SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The advance of gay rights across the United States is spreading into Puerto Rico, making the island a relatively gay-friendly outpost in a Caribbean region where sodomy laws and harassment of gays are still common.
The governing Popular Democratic Party is pushing a bill through the legislature that would outlaw discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, a step taken by about half of U.S. states. Another bill would extend a domestic violence law to gay couples.
Soon after taking office in January, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an order extending health insurance coverage to the live-in partners of workers in his executive branch of government, regardless of gender.
And a popular former conservative governor, Pedro Rossello, surprised supporters and foes when he stated last month that he unequivocally supports gay marriage.
"We're in a period where it's important to talk about human rights," said Rossello, who 14 years ago signed a law as governor to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages held abroad.
"This is extraordinary," said Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto Rican gay activist. "We've reached a point of no return in Puerto Rico ... Equality is inevitable."
"The issues that we're discussing publicly now would have been unthinkable a couple decades ago," said Osvaldo Burgos, spokesman for the Broad Committee for the Search for Equality, which represents more than a dozen local human rights organizations.
Gay rights activists also say they are encouraged that the island's Justice Department is prosecuting its first hate crime case for the killing of a hairstylist who was set on fire.
The momentum has not all been one way, however. The island's Supreme Court last week narrowly upheld a law that bars same-sex couples from adopting children. Despite a string of legalizations in the U.S. over the past decade, adoptions by same-sex couples remain banned in many U.S. states as well.
And many Puerto Ricans remain uncomfortable with the changes. Church groups in February rallied an estimated 200,000 people against a move to include gay couples under domestic violence laws.
The spokesman for that march, Cesar Vazquez, said the state should not meddle with marriage and the family, and a prominent Puerto Rican pastor, Wanda Rolon, said children should not be taught at a young age that different types of families can exist, a proposal that Garcia's administration is considering.
"That is very dangerous," she said. "It's going to raise some doubts that can bring about confusion."
"What we need to protect in these times is the strengthening of marriage, the strengthening of families," Rolon said. "We will be a healthier society."
Resistance to rights for gays was even stronger in the 1970s, when gay activists protested the island's sodomy law, only to see legislators increase the penalty to 10 years in prison from three.
Many gays and lesbians lived in fear. A serial killer in the 1980s, nicknamed "The Angel of Bachelors," was linked to the killings of 27 gay men.
Public opinion remained largely unchanged until the early 2000s, when legislators passed a hate crime law and abolished the sodomy law. Another watershed moment occurred in November 2009, when police found the decapitated and partially burned body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, known for his work with organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights.
Soon after, popular Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin announced he was gay, saying he couldn't remain silent amid such hate, and legislators began considering gay rights bills. Last year, Puerto Rican featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz apparently became the first professional boxer to come out as openly homosexual while still competing.
"Puerto Rico at last recognized that homophobia was a social evil that had to be fought," said Serrano, spokesman for the U.S.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "After that, things began to change quickly."
Many other islands in the Caribbean remain deeply hostile to homosexuality.
Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Grenada still uphold sodomy laws, and many gay people live in fear of exposure and violence. Those fears are not unjustified: Masked gunmen broke into a vacation cottage in St. Lucia in March 2011 and beat three gay U.S. tourists. Two of five suspects were arrested. A year earlier in Jamaica, police found the body of a 26-year-old gay rights activist who had been stabbed to death.
Last year, authorities in Dominica hauled a gay couple off a cruise ship and charged them with indecent exposure. Angry protesters have met gay cruise ships in Jamaica.
Meanwhile, a large gay cruise arrived in Puerto Rico recently and caused not even a ripple in the media.
"(Puerto Rico) has long had a reputation for being one of the friendliest places in the Caribbean," said LoAnn Halden, spokeswoman of the Florida-based International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association.
The court ruling on gay marriage already has caused some backlash in favor of further gay rights.
"What they did was barbaric," said Eduardo Bhatia, president of the island's Senate and member of the governor's party, saying that children of gay couples should have equal rights.
Carmen Milagros Velez, a medical sciences professor at the University of Puerto Rico and the mother of the 12-year-old girl at the center of the adoption case, said the Supreme Court should reconsider its decision.
"We are a family like any other, with the same challenges, probably even more challenges because we have fewer rights," she said.