he hit him in the arm and bit his chest during an argument.
"The judge was able to get beyond the way people traditionally see domestic violence and understand that here is a person with a different view of what a relationship is," said prosecutor Luis Guillermo Zambrana, who coordinates domestic-violence cases in Ponce.
Studies by the national Anti-Violence Project in New York City put states such as Florida near the top of the list of places where protective orders are unavailable to victims of domestic violence among same-sex couples because the victims would have to acknowledge an "illegal sexual relationship." The existence of sodomy laws criminalizing homosexual acts would support the argument that domestic-violence orders were not intended to protect same-sex couples.
Ruiz's attorney, Lillianet Cortes Soto, used precisely that argument as she tried to get the charges dismissed. But Ponce Superior Court Judge Elisa Figueroa Baez didn't buy it and agreed with prosecutors that the domestic-violence law is a special statute that supersedes the criminal code. She also sided with prosecutors that domestic-violence law is written in language neutral enough that it applies to any two people living together.
But to get around the island's sodomy law, del Valle was given immunity from prosecution so he could talk freely about this relationship with Ruiz.
"They shouldn't have to give him immunity at all," said Eric Ferrero of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian/Gay Rights Project, which has a lawsuit challenging the sodomy law before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. "You shouldn't have to get immunity to get protection."
Gay-rights activists called the judge's decision a victory. Carlos Sanchez, president of Pro-Life of Puerto Rico, an anti-abortion group that opposes gay rights, called last week's hearing a "laughingstock."
"This kind of special law was made for married people, [straight] couples that live together and have had children," Sanchez said. "This wasn't done for two guys who get in a fight. This is a political favor for the homosexual community for their support in the election last November."
Gov. Sila Maria Calderon said Rodriguez didn't consult her before making the decision but agreed it's the right thing to do. Responding to conservative groups' fears that this is a first step toward legalizing gay marriage, Calderon said she was not ready to change the Civil Code to allow that.
But first things first, activists say. On two fronts, they are working to change the sodomy law. Besides the ACLU lawsuit, which alleges the law violates the right to privacy, they've also drafted amendments to the Penal Code that go before the new Legislature this year.
"That needs to be done," said gay activist Jose Joaquin Mulinelli, who co-anchors a weekly public-affairs show called Coming Out of the Closet. "In the measure that we're thought of as criminals, that is going to prevent a whole series of other things."