Puerto Rico Can't Turn Back the Clock on Trans Rights

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March 3, 2020

Today, Lambda Legal warned Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced that the proposed new Civil Code for the Commonwealth, which is now before the Puerto Rico Senate, is in clear contempt of a 2018 federal court order that declared unconstitutional the island’s policy prohibiting transgender Puerto Ricans from correcting their birth certificates and could expose the Puerto Rican government to sanctions and penalties.

The new code, which has already passed the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, expressly prohibits corrections to the sex designation on a person’s birth certificate, in direct contradiction to the court order Lambda Legal secured two years ago in Arroyo González v. Rosselló Nevares. The new code would only permit a side annotation next to the inaccurate sex designation that was assigned at birth, exposing transgender people to a violation of their privacy, discrimination, and potentially physical harm.

In a letter delivered today to the Puerto Rican government, Lambda Legal notes that the move to violate a federal court order is a federal crime. “Similarly,” the letter continues, “conspiring to oppress the free exercise or enjoyment of any person’s right or privilege secured by the U.S. Constitution, such as transgender people’s fundamental rights recognized by the court in Arroyo, is also a crime” the letter reads.

Authored by Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, the lead lawyer in Arroyo González, the letter explains:

“The proposed new Civil Code’s provisions relating to corrections of the sex designation on birth certificates directly conflict with the express terms of the permanent injunction issued by the court in Arroyo.  Pursuant to Arroyo, the Commonwealth cannot prohibit transgender people born in Puerto Rico from correcting the sex designation on their birth certificates in manner consistent with their gender identity.  Likewise, the Commonwealth cannot use a strike-out line or otherwise include any information that would disclose a person’s transgender status on the face of the birth certificate when such corrections are made.”

“The federal court in Puerto Rico was clear that the policy prohibiting transgender Puerto Ricans from correcting their birth certificates violated the Constitution and the privacy of transgender people. Commonwealth officials know that the Constitution reigns supreme and that a court order regarding the constitutional right of Puerto Ricans cannot be disregarded or contradicted. We urge legislators and the governor to reconsider their course of action and to respect not only the federal district court’s order but the dignity and respect of all Puerto Ricans, particularly transgender Puerto Ricans,” Gonzalez-Pagan said.

Lambda Legal filed Arroyo González in April 2017 on behalf of two transgender women, Daniela Arroyo González and Victoria Rodríguez Roldán, and one transgender man, J.G., identified only by his initials, who were denied the ability to correct their birth certificates, as well as the organization Puerto Rico Para Tod@s. A year later, in April, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Puerto Rico to institute a policy allowing transgender people born in Puerto Rico to make corrections to the sex designation on their birth certificates, in manner consistent with their gender identity.

The effort to resurrect the discriminatory anti-transgender policy comes less than two weeks after the horrific and transphobic murder of a homeless transgender woman who was killed after using a women’s restroom. That brutal murder, designated a hate crime, garnered international attention and sparked a passionate conversation about the state of transgender people in the commonwealth and the ways in which discriminatory governmental policies contribute to a toxic environment that perpetrates stigma, bias, transphobia and all too often lethal violence.

As the letter explained:

“We write to express our deep concern about what appears to be a concerted, purposeful effort to violate the constitutional rights and liberty interests of transgender people born in Puerto Rico.  At a time when the LGBTQ community in Puerto Rico mourns the hate-motivated, high-profile murder of a transgender woman, Alexa, it has come to light that the Puerto Rico Senate is intent on passing a new Civil Code for the Commonwealth that specifically restricts the rights of transgender Puerto Ricans.  We must advise you that this course of action is not only wrong, it is also patently unlawful and would subject you and the Commonwealth to possible civil or criminal contempt of court as well as sanctions.”

Lambda Legal also calls Governor Vázquez to veto the code should it pass:

“The proposed new Civil Code has many flaws.  It undermines and threatens the rights of LGBTQ people as well as the reproductive rights of people in Commonwealth.  While that alone should suffice for you to veto it, should it pass, the fact that it violates the express terms of the judgment in Arroyo should be reason enough for you to veto P.C. 1654, as currently drafted.”