What does it say about a country that its Senate is divided on deciding to protect its citizens from torture?
Last Thursday, the bill that would ban conversion therapy in Puerto Rico was defeated in the Committee on Community Initiatives, Mental Health, and Addiction after receiving eight votes against and seven in favor.
Conversion therapy includes unscientific medical procedures that seek to change or “correct” the behavior and sexual orientation of an LGBTQ+ person.
In Puerto Rico, these therapies have been carried out since 1930 and use various techniques to shame, cause traumatic emotions, and even physical pain so that victims associate the techniques with their LGBTQ+ identity.
Studies by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) find that more than 700,000 LGBTQ+ people have experienced the horrors of conversion therapy, and an estimated 80,000 additional LGBTQ+ youth will experience this unprofessional behavior in the coming years, often at the insistence of well-meaning parents or guardians.
But in Puerto Rico, there are no numbers or records, which allows the violence to be covered up. Although there is an executive order prohibiting conversion therapy on the island since 2018, this order is only applicable to health institutions with a specific connection to the government. Executive orders establish mandatory requirements for the executive branch and have the effect of law; however, any governor can revoke them.
In fact, for some, the Senate’s decision is a sign of the institutionalization of violence against the LGBTQ+ community.
As explained by the Los Angeles Blade, the senators received scientific evidence and several testimonies from LGBTQIA individuals who testified during public hearings. These senators also received evidence of ongoing depression and suicide attempts caused by conversion therapy. However, 11 senators chose to condone hatred and bigotry towards LGBTQ+ youth on the island. One of these senators, Wanda Soto, said during one of the public hearings that “…with love, everything is possible…” about her belief that children’s sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed or cured. This senator even compared a bad personal experience with a dentist she had as a child to the testimonies of LGBTQ+ opponents about their experiences in conversion therapy.
However, none of this is new.
Last year, amid the tensions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Puerto Rico suffered a disproportionate increase in violence against the LGBTQ+ community, counting at least ten murders of LGBTQ+ people in 15 months, the highest rate of deaths the island had seen in 10 years.
For Pedro Julio Serrano, the reasons were as evident as they are today:
“We are being killed while the government looks the other way,” said Serrano, spokesman for the Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de Equidad (CABE in Spanish).
“The violence we are experiencing is based on hateful rhetoric and actions by religious fundamentalist politicians who incite their followers to persecute, demonize and attack LGBTQ+ people. We have had enough of being scapegoated for their divisive agendas.”