Metro Weekly

A third transgender woman has been killed in Puerto Rico over the past two weeks

Local activist says the island's epidemic of anti-LGBTQ violence is being fueled by societal acceptance of homophobia

trans, transgender, puerto rico
Photo: BBC Creative, via Unsplash.

A third transgender woman in Puerto Rico has lost her life to violence, according to LGBTQ advocates on the island.

Penélope Díaz Ramírez, a 31-year-old transgender woman, was beaten and hanged to death at the Bayamon correctional complex, a men’s prison in Puerto Rico, on April 13, according to local LGBTQ activists.

Her death, which was not reported until April 27, makes her the ninth transgender or gender-nonconforming person killed in the United States in 2020.

Of the nine transgender or gender-nonconforming people killed this year, five have been murdered in Puerto Rico, all within the past two months. Equally concerning is that Díaz’s death makes her the tenth LGBTQ person to be killed in Puerto Rico in the past 15 months, indicating a disturbing trend.

In February, a homeless transgender woman, Neulisa Luciano Ruiz, also known as Alexa, was shot to death in Toa Alta, P.R., after a customer at McDonald’s falsely accused her of using a mirror to peer into a stall in the women’s restroom. In March, Yampi Méndez Arocho, a 19-year-old transgender man, was shot to death in Moca, P.R., five hours after he was allegedly assaulted by a woman.

Those deaths were followed by Díaz’s murder on April 13, and, eight days afterwards, the discovery of the bodies of Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos and Layla Pelaez Sánchez inside the remains of a charred out car left by the side of the road in Humacao.

See also: Baltimore community holds virtual vigil for murdered trans woman

“Never in my career have I seen so many reports of deaths of our transgender and gender-nonconforming community in such a short time in one location,” Tori Cooper, the Human Rights Campaign’s Director of Community Engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative, said in a statement.

“Penélope did not deserve to die. Transgender people do not deserve to die. Every single advocate, ally, elected official and community member must stand up in light of this horrific news and say ‘No more.’ What we are doing is not enough,” Cooper added. “People and policy must work together to protect our lives and our well-being.”

In addition to the murders, there have been reports of attacks targeting LGBTQ individuals. The Coalition for the Search for Equity, or CABE (in Spanish), an LGBTQ group in Puerto Rico, has called a press conference on Wednesday morning to denounce the trend of anti-LGBTQ violence on the island. 

“There is no longer any doubt, this is an epidemic of anti-LGBTTIQ violence,” Pedro Julio Serrano, of CABE, said in a statement. “The police have the obligation to disclose the status of the investigations of at least eight murders, one death without a determined cause and several attacks in which LGBTTIQ people have been injured since January 2019.”

Pedro Julio Serrano – Photo: José E. Jiménez-Tirado, via Facebook.

In a follow-up interview with Metro Weekly, Serrano cast blame on political and religious leaders in Puerto Rico for creating an atmosphere in which LGBTQ are demonized and scapegoated. 

“There has been hateful rhetoric from these religious and political leaders for far too long that has incited violence,” Serrano said. “For example, there are leaders who have said that transgender people who use the bathroom according to their gender identity are perverts and are going to do something bad when they enter bathrooms. That’s what happened with Alexa. Finally, someone said ‘There’s a “man” in the bathroom and he’s a pervert.’ They called police, they posted the information online, and then hunted Alexa and videotaped her killing to send a message: ‘We’re going to kill any of you that dares to use a bathroom again.'”

Serrano said that police have not been forthcoming with information about any of the LGBTQ murders, something he ascribes to latent homophobia within the ranks of police and the larger society.

For instance, he noted that Díaz, who was placed in Bayamon because she was misgendered, was denied hormone treatment by prison officials, which put her at risk of greater harassment from her fellow inmates. Even after she was killed, her death wasn’t reported for nearly two weeks.

“We are now learning of this because the community is speaking up, not because the police are reporting this,” Serrano said. “The police are trying to hide these crimes. They don’t want to investigate them.

Read more: Puerto Rico Gov Ricardo Roselló resigns after leak of sexist and homophobic text messages

“Activists like myself have had trainings with the police department,” he added.But even with those trainings we’ve been part of, the homophobia is pervasive.”

He also pointed to Puerto Rican lawmakers, including the governor, as complicit in fostering an anti-LGBTQ atmosphere.

“It’s a philosophy that [lawmakers] do not value LGBTQ people. They have tried twice to pass a religious liberty bill that would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people. They’ve tried to do a supposed ‘ban’ on conversion therapy, but it was actually a bill to legalize conversion therapy. Right now, the civil code that is under revision in the legislature has a provision that wants to take the right of transgender people to change their gender marker on their birth certificates. So they’re trying to roll back rights and openly discriminate,” Serrano said.

“So when you have a government that is telling you that LGBTQ people aren’t the same, and that their lives don’t have value, and you don’t investigate the crimes, and you look away, and try to hide them, you have all these killings.”

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