US hits new record for transgender killings. Puerto Rico is the epicenter of the violence

She was an incredible dancer.

That’s what Kimberly Vasquez Arciliares remembers most about Penélope Díaz Ramírez, with whom she usually shared the drag stage in San Juan. After exhibits, the two would hit the golf equipment and chatter about life, evaluating the clinics they’d go to for hormone therapies as transgender ladies in Puerto Rico.

“She was an excellent drag queen, and an amazing lip-syncer and choreographer, too,” Vasquez stated. “She was in the process of transitioning, and trying to live her true life as a female.”

But on April 13, 2020, Diaz was discovered crushed and hanged at a males’s correctional facility to which she’d been wrongfully assigned in Bayamon, turning into the ninth of what could be 44 transgender killings in the United States and its territories final 12 months. It was the nation’s deadliest 12 months on record.

Nowhere has the disaster been extra pronounced than in Puerto Rico, the place 12 transgender victims, most of them ladies, had been killed in a two-year span. The violence comes amid a shifting nationwide debate on transgender rights and strikes by the territory to cope with its lengthy historical past of brutality in opposition to ladies.

Puerto Rico’s transgender group and its allies blame the killings on a mixture of spiritual fundamentalism, transphobia, indifference from authorities and lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Maria.

“The transgender community is the most discriminated within the LGBT community, and Puerto Rico is no exception,” stated Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, San Juan’s mayor from 2013 till final 12 months. “There’s still a lot of conservative, religiously motivated thought. Legislators are too concerned about people’s sex lives, when they should be concerned about protecting people’s rights to live their lives the way they want.”

Activists stated motion is urgently wanted. Transgender killings in the United States are on speedy tempo to exceed final 12 months’s record violence, with 20 circumstances to date – most not too long ago the loss of life of 49-year-old Keri Washington, who was discovered useless May 1 in Clearwater, Florida.

President Joe Biden has taken steps in latest months to make sure federal protections for transgender rights and reassure the LGBTQ group that he is on their facet. In his April 28 address to Congress, he referred to as on lawmakers to cross the Equality Act, which seeks to ban discrimination primarily based on intercourse, sexual orientation and gender id. His insurance policies come as GOP state lawmakers in dozens of states are pushing bans on transgender rights.

‘Your President has your again’: President Biden addresses transgender Americans

President Joe Biden urged Congress to cross the Equality Act to guard transgender Americans’ rights.

Associated Press, USA TODAY

Puerto Rico accounted for six of final 12 months’s 44 transgender killings. The victims ranged in age from 19 to 33. Most had been shot a number of occasions. Two had been burned in a automobile. One was stalked and killed on her birthday, the incident coldly documented on social media.

Only one case has produced arrests and it was dealt with not by Puerto Rico police however by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is prosecuting it below federal hate-crime fees.

Police, activists stated, don’t deal with such crimes critically, constantly misgendering victims of violence, failing to gather information about anti-LGBTQ offenses and barely making use of hate crime legal guidelines.

Diaz’s case is one of many tragic examples, they stated.

“They didn’t follow protocols and they sent her to a men’s prison,” stated Pedro Julio Serrano, government director of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], an LGBTQ advocacy group in San Juan. “That murder could have been prevented.”

Waiting till darkish to exit to keep away from violence

A 2017 study of transgender ladies led by University of Puerto Rico researchers discovered that prime ranges of violence in opposition to ladies had been compounded by the island’s weak infrastructure and poor strategies of monitoring such crimes.

“Intolerance toward transgender people in Puerto Rico is rooted in a strong Judeo-Christian religious heritage,” the researchers wrote.

Sheilla Rodriguez-Madera, amongst the University of Puerto Rico research’s lead authors and now a public well being professor at Florida International University, stated that unbiased of its political relationship with the United States, Puerto Rico is primarily half of Latin America, a closely Catholic area that has historically opposed LGBTQ rights.

In that sense, she stated, the killings there ought to be thought-about “not as isolated events, but as part of a pattern of systematic elimination of trans individuals in the Latin American region.”

Last 12 months, 82% of the world’s 350 transgender killings befell in Central and South America, in line with Transrespect vs. Transphobia Worldwide, which compiles such annual information. More than half of all circumstances occurred in Brazil.

In San Juan, Vasquez, 42, is aware of she has been luckier than many: Born and raised in Ponce, on Puerto Rico’s south coast, she loved her dad and mom’ assist for each her ardour for dance and her early sense of feminine id. She ultimately started her transition, earned a level in vogue design and now works as a case supervisor for Arianna’s Center, a transgender assist company in San Juan.

While residing as a transgender lady has meant negotiating fixed hurdles and hurtful experiences, the spate of deadly violence has put Vasquez and others in Puerto Rico’s group on edge. Never have the emotions of hate felt so pronounced, she stated.

She and others dwell cautiously, ready till after darkish to exit. It’s simpler to mix in, to dwell as themselves with out feeling conspicuous. Vasquez stays vigilant in public and calculating about the place she goes, cautious about how she expresses herself, talking in low volumes, accentuating a feminine tone.

“I almost feel like have I have to wear a costume,” she stated. “To be, in a sense, unseen. So I don’t get hurt.”

Women of color most often victims of transgender violence

In the United States and Puerto Rico, it’s Black and brown transgender ladies who’re most frequently killed.

Since 2013, of the 200-plus cases of deadly violence in opposition to transgender or gender nonconforming individuals tallied by LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign in the United States and its territories, 9 in 10 victims had been transgender ladies. Black transgender ladies accounted for two in three deaths general.

“It is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color,” HRC famous in a January report. “The intersections of racism, transphobia, sexism, biphobia and homophobia conspire to deprive them of necessities to live and thrive.”

Salvadoran transgender migrant Sasha, poses for a picture during the International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) at

Salvadoran transgender migrant Sasha, poses for an image throughout the International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) at “La Casa de Colores” shelter, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on March 31, 2021.
HERIKA MARTINEZ, AFP by way of Getty Images

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, blames the rising violence on the anti-LGBT insurance policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration.

“The reasons we are seeing increased attacks on transgender and gender-nonconforming people is because they have been demonized and demoralized by the White House of the last four years,” David stated. “When you stigmatize and dehumanize people, it’s much easier for others to do the same.”

By pushing laws that deny the humanity of transgender individuals by blocking entry in areas like well being care, housing and employment, David stated, “it provides license to others who take action based on their biases. Lawmakers are directly responsible. They’re pretending transgender people don’t exist.”

The similar forces are at work in Puerto Rico, stated Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, a trans lady and native of the island. Political rhetoric has emboldened others to behave out, she stated, whereas these in energy look the different method.

“Trans people don’t see that the government is on their side,” stated Rodriguez-Roldan, now senior coverage supervisor for AIDS United, a Washington, D.C.-based company devoted to ending the HIV epidemic.

An attendee to a memorial for Jaida Peterson wears a T-shirt with her photo on it Friday, April 9, 2021, at Tuckaseegee Park in Charlotte, N.C. Peterson, a transgender woman, was found dead in a hotel room on Easter Sunday, April 4.

An attendee to a memorial for Jaida Peterson wears a T-shirt along with her picture on it Friday, April 9, 2021, at Tuckaseegee Park in Charlotte,…
An attendee to a memorial for Jaida Peterson wears a T-shirt along with her picture on it Friday, April 9, 2021, at Tuckaseegee Park in Charlotte, N.C. Peterson, a transgender lady, was discovered useless in a resort room on Easter Sunday, April 4.
David T. Foster III, AP
Puerto Rico slow to embrace LGBT rights

Scant details about the island’s LGBT inhabitants exists, however government director Wilfred Labiosa of Puerto Rico’s Waves Ahead, which serves older LGBT adults, stated educational and organizational research recommend that LGBT individuals comprise as much as 9% of the inhabitants in bigger cities equivalent to San Juan, Ponce and Mayaguez. The company is additionally working to compile particular information about the island’s trans inhabitants, he stated.

Cruz, the former San Juan mayor, stated the metropolis’s efforts to assist the transgender group – together with the launch of Puerto Rico’s first trans-focused well being clinic and a group occasion referred to as the Trans Goofy Games – didn’t sit effectively with some.

Demonstrators protest for transgender rights with a rally, march through the Loop and a candlelight vigil to remember transgender friends lost to murder and suicide on March 3, 2017 in Chicago. The demonstration was sparked by then-President Donald Trump's decision to reverse the Obama administration policy requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

“We faced veiled resistance,” stated Cruz, now a fellow for management initiatives at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “People would call and tell me, ‘Don’t do it. We’ll lose the conservative vote.’ Some saw my solidarity with the LGBT community and would say, ‘Oh, it must be because she’s a lesbian.’ Because God forbid someone actually feel some empathy.”

Public opinion surveys about LGBT points on the island are additionally scarce, although Latin Americans are typically extra conservative relating to social and sexual mores. A 2014 Pew Research Center religion-focused study discovered that apart from a handful of international locations equivalent to Uruguay and Argentina, a majority of individuals in Latin America strongly opposed homosexual marriage, together with 55% of Puerto Ricans.

“We’re about 10 years behind the U.S. in terms of attitudes and public consciousness,” stated trans activist Joanna Cifredo, government director of San Juan’s LGBTQ-focused True Self Foundation. Puerto Ricans haven’t had the diploma of publicity to homegrown transgender celebrities that mainland Americans have had with individuals like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, she stated.

“In the U.S., it’s a lot more mainstream,” Cifredo stated. “There’s a culture of LGBT student clubs there, and here in Puerto Rico, that’s almost non-existent. There’s a lack of safe places for queer people.”

Like Vasquez, Cifredo and her transgender pals take precautions after they exit, touring in clusters of two or three.

“Rarely do you see trans women by themselves,” Cifredo stated. “We carpool. We avoid public transportation as much as possible. Whenever I drop off my friends and drive home, I don’t stop for gas or anything. I try to keep to myself and not draw attention.”

In this June 1, 2015 photo, a journalist views a Vanity Fair tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, featured on the July cover of the magazine. Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name and look in a Vanity Fair cover shoot -- drawing widespread praise, including from the White House.

In this June 1, 2015 picture, a journalist views a Vanity Fair tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, featured on the July cowl of the journal. Caitlyn…
In this June 1, 2015 picture, a journalist views a Vanity Fair tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, featured on the July cowl of the journal. Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion previously generally known as Bruce, unveiled her new title and look in a Vanity Fair cowl shoot — drawing widespread reward, together with from the White House.

Some transgender rights advances have been remodeled the final decade. In 2013, Puerto Rico banned job discrimination primarily based on gender id or sexual orientation, then gained same-sex marriage rights with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 resolution.

The final 5 years have seen legal guidelines handed permitting transgender people to alter their driver’s licenses and delivery certificates to replace their names and gender markers.

But as half of their makes an attempt to stymie a invoice that might ban conversion remedy, some lawmakers tried to submit amendments to the measure that might prohibit transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming care. Cifredo stated she would not consider these amendments will survive the invoice’s closing model.

Such efforts, she stated, are “bullying on behalf of the state. They basically sanction the violence that we experience. And it has serious consequences. All the trans people murdered here in Puerto Rico over the last year – not one of them had reached my age. And I’m 34.”

Joanna Cifredo, government director of San Juan’s True Self Foundation.
All the trans individuals murdered right here in Puerto Rico over the final 12 months – not one of them had reached my age. And I’m 34.

'They hunted her down:' A killing that shook the community

Puerto Rico’s most up-to-date transgender killing victims included Samuel Edmund Damián Valentín, a younger trans man discovered shot a number of occasions alongside an expressway in metropolitan San Juan in January.

Six extra befell in 2020. Along with Diaz, there was Michelle “Michellyn” Ramos Vargas, a transgender lady in her mid-30s, who was discovered shot Sept. 30 in the southwestern metropolis of San German. In the small northwestern metropolis of Moca, Yampi Méndez Arocho, a 19-year-old trans man who liked the NBA’s Miami Heat, was killed March 5, 2020.

Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos, 32, and Layla Pelaez Sánchez, 21, had been killed April 21, 2020, in Humacao, allegedly by two males who stated they’d partied and had intercourse with the ladies earlier than discovering their transgender identities. According to an affidavit, the ladies had been shot of their automobile, which was then set ablaze.

But it was the Feb. 24, 2020, slaying of a homeless transgender lady who referred to as herself Alexa that the majority shook the group for its audacity, cruelty and, inside the tight-knit trans group, a way that it might have occurred to anybody.

The 27-year-old was usually pictured in others’ social media posts strolling the streets along with her purse and brandishing a handheld mirror that advocates stated she used to observe potential threats behind her.

In February, somebody referred to as police to assert that Alexa was utilizing the mirror to spy on individuals in the ladies’s restroom at a McDonald’s in Toa Baja, west of San Juan. Officers responded and selected to not arrest her – however the change, captured on video went viral on-line as she was painted as a group menace after which stalked.

Ultimately, video footage captured in the early morning hours and in addition posted on-line relayed the voices of younger males mocking her in the darkness, adopted by the sounds of gunfire. Alexa was later discovered shot a number of occasions. It was her birthday.

More than a 12 months later, police have but to cost anybody with the homicide.

“It was recorded,” stated Cruz, the former mayor. “They hunted her down. And that speaks to somebody thinking they can get away with anything, when they feel there’s no accountability.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz speaks to the media as she arrives at the temporary government center setup at the Roberto Clemente stadium in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 30, 2017, in San Juan. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through.

Serrano, of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], stated the tepid legislation enforcement response is reflective of the tradition of the Puerto Rico Police Department, which a decade in the past was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of constitutional violations, together with use of extreme power throughout routine police actions, unreasonable power in response to public demonstrations and illegal searches and seizures.

“They really don’t care about these cases,” Serrano stated.

The Puerto Rico Police Department didn’t observe by means of on requests to offer details about the killings or about how police are skilled to cope with the transgender inhabitants.

But points cited by transgender activists in Puerto Rico echo complaints leveled at police departments in the United States, together with misidentification of victims by previous names or incorrect gender.

“A lot of these victims are misgendered when the incidents are written down on police reports,” stated Jesse Garcia, who chairs the League of United Latin American Citizens’ LGBTQ affairs committee. “Relatives who claim the bodies sometimes use the wrong gender because of shame, or because they don’t want the attention.”

Gabriela Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Dream Team, holds up an image Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Albuquerque, N.M, of a Honduran transgender woman who died while in U.S. custody.

Gabriela Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Dream Team, holds up an image Wednesday, June 6, 2018, in Albuquerque, N.M, of a Honduran transgender woman who died while in U.S. custody.
Mary Hudetz, AP

Some said such errors can’t be completely chalked up to unawareness or procedural limitations, likely contributing to the undercount of transgender killings.

“Those are calculated ways to express that you do not value an individual’s gender identity,” stated University of West Virginia sociology Ph.D. candidate Rayna Momen, a non-binary transgender one that has studied violence in opposition to the U.S. transgender group with colleague Lisa Dilks.

“When you truly do not value an entire population, even when it comes to the most brutal violence, the priority to prosecute crimes to the fullest extent is just not there,” Momen stated.

Lack of labor rights can result in violence 

A suffering economy has also played a role in the violence experienced by transgender people, who typically find work opportunities limited because of employer bias. That situation has been worsened by a pandemic – and, in Puerto Rico, the residual effects of Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that struck the island in 2017.

“It has thrown people into lines of work that put them in danger,” said LULAC’s Garcia. “When people are let go from jobs, transgender people are probably the first to go, and they don’t have access to the same kinds of jobs that others do because of their appearance or who they are.”

Joanna Cifredo, a transgender activist in Puerto Rico, at a rally outside the governor's mansion calling for leaders to declare a state of emergency regarding gender-based violence in September 2020.

Joanna Cifredo, a transgender activist in Puerto Rico, at a rally exterior the governor’s mansion calling for leaders to declare a state of emergency relating to gender-based violence in September 2020.
Stephanie Rojas Rodriguez

Bamby Salcedo, a Guadalajara-born trans activist in Los Angeles, knows that path from experience. She left Mexico at 16 to join her father in the United States, and when that didn’t work out found herself on the streets, beginning to embrace her feminine identity but caught up in harmful and dangerous activities that landed her in jail multiple times before she set herself right.

Salcedo eventually founded [email protected] Coalition, an organization focused on the needs of transgender immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Latin America, and is a well-known speaker and advocate who has spoken at the White House and at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS.

“We’re pushed to street economies in order to survive,” Salcedo said. “That’s where you find community, on the streets with older girls who mentor and support you. But we’re also criminalized because of who we are. And when we are victims of violence and try to get help from the police, we’re blamed. They tell us, ‘If you weren’t that way, then that wouldn’t happen to you.’ We get convicted by our society every day.”

Alexa Rodriguez, a trans Puerto Rican activist.
I ended up on the streets doing sex work for survival, for food and to pay my rent. That is what trans women face, and those things put us in danger.

Alexa Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican-born trans woman now living in Baltimore, said before she gained the right to change her name on her driver’s license, she was rejected by employers put off by the incongruity between her ID and her appearance.

“They were like, is this real or fake? They were biased by how they saw me,” stated Rodriguez, who now directs Trans-Latinx DMV, an advocacy company serving Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. “So I ended up on the streets doing sex work for survival, for food and to pay my rent. That is what trans women face, and those things put us in danger.”

Rodriguez is now married, with a home and a car.

“Now I have what everybody has,” she said. “I’m part of regular society.”

In this file photo taken on June 28, 2019, a person holds a transgender pride flag as people gather on Christopher Street outside the Stonewall Inn for a rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York.
Taking a wait-and-see strategy

In late January, days after Angie Noemi González, a nurse and mother of three, was found dead in a ravine, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rafael Pierluisi Urrutia proclaimed a state of emergency.

It was a measure long demanded by women’s rights advocates upset by brutal violence against women on the island – including the September slaying of a 20-year-old woman abducted by men who pulled up in a white van as she waited outside her home to be picked up by a friend. Police waited four days to act on the report.

More recently, the body of 27-year-old Keishla Rodriguez, who was pregnant, was found Saturday in a San Juan-area lagoon. Félix Verdejo, a former Olympic boxer, turned himself in to authorities Sunday and is charged in connection with the crime.

Transgender activists persuaded the governor to include the community in the executive order that accompanied his declaration; the order pledged new and improved programs to prevent gender-based violence and support its victims. It also created a government position and committee of officials, academics and community advocates to oversee the effort.

While the moves are not as progressive as LGBTQ rights protections undertaken in states such as California, New York and Massachusetts, Labiosa of San Juan’s Waves Ahead said they mark a bold and significant step forward – if they pan out. He and others in the community are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“That’s the pattern here: Committees are set up and nothing comes out of that committee,” he stated.”

Alexa Rodriguez, a trans woman born in Puerto Rico, is now director of Trans-Latinx DMV, an agency serving the transgender Latinx community in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Alexa Rodriguez, a trans lady born in Puerto Rico, is now director of Trans-Latinx DMV, an company serving the transgender Latinx group in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Courtesy of Alexa Rodriguez

Advocates stated extra must be executed. Schools want to show children to respect gender range, they keep, and authorities and legislation enforcement leaders want to verify hate crimes are prosecuted accordingly.

The Human Rights Campaign, in the meantime, is prodding the Biden administration to create a process power or advisory council to handle anti-transgender violence general. With hate-crime legal guidelines differing from state to state, or not present in any respect, definitions and information assortment fluctuate, “and that’s kind of the problem,” HRC’s David stated. “We need to have some federal oversight.”

Rodriguez, of TransLatinx DMV, stated Latina transgender ladies have for too lengthy remained “a minority inside another minority.”

“When people in power raise their voices, they can have an impact, and in this case, people need to raise their voices for us,” she stated.

As a transwoman accepted by her group, Rodriguez stated she lastly has a possibility to succeed, and he or she’s surviving.

“I’m 45 years previous and I’m nonetheless alive,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s an achievement.”

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