Lawmakers in Puerto Rico this week approved a new set of civil laws that enshrine rights for LGBT+ people, even as opponents say gaps in the code could fuel discrimination toward trans people in the US territory.
The updated civil code, which covers non-criminal legal issues like marriage and property, passed the island’s House of Representatives on Thursday, after clearing the Senate on Monday, and will now head to the desk of Governor Wanda Vazquez.
“The current civil code of Puerto Rico is from 1930 – it’s totally and completely obsolete,” said Rep. Jose Melendez with the ruling New Progressive Party, adding that the outdated code did not reflect key decisions by the US Supreme Court.
The old Puerto Rican laws contained anti-LBGT+ rights language, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“What is being done is updating,” he said.
Among the changes are updates on marriage, which is described as a contract between “two people” rather than a man and a woman, reflecting the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalising gay marriage.
But legal experts and opposition lawmakers said ambiguous and contradictory wording in the code could create legal hurdles for trans people.
“On its face it seems as if there’s nothing wrong, but if you scratch the surface, there’s an obvious intent to discriminate,” said Rafael Cox Alomar, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
Among the contradictions in the code, critics say, is language about the ability of trans people to change their gender on birth certificates, legal in Puerto Rico since 2018.
The updated code states that nothing “undermines the process currently established” for legally changing a person’s gender, but amendments to a person’s birth sex on original birth certificates “cannot be authorized”.
That leaves trans people in legal limbo, rights activists say, and could even result in greater stigma or discrimination for an already vulnerable group.
“If on the one hand you’re prohibiting it and on the other you are allowing it, it’s clearly unconstitutional,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, an LGBT+ campaigner.
Under the new code, instead of changing gender on original birth certificates, an annotation would note their gender identity.
“It lends itself to stigmatization and huge discrimination,” said Luis Vega, a congressman with the opposition Popular Democratic Party. “That certificate would have a kind of mark or stain that distinguishes you from everyone else in Puerto Rico.”
In a statement posted to Twitter on Wednesday, Governor Vazquez said the civil code approved by the Senate included adequate amendments “to guarantee the permanence of rights already achieved.”
Vazquez now has ten days to approve or veto the bill.
Puerto Rico has seen a recent surge of violence against the LGBT+ community, with 10 gay and trans people murdered in less than a year and a half.
-Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib – Thomson Reuters Foundation