Puerto Rico has put in place new hate crimes legislation to combat crimes against the LGBT community. (Photo/AP )

Opinion: Puerto Rico needs more than hate crime laws to change intolerant culture

Puerto Rico is still an intolerant country.

Such intolerance, which includes blatant sexism and homophobia on Puerto Rico’s airwaves and social media communities, has done very little to move the colony-nation forward.

Engrained for centuries, this ugly secret is a tough thing to change. And lately it has also led to violence and death. From 2009–2011, for example, 18 members of Puerto Rico’s LGBT community were murdered. Any efforts to have these murders classified as hate crimes by the administration of pro-statehood Republican governor Luis Fortuño led nowhere.

Until last week.

Just days before the Fortuño administration turned over the government to pro-commonwealth Democratic governor Alejandro García Padilla, Secretary of Justice Guillermo Somoza revealed in his last press conference that the new protocol for the processing and classification of hate crimes involved recent meetings with many LGBT groups in Puerto Rico.

Why the sudden change in policy just days before the Fortuño administration left office? Could this be yet another example of the pro-statehood faction wanting to reflect what is already a common practice in mainland U.S.? Could it be one of the uncomfortable choices an intolerant Puerto Rico has to make if it wants to make a stronger case to become the 51st state of the Union?

It doesn’t help your cause when a U.S. Justice Department report basically condemned widespread corruption in Puerto Rico’s police force, stating its poor handling of hate crimes as one of its grievances. It’s almost as if the U.S. is telling Puerto Rico to step up its game if it wants to be taken seriously.

LGBT activist Pedro Julio Serrano also thinks that the new protocol doesn’t cut it, either. This is what he told me: “The protocol announced by the Puerto Rican Department of Justice is a step in the right direction, but not enough. It needs to be implemented fully and a new, more strict law should be put in place to really work with the hate crimes on the island.”

Which leads me to García Padilla, the island’s newest governor, who was sworn in this week. On the campaign trail last fall, García Padilla addressed the island’s LGBT community about the new hate crime law, evoking the late gay activist Harvey Milk in his comments, when he said in Spanish that his name was “Alejandro García Padilla and I am here to recruit you.”

This is the same García Padilla who also campaigned against gay marriage: “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Having said that, it can’t be used as an excuse to discriminate against people who think differently.”

He later continued, “If we want to improve the quality of life in Puerto Rico, if we want to propose real ideas that care for the family unit, we must favor that basic principle of Christianity that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

That is why I still think the struggle for a Puerto Rico that is free from hate and promotes equality has only just begun. The island’s politicians still send extremely mixed messages.

True tolerance will happen when the right measures are put in place to avoid further tragedies based on one’s sexual orientation, and leaders begin to understand that equality means 100% equality, and not just when it is politically convenient.

I doubt that Puerto Rico’s leaders understand it. That is why the movement to transform Puerto Rico will continue to come from the bottom up and not from the top down. Just ask Serrano:

“While we wish Governor García Padilla well after his inauguration, we will remind him that he made various campaign promises to the LGBT community and we will hold him accountable.”

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