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Federal officials "shocked" at transgender violence and discrimination in Puerto Rico

Editor's Note: In Puerto Rico, the word transexual is used to refer to a person whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth.  Transexual people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically. Puerto Ricans use the word transgender to refer to people who adopt the dress or manner of the opposite sex but are not interested in transitioning their gender.  The terms used in this article reflect those usages.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Two weeks ago, representatives of the Puerto Rican group, Transexuales y Transgéneros en Marcha (TTM), met with United States federal officials regarding the ongoing violations of human rights, high levels of discrimination and lack of access to health care for transexual women in Puerto Rico.

During the meeting, federal officials were sometimes shocked by what they heard; testimonies of violence and discrimination against the PR transexual community caused them great concern.

Sophia Isabel Marrero Cruz, spokesperson for TTM and a longtime transexual activist, felt the attention was the first step in affecting change with respect to human rights in the U.S. territory.

“We have been speaking out to the community as well reporting to the government on the murders and systemic beatings of Trans women to the Department of Justice and Police Department of Puerto Rico," Marrero Cruz said.

"To date, none of the murders and beatings have been classified as hate crimes under the local laws, that is a big concern for the safety of the Trans community, a slap in the face to the calls for justice for those victims of crimes, and message of apathy from our local authorities."

Marrero Cruz was invited to testify at the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights listening session by the Network for LGBT Health Equity at The Fenway Institute in Massachusetts. Representatives from the Network were also in attendance.

After testifying, Marrero Cruz was also able to attend Creating Change, the premier national LGBT civil rights conference, which was held in Baltimore over the same time period and lead to a series of very serendipitous meetings.

An unprecedented response

"The response was unprecedented, literally two dozen officials were assembled over the weekend to meet with us on Monday," said Dr. Scout, Director of the Network of LGBT Health Equity.

Scout was instrumental in coordinating Marrero Cruz's visit and her meetings with U.S. officials, after having been overwhelmed by the atrocities he learned about during a visit to Puerto Rico last November.

He was even more alarmed at how Puerto Rico's lack of resources (cell phones and internet) isolated them and played a huge part in getting publicity for the murders that were actually occurring. Once he heard about the Dept of Health and Human Services Civil Rights listening session, he got Marrero Cruz on a plane to testify about the realities of the situation, in person.

Thanks to Scout's own professional network within the community, the rest of the weekend was a whirlwind of one-on-one meetings and by Monday, they had miraculously assembled two dozen federal officials in the same room, specifically to meet with Marrero Cruz. She could not have been more pleased with the meetings.

"Just as the challenges in Puerto Rico are a bellwether of LGBT stigma there, this response is a clear bellwether of how the administration wants to support even the most vulnerable among us," Scout said.

"There have been eight murders in the last year, alone," he continued. "Puerto Rico is literally the epicenter of LGBT violence in the U.S. and trans women sometimes have to travel to New York to get health care. How can we expect to get traction on LGBT wellness until the issues of violence and basic healthcare are addressed?”

The real "bleeding edge" in our fight for civil rights

Dr. Scout, who has been trans identified himself for twenty years, has been with The Fenway Institute for over a decade. He spoke to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about this extraordinary meeting.

"For me as a trans person, this issue isn't just about Puerto Rico, it's about how we as LGBT people respond to the most vulnerable among us, trans women, and especially trans women of color," he said.

"This is really the bleeding edge of our fight for LGBT civil rights. For many gender-variant people, and trans women especially, it's not marriage, it's safety.

According to Scout, the LGBT community in Puerto Rico has been able to come together to bond and organize much more in recent years in response to the intense climate; however, support from the larger LGBT structure in the United States has been seriously lacking.

"We thought if we could put one of these amazing organizers in Puerto Rico in front of people over here, we could really unleash some support for them from the mainland," he said. "The feds responded more strongly than I'd hoped, this was really government at its best.

"It's probably crazy that we've become accustomed to federal programs not serving us, but it's true. So it's a blazing relief to see how discrimination against LGBT people during the distribution of healthcare provided through U.S. government funds, really isn't tolerated.

"Now I hope our own LGBT funding and activism infrastructure follows suit. "

Personally and professionally vested

Fenway and its Network for LGBT Health Equity both work hard for the entire community, and have done so for decades. However, Scout recognizes there are much deeper issues and concerns, especially when it comes to his trans brothers and sisters, and even members of his own family.

"As a trans person, I know it's hard to survive as a healthy trans person into adulthood," he said. "I was suicidal, myself and I didn't even have to deal with the level of violence most trans women face. It rips my heart out to think of what our trans youth have to endure.

"I have a trans niece who's in a shelter right now in Detroit and I worry every day for her safety. I may not be able to change the world, but it was very personally gratifying to be able to use some of my connections to at least help the young trans people in Puerto Rico, who risk their lives just by existing.

"It humbled me, too," Scout said. "Sophia has been doing so much for so long, she really is one of our unsung heroes."

Read the November press release from the Network of LGBT Health Equity about how severely trans murders are under-accounted for in Puerto Rico.

About the Network for LGBT Health Equity

The Network for LGBT Health Equity is a program of The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health. 

It is a community-driven network of advocates and professionals looking to enhance LGBT health by eliminating tobacco use, and other health disparities within our communities.

They are one of six CDC-funded tobacco disparity networks and a project of The Fenway Institute in Boston.

They advance these issues primarily by linking people and information to advocate for policy change, and by actively monitoring national and state health policymakers and urging community action when there is an opportunity to enhance LGBT wellness.

You can follow their blogs, efforts and causes at their website.

You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Fenway Health has been working for more than forty years to make life healthier for the people in their Boston neighborhood, the greater LGBT community, people living with HIV/AIDS and the broader population. 

The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health is an interdisciplinary center for research, training, education and policy development focusing on national and international health issues.

Learn more online at fenwayhealth.org.