Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and Zulma Oliveras Vega are a Puerto Rican lesbian couple with a 16-year-old daughter who have been together for six years. Last year they decided to join the case Conde-Vidal v. Rius-Armendariz, at the Puerto Rican Supreme Court to bring marriage equality to the island. They are one of the four couples represented by Lambda Legal that added their names to the case brought by Ada Conde Vidal and Ivonne Alvarez Velez. After a judge upheld the ban against same sex marriage, the case went to the United States First Court of Appeals. Recently, the Puerto Rican governor and administration decided not to defend the ban and have filed a brief that it be struck down. The plaintiffs hope that a decision will be released by June/July. Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, the advocacy organization started by Pedro Julio Serrano welcomed the governor's decision in a statement.
Arroyo and Oliveras joined the case, they say, because they worried about what could happen if one of them was in the hospital -- would they be recognized as each other's family? They know that until Puerto Rican legal and civil society recognizes the individual dignity of LGBTQ people, their relationships and their families, no LGBTQ person will be safe on the island.
Arroyo and Oliveras were brought together at a poetry reading and after food, conversation and a few tequilas, a walk down the streets of Old San Juan led to a kiss. Soon the two were dating, albeit long distance, because Zulma lived on the other side of the island, San German. Arroyo and Oliveras are both 43-years-old, out to their families and committed to social justice. Although they both knew that there is still much misinformation about LGBTQ people they chose to lend their faces and words to the struggle for equality. They were happily surprised to receive many messages of support through social media.
Both women had a history of writing and politics working on freeing Puerto Rican political prisoners and raising awareness about the important contributions of Puerto Ricans of African descent. Oliveras lived in San Francisco, California for 10 years and has worked on Puerto Rican and Palestinian independence as well as organizing and hosting the San Francisco Dyke March. She decided to return to Puerto Rico to be close to her family. She knew coming back home would not be easy, because when she came out in a letter to her parents, they burned the letter worried about what people would say. Oliveras noted:
But with time they came to realize that I was still the same person; joyful, humble, professional and successful. After my parents were able to see how stable my relationship with Yolanda is, my parents have become an extended family for Yolanda and Aurora. They love them as their own daughter and granddaughter.
In this way the two families are similar Oliveras says.
"Yolanda's father and brother have shown us so much love and support from the beginning. Yolanda's father said "now I have two daughters." We are both so lucky to receive so much love [from both of our families.]," Oliveras concluded.
Arroyo edited and contributed to a groundbreaking anthology "Cachaperismos," which brought together 14 brave out lesbian writers at a time when many others did not feel safe coming out of the closet on the island. She continues to write and use art to celebrate afro-Puerto Rican contributions and call out racism, celebrate women and in other ways transform, heal and speak out.
Arroyo knows that the LGBTQ community faces opposition on the island. "Trans women are targeted the most and are killed more often. Trans males are not recognized on the island, and there are no support groups for this population," Arroyo said, reflecting on the challenges that face LGBTQ people and their families on the island.
Despite these challenges, LGBTQ advocates remain determined. Arroyo notes that advocates have managed to create a few under-funded nonprofit organizations that provide empowerment workshops, outreach programs, and one clinic that can offer medical services with an appropriate respect for diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation. The recognition of famous residents like out singer Ricky Martin and recently appointed out judge Maite Oronoz point to some progress, but the estimated 6,614 lesbian and gay couples and the uncounted single LGBT people on the island do not have protections against discrimination for themselves or their families.
Arroyo says she would love to see a network like that created by COLAGE in the U.S., for children of LGBT parents to gather in affirming social events. She also thinks that the schools would benefit from Gay Straight Alliance groups. According to Arroyo, there is a new curriculum available that provides positive, accurate information about the diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation and family formation, but some teachers refuse to use it because of their religious beliefs.
"Our daughter who is now 16 years old, is very mature because as parents we dedicated ourselves to a gender perspective education [giving her the] freedom to think and speak her mind everywhere she may go," Arroyo said, but she knows that this is not the case for most of the island's youth.
Aurora, their daughter, cannot wait for the day when her moms will be able to marry. Aurora said:
It's about time that marriage equality finally is getting to Puerto Rico. It was so unfair that everyone but one specific group of regular people, who love someone just like them, couldn't get married when all they wanted was to validate their love with marriage just like everyone else. I am just so glad that the day where my moms can have the option to get married will be here pretty soon. This made them happy and that's all I wanted.
Arroyo often calls out what she feel is a lack of separation of church and state on the island which negatively impacts LGBTQ people and their families, stopping them from being able to to live their lives fully. Still, she believes she will be able to see much needed reforms on the island. She is sure, Arroyo says, that in the end love will triumph.