Along the northern coast of Puerto Rico, there’s a densely populated, bustling barrio called Santurce. In this neighborhood, nestled between the Bahía de San Juan and the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll find a thriving LGBTQ community that has found solace in its colorful buildings and vibrant streets.
Here, along the sand and sun, you’ll find artists who push the limits on what we think we know about our bodies and identities. You’ll find queer student activists using social media to expand the conversation on gender and sexuality. On cool November days, you’ll find the annual Puerto Rico Queer Filmfest. When the sun sets on Santurce, inclusive LGBTQ parties rage on. The drag scene is also popular and its influence has spread far past the borders of Puerto Rico — “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has featured a Puerto Rican queen in every season.
“You’ll always see people who are open about expressing who they are,” said Pedro J. Serrano, founder of LGBTQ advocacy group Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, which was launched in 2003.
Thanks to the work of LGBTQ groups and allies, Puerto Rico is ahead of 32 states and the other four U.S. territories in terms of LGBTQ rights and equity, according to the Movement Advancement Project. The territory allows for gender and name changes on all identity documents, such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates.
Puerto Rico has also established anti-discriminatory laws that prohibit health insurance, public or private, from discriminating against someone for their gender identity or sexuality. Similar laws and policies are applied in the workplace. Conversion therapy is banned in Puerto Rico, and hate crime and anti-bullying laws cover LGBTQ people and students. All rights and benefits of marriage extend to same-sex couples.
Community organizers are present on every level of societal and political change, from basic awareness to policy reform, which isn’t the case in many other places, according to Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead, a not-for-profit group that focuses on addressing public health issues in the LGBTQ community.
Labiosa, Serrano and other LGBTQ activists credit the grassroots nature of their advocacy with the cultural shifts in Puerto Rico.
“We mobilize from our grassroots movement that in many parts of the world ... it’s not existent anymore,” Labiosa said. “In the United States, in my opinion, [the LGBTQ rights movement] has become very commercialized.”
LGBTQ activists in Puerto Rico use the close-knit community to their advantage, educating their friends and neighbors about issues that affect them.
In Puerto Rico, “everybody knows each other,” Serrano said. “So coming out of the closet and telling our stories and being visible has paved the way so people can be more welcoming and accepting of our identities.”
In the territory-wide protests calling for the resignation of former governor Ricardo Rosselló, whose leaked group chat revealed misogynistic and homophobic comments, LGBTQ activists were front and center screaming, dancing, banging on drums and singing a tune against corruption. Alongside them were fellow feminists and social justice advocates.
When Puerto Rico was in the midst of a political crisis, grassroots organizations won out against Rosselló, forcing him to step down as protests erupted throughout the entire island.
“We don’t have fear,” Labiosa said. “We’re in your face. We don’t have fear of saying and speaking out ... Don’t touch us, and don’t make us pissed off.”
Labiosa and Serrano have been on the frontlines of the grassroots movement in the U.S. territory. Serrano was the first openly gay, HIV-positive candidate in Puerto Rico’s history to run for office, although he was defeated in 1998. Serrano has also served on the National LGBT Task Force and now works for Freedom to Marry, a campaign that helps end marriage discrimination worldwide.
Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, as a plaintiff in many revolutionary cases, secured marriage equality on the Puerto Rican archipelago, helped transgender citizens change the gender marker on birth certificates, and more. It even led a successful boycott against La Comay’s “SuperXclusivo”, a popular TV program that was “homophobic, misogynistic, racist, you name it,” according to Serrano, and took it off the air.
Waves Ahead, the group led by Labiosa, has advocated for policy changes, rebuilt houses after Hurricane Maria and provided aid and short-term therapy to more than 1,200 clients. It has also provided a safe space for older LGBTQ people to socialize, and started an entrepreneurial program to support LGBTQ, elderly and female business starters.
Labiosa said a large, intricate network of activists is the basis for Puerto Rico’s growing LGBTQ visibility.
“We know each other. We’re connected and we know our work,” Labiosa said. Keeping tabs on each other, on upcoming developments and supporting them in their next steps is key. “Just this morning, I called two of the other leaders. We work collaboratively.”
With the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood, and looming environmental dangers, these activists and their counterparts say it’s important to have a powerful LGBTQ presence on the ground and, now, in government. Labiosa works alongside San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (D) as her senior adviser.
Though Puerto Rico has made progress in LGBTQ rights, it still has its challenges. Poverty, lack of health resources, homelessness, stigma and homophobia in the highest levels of Puerto Rican politics are still major issues.
“We still have a lack of LGBTQI and queer representation in media,” Serrano said. “We still have the stereotypes in news and entertainment media. We still have hate crimes. We don’t have a curriculum with gender perspective in schools, and we have horrible bullying on social media in terms of LGBTQI and queer people.”
Serrano recounted potential hate crimes against the LGBTQ community that haven’t been investigated as such by police, as well as incidents of bias.
“We are a religious Catholic culture — machismo culture,” Labiosa said. “People of all ages, straight or gay, are coming to our doors seeking services. A young person doesn’t feel comfortable seeking services in their schools and they have to come here.”
The struggling economy poses another challenge for LGBTQ people. Labiosa, who lived in Boston until 2014, said when he came back to Puerto Rico he saw a stark difference in the number of services readily available for the LGBTQ community compared to Boston.
“Many LGBTQ people are living under the poverty line,” Labiosa said. “We are just surviving.”
Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.