Gay-Rights Issues Bring Protesters To Streets
By Iván Román
April 20, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Now that gay-rights activists narrowly lost another battle in Puerto Rico, they are bracing for a full-court press this summer to win the war.
By a split 4-3 decision, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled last week that domestic-violence statutes -- commonly known here as Law 54 -- do not apply to gays and lesbians. The judges in the majority said the legislative intent was to "strengthen the institution of the family," defined as one of a "sentimental and legal union between a man and a woman."
The decision set aside criminal charges against Leandro Ruiz Martínez for beating his boyfriend, Juan J. del Valle, two years ago, the first domestic-violence case the government prosecuted since it decided to reverse its predecessors and apply the law to same-sex couples.
It also calls into question dozens of similar cases and protective orders that have been issued since. Arguing that gays should have equal protection under the law, Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez asked the court last week to reconsider its decision as demonstrators on both sides of the issue picketed the Supreme Court.
The passionate discussion also grabbed headlines at a time when the Legislature is revising the island's penal code for the first time in 30 years, including a controversial sodomy law that gay activists say makes them criminals and opens the door to discrimination.
"Society in general wants to claim that we are in the same situation in which we were in 30 years ago," said Ricardo Ramírez Lugo of the Legal Assistance Clinic at the University of Puerto Rico's Law School. "The decision by the court reflects that wish for the [gay] community to continue to be nonexistent, for the closet to keep growing."
Their opponents say it's all part of a bigger battle being waged simultaneously in the government, the courts and the Capitol. Given that this victory was not so solid -- the three dissident judges in essence blasted their colleagues in writing for copping out -- these groups say they can't let their guard down.
"We thank them for reaffirming the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman," said Milton Picón Díaz, president of the Morality in Media of Puerto Rico. "If they don't, it opens the door to changes in the Penal and Civil Code that are being revised in the Capitol right now."
For both sides, that's where the bigger issue lies.
To speak about his relationship with his violent boyfriend, del Valle, the victim, had to get immunity from prosecution under the island's sodomy law, which criminalizes any sexual contact not traditionally used for procreation.
Although the sodomy law has never been applied in Puerto Rico, activists say the threat is there. A lawmaker so much as voiced that threat to lesbian activist Margarita Sánchez as she testified at a hearing in the Capitol, giving rise to a constitutional challenge that went up to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.
The court ruled against Sánchez, stating that the law had not been applied. A potential threat was not enough, it ruled, to prove a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed in the island's Constitution or unequal protection under the law. The Ruiz domestic-violence case, activists say, now proves their point, because victims had to get immunity to seek protection.
"Here we see a clear example of the type of damage this can cause," said Janice Gutiérrez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Puerto Rico office, a key part of an alliance now lobbying the Legislature to eliminate the sodomy law. "We are telling lawmakers in our visits that our Constitution protects a right to privacy which that law penalizes."
Puerto Rico is on a shrinking list of 19 U.S. states and territories with a sodomy law still on the books. The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a Texas case in which two men caught having sex in a bedroom claim the sodomy law is unconstitutional.
The effect that decision may have on Puerto Rico's law in the Penal Code is still unclear. But gay-rights opponents say they'll keep fighting even if a decision in Washington gives the other side the upper hand.
"The gay community wants to shut us up, and we're not going to shut up," said the Rev. Jorge Raschke, a Protestant minister and prominent gay-rights opponent. "The legal matters are just one battle front. Ours is moral. This is not San Francisco. What we want is for our culture in Puerto Rico to be respected."