A transgender woman, Mila García, was 12 years old when she started conversion therapy in Puerto Rico. Her parents found a love letter she had exchanged with a boy in her class, and they forced her into three years of the pseudoscientific practice that seeks to reverse an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity by psychological or spiritual intervention. Some of the counselors and social workers her parents had her meet with told her that queer romance and sexuality are "sinful" because "she was a boy." Others instructed her to write essays on why her attraction to boys made her "wrong" and "bad." Overcome by shame and self-hate, she attempted suicide during her years in treatment. But her torment doesn't fall solely on the hands of her family, but also that of a government that has yet to outlaw the practice of conversion therapy on the archipelago.
Last month, Garcia, now a college student, was one of several queer and trans Puerto Ricans who offered their testimony in public hearings for Senate Bill 184, a measure that would have banned the practice. These individuals spoke about the mental, emotional, and, in some cases, physical violence experienced under conversion counseling, which has been linked to causing "serious potential harm," such as depression and suicidal ideation, by The American Psychological Association and even classified as "torture" by the United Nations. Though former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed an executive order in 2019 that prohibited conversion therapies in the U.S. territory, it risks being annulled by future anti-LGBTQ rights governors while the practice continues to be used by religious-based counsellors. SB 184 could have codified the ban into law. Even more, it would have established professional consequences, like fines or license suspensions, for therapists who conduct these forms of therapies. Still, on May 6, 2021, a Puerto Rico Senate committee voted to kill the bill.
This decision puts the lives of many trans and queer youth at risk. "We've left minors from the LGBTQ community without any recourse to protect themselves from people who practice these torture therapies, which is really sad and unfortunate," Mayte Bayolo-Alonso, a legislative attorney for ACLU's Puerto Rico chapter, tells Refinery29.
Bayolo-Alonso credits the bill's failure to pass to a powerful disinformation campaign that targets families. For months, religious leaders and the conservative third party Proyecto Dignidad allegedly asserted that conversion therapies don't take place in Puerto Rico and circulated lies about the bill through social media and church services. These groups alleged Senate Bill 184 was heterophobic, put parents who didn't support their child's sexual orientation or gender identity at risk of incarceration, and barred youth who experienced sexual or physical violence from obtaining therapy.
Multiple LGBTQ+ rights groups in Puerto Rico are working to push back on the disinformation. La Sombrilla Cuir, a transfeminist educational platform and collective, uses social media to inform the public about the state of conversion therapy on the island. The group posts bill explainers and hosts online discussions with survivors who share their traumatizing experiences in therapy, churches, or conversion camps disguised as "self-esteem retreats."
However, these parents, who were told by trusted religious leaders that the measure threatened their right to raise their children according to their ideals, have not been persuaded by educators fighting the disinformation. Many parents participated in protests against the bill outside Puerto Rico's Capitol building; some held signs that read, "Don't mess with my children" and "As a mother, I have every right to model to my children, educate them, and affirm them under my principles."
"While we tried to specify that this bill was solely about creating professional regulations for licensed therapists who conduct these kinds of therapies, the message was destroyed," Bayolo-Alonso says.
"This isn't the first time we've tried passing laws like this, and it won't be the last time."
SB 184 lost by an 8-7 vote margin, and three senators abstained from voting. Advocates — like Marielle DeLeon, an organizer with La Sombrilla Cuir — believe the backlash against the bill prompted some senators who had previously supported banning conversion therapy to stay home on voting day. "They feared their voter base. They feared not being re-elected," DeLeon tells Refinery29. "But this isn't the first time we've tried passing laws like this, and it won't be the last time. For us, this just means that the struggle continues. The fight isn't over yet."
For Puerto Rico's feminist and LGBTQ communities, the latest battle in this ongoing fight for human rights and social justice surrounds Senate Bill 130, which would amend the Penal Code to recognize and establish femicides and trans-femicides as crimes that constitute murder in the first degree. In 2020, the U.S. saw its deadliest year for trans people on record, and Puerto Rico has been described as the epicentre of the crisis. Of the 44 trans individuals killed in the U.S. last year, six occurred in Puerto Rico. Of those murders, only one case has produced arrests.
For Joanna Cifredo, executive director of True Self Foundation, a Puerto Rican foundation providing resources and services to the LGBTQ community, the same ideology behind harmful conversion therapies contributes to violence against trans bodies – and the government's recent inaction around SB 184 further sanctions this brutality.
"When the state starts bullying, it sends a message to young people that trans people and queer people are not worthy of protection and that it's ok to hate on us, discriminate against us, and dispose of us," Cifredo says.
Since Bill 184 was defeated, the House has been reviewing two anti-trans measures introduced by the Project Dignity Party, the same party behind the disinformation campaign. House Bill 768 aims to prohibit hormonal therapies for trans youth, while House Bill 764 would force trans athletes to participate in sports teams and leagues according to the gender assigned to them at birth.
"With so much violence against women and trans people in Puerto Rico, it's never been more important to push back against discriminatory measures and fight for laws that protect and support our communities," says DeLeon of La Sombrilla Cuir. "We do this through educating others, reaching out to people in government, and organizing manifestations."