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All the sources interviewed for this story shared their experiences in Spanish. Their thoughts were translated by the author.

"I was seated at the front of the room and one of them came towards me. I don't know if it was due to the way I was dressed, but she thought I was gay—which is true. They grabbed my hand, walked up to the stage, and began telling me how wrong homosexuality was. I remember it very distinctly. They called it the 'demon of homosexuality,' put their hand on my head and began praying. That's when I said: enough. I stood up and left."

Fifteen-year-old Angel Cuebas was at Presbyterian Church camp in July of 2013, in rural San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. That night, he recalls leaving the room crying. He has never returned to church camp, nor anything else related to religion since then.

"My biggest aspiration in the world of makeup is to make a difference in somebody's life. I want people to feel comfortable and empowered by their faces when they remember the most important events of their lives."

"Before, classmates had made fun of me, but nothing like that night at [camp] Guacio. The fact that they dared to do something like that… I didn't understand. I felt like we were in the 1920s. It made me realize that there are spaces where people feel comfortable discriminating against me because of something that is just natural in me," says the now 20-year-old Angel.

Five years later, I step into one of those religious spaces Angel vividly described. It's a Sunday, and worship service at Emanuel Bible Church, in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, has already started.

Pastor René Pereira is about to preach to his local congregation. He's the director of the biggest conservative anti-LGBTTIQ rights organization on the island—Puerto Rico por la Familia (PRPF)—, which is made up of leaders of various religious sectors, whose mission is to defend the preservation of "conservative Judeo-Christian values."

Pastor Pereira starts speaking about the love of God, and reminds his congregation that if they do not follow God's orders they could be punished. Fear is all over his words, but the church members clap. They seem to be okay with it.

I'm a 23-year-old woman entering this space for the first time. I grew up in a church, so I assume that at any minute one of the leaders of the congregation will try to make me feel welcome, ask me about myself, or invite me to an activity. My assumptions hold true here too. They send a teenager. She seems happy to see a young face. Most of the almost 100 churchgoers gathered here are older than me and sit with their families.

"My personal style is inspired by Caribbean men and the clean cut trends of the '90s."

Women wear dresses and skirts with enough fabric to cover most of their bodies, while men wear long sleeve shirts tucked inside formal pants. I'm wearing a black skirt and a neutral long sleeve shirt that I had trouble picking this morning. I changed my clothes three times, afraid that if I put on what I usually wear, someone would judge me. There is only so much that clothes can do. I'm a stranger here, and they know it, and even though I grab a seat in the last aisle of the church, people keep turning to look.

Pereira stands in the front. He's tall, elegant, almost bald, with a few gray hairs on his head, with a full presence and strong oratory skills. He wears a tight dark suit.

Two hours later, after the service, we sit in his office, and he tries to explain why PRPF actively fights against the legislative protection of queer rights.

He has one of those voices that could make you believe that clouds are green, even if you are looking right at the sky.

"Homosexuality is not the same as a race or a nationality. Those two are elements that I cannot change. I'm born with them. We believe no one is born homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, or transexual," he says.

Pereira claims his view is supported by science, but the American Psychological Association has established that "human beings cannot choose to be gay or heterosexual. For most people, sexual orientation arises at the beginning of adolescence without any previous sexual experience."

According to Krenly Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, a former theology professor and a current legal and legislative aid for the government of Puerto Rico, "the arguments used by the most conservative or orthodox sector of Christianity to sustain their homophobia are based on a mistaken view of what biblical anthropology is. And on a series of verses from the New Testament that have many translation and contextualization errors."

His exposure to different religious denominations as well as his teaching experiences at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico have led him to believe that "in most cases, the denominations that require their clergy to have the highest levels of education are the ones with the least amount of homophobia."

Pastor Pereira and the leaders of PRPF see homosexuality as a toxic and unnatural behavior considered an abomination by God.

"Lisa Eldridge is my makeup mentor. I love that she believes makeup should enhance one's natural beauty, but it should never fail to be glamorous."

But the development of these ideas into a strong organization in Puerto Rico is fairly recent. Pereira and leaders from other conservative churches gathered at Bayamón's Faith and Grace Church in 2013 and founded Puerto Rico por la Familia. Since then, Puerto Rico's LGBTTIQ community has fervently resisted this growing movement that pits so-called religious freedom against the rights of queer and trans people. But Pereira's organization has had the ear of Puerto Rico's governor.

From the Church to the Capitol

Since its founding, Pastor Pereira's non-profit has fought legislative efforts to protect LGBTTIQ people in Puerto Rico. Anti-queer advocates stepped out of their churches, claiming that the popular understanding of the constitutional separation between church and state is a myth.

Pereira is proud of the work his organization has done: "We inserted ourselves in the legislative process. We began visiting legislators, [and] rallying people. If there is something that we [the conservative Church] have, it is people. People who vote in elections. So, we started to contact legislators from both parties," he says.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook indicates 85 percent of the population in Puerto Rico identifies as Roman Catholic, while the remaining 15 percent identify as Protestant and other religions.

The bishops of the Episcopal Puerto Rican Conference of the Catholic Church include 487 local parishes containing an estimated 850,000 church members in metropolitan areas alone. The Puerto Rico Pentecostal Association has approximately 2,000 congregations. The Council of Churches of Puerto Rico has around 600.

The Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico has no data on how many of these thousands of Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal congregations are anti-LGBTTIQ, but from the 3,099 Puerto Rican congregations I identified, only 12—less than 1 percent— are fully LGBT Affirming Christian Churches with a predominant LGBTTIQ membership, said Pastor Pedro de Jesús, from the New Creation Church.

Pereira's church, obviously, isn't one of those.

PRPF's interaction with the government, Pereira explains, has ranged from training and encouraging church members to vote for specific conservative candidates, to lobbying in favor of the election of conservative judges to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, to holding private meetings with candidates and elected officers.

"I would love to always have a 'bronzed look,' with defined eyebrows and an eyeshadow that enhances my eye color so I can look like the best version of myself."

In the 2016 election cycle, PRPF supported conservative candidates for House and Senate, aiming to elect someone on their side who could fight against LGBTTIQ rights from the inside. And, as a result, PRPF now considers these elected officials "allies."

The reach of the Christian Right movement in Puerto Rico goes beyond senators and representatives.

In March 2016, PRPF's leadership met with the New Progressive Party's candidate for Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, at the Baptist Church of Levittown. During the meeting, Rosselló, who is now governor, signed a document promising conservative leaders that, if elected, he would advocate in favor of their religious beliefs. Under these terms, Ricardo Rosselló was promoted by the Christian Right as God's favored candidate.

As it turns out, Rosselló has not given conservative Christians in Puerto Rico everything they hoped for. His stances on LGBTTIQ rights have been ambiguous.

At first, he didn't present himself as an ally of the LGBTTIQ community, and publicly opposed the implementation of a gender analysis curriculum in the public education system of the island, a project encouraged by local LGBTTIQ activists groups as a means to prevent the development of discriminatory behaviors. That curriculum aimed to teach students about the social disadvantages and aggressions that gender minorities have suffered, and still suffer, due to historical and current bias and oppression. The idea was to reduce discrimination and bullying through proactive education.

But after he was elected, Rosselló's tone changed. He began publicly stating that he would not support legalized discrimination.

He has disappointed conservatives in a number of ways since then. This spring, Rosselló vetoed a bill passed by the House and Senate called the Religious Freedom Act. The bill would have granted protection under the law to government employees who denied state services to members of the LGBTTIQ community, so long as they felt that their religious beliefs were being compromised.

The bill imitates laws that have been passed across the United States. In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was approved in the United States, an act which, in the words of the legislative assistant Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, "permits the use of freedom of worship as an excuse for the unfair treatment of specific groups in our society, even when the Constitution demands the equal protections for everyone." The RFRA currently applies to employees of any federal agency, including those located in Puerto Rico. However, 21 states in the mainland U.S. have decided to go a step further, creating laws to extend RFRA to a local level.

"This Puerto Rican bill is part of that movement, it is part of what has already happened in the U.S.," explained Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano.

Pereira says the bill is not discriminatory because the state would still have to provide the citizen with the requested service. However, it would have to be fulfilled by another employee who feels comfortable providing it. But these new circumstances could set a dangerous precedent.

"It could be used to establish a system of religious and sexual segregation. If I have to publicly resolve my sexual orientation in front of everyone, if I have to make another line to receive certain services, who is validating my dignity as a human being? Are we going to have one line for the religious and another for the non-religious?" asks lawyer Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano.

"If I have to publicly resolve my sexual orientation in front of everyone, if I have to make another line to receive certain services, who is validating my dignity as a human being? Are we going to have one line for the religious and another for the non-religious?"

In spite of their disappointment over the religious freedom bill, PRPF plans to hold Rosselló accountable for the signed document, in which he agreed to advocate for their conservative agenda. And, they are currently pulling all their strings to have the House and the Senate override Rosselló's veto. On June 5, as I spoke with Pereira on the phone to follow up on PRPF's agenda, he said he was arriving at the Capitol to meet with Thomas Rivera Schatz, President of the Senate of Puerto Rico.

"This is something [Governor Rosselló] promised us. That is why we're fighting this so hard. He gave us his word. He met with us several times and, in a meeting, he signed a document promising to favor religious freedom," Pereira said, with anger and indignation in his voice.

"We will see who has more people"

Most of the candidates who oppose LGBTTIQ rights belong to Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party (PNP, by its initials in Spanish).

"The PNP hasn't always been in an open alliance with the fundamentalists and against gender education. That's a change that has been taking place since the 2000s," says lawyer and human rights activist Amárilis Pagán. "Years before, the gender analysis topic was being handled very well within the PNP. It was not seen as a sin. It was something that resonated in the PNP, until the fundamentalist movement began to insert itself to the political movement to such extent that the PNP is basically their party."

The legislative efforts that PRPF has lobbied against include: S.P. 437 of 2013, to amend Article 138 of the Civil Code to allow non-traditional couples to adopt minors; S.P. 484 of 2013, to include gender education in the public school curriculum; and two orders issued by Rafael Morán Castañeda, the Secretary of the Department of Education of the past administration, the Circular Letter 19-2015-2016 to implement gender education as a public policy in the curriculum of public schools, and Circular Letter 16-2015-2016 which allowed students to wear the uniform that best fits their gender identity.

When Rosselló was elected, Julia Keleher, the Secretary of the Department of Education of his administration eliminated the Circular Letter 19-2015-2016, which, for the first time in Puerto Rico's history, would have required gender analysis curriculum in schools across the country. This public policy never actually made its way into schools, which Pereira sees as a victory.

"It was approved but it was never implemented because of the pressure that we put on school authorities," Pereira says. PRPF's legal team drafted letters and distributed them among parents in their congregations. Then, the leadership of the organization encouraged parents to send the letters to school authorities. The parents threatened legal action if schools started teaching gender analysis that went against their religious beliefs.

Rosselló also acted against the second order left in place by the past administration, regarding school uniforms. The clause that allowed students to choose the uniforms that best fits their gender identity was eliminated from the order.

I asked Pereira if he believes in separation of church and state.

"We are not speaking about the Church. We are speaking about individuals," he responds. "We are people, as such we have the same rights as any other person who votes. We pay taxes. But we understand that there's a line that should not be crossed [between church and state]."

I tell him about the people I've talked to who believe PRPF is bringing the church into governance, going against the U.S. Constitution. "That's your interpretation," he says. "At the end of the day, we will see who has more people."

I finish my interview and thank Pereira. Outside, it's a quiet Sunday morning. Windmills surround the church, but there's no wind, no fresh air in this rural part of Puerto Rico. I can't help but think of Angel, in the church camp five years ago. He was alone. He did not have "more people." He was shocked, breathless, and silent as the nature that surrounds Pereira's church.

Churches as a safe space

Before Angel turned 15, he had already researched which Christian churches he could visit without feeling attacked. He decided on the Presbyterian Church. That's how he ended up at the summer camp where he felt, for the first time, that someone was directly discriminating against him. That night, one of the camp leaders apologized to Angel, explaining that the preachers invited that night weren't Presbyterians, but Pentecostals.

For Angel, the apology wasn't enough. Five years have passed since the night he was humiliated in what he thought was a safe space. And no one, until now, has asked him how he felt. This is the first time he has spoken about it. I can still hear the pain in his voice.

I wonder how many people stayed for the service that night, even when they might have felt attacked. How many young minds haven't registered that they are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation? How many times has discrimination been ignored?

According to Pagán, the threats LGBTTIQ people face in Puerto Rico include youth homelessness, human trafficking, higher suicide rates, unemployment, low access to public housing, domestic violence, and higher risk of being denied medical treatments and abandoned as elderly citizens.

She says she keeps advocating for queer rights because people are dying.

When I spoke to transgender activist Ivana Fred, member of the Board of Directors of the Community Center of the LGBTT Community, 94 kilometers away from Pereira's local church, she said the trans community is the most vulnerable on the island.

All of the LGBTTIQ people I interviewed for this piece confessed they have been victims of some form of discrimination in Puerto Rico. The stories range from a teacher bullying an 8-year-old transgender kid in front of her classmates, to a transgender woman being mutilated by a man to try to prevent her from sharing that he was attracted to her.

All of the LGBTTIQ people I interviewed for this piece confessed they have been victims of some form of discrimination in Puerto Rico. The stories range from a teacher bullying an 8-year-old transgender kid in front of her classmates, to a transgender woman being mutilated by a man to try to prevent her from sharing that he was attracted to her.

These individual stories speak to the experiences of many others who are being exposed to emotional or psychological abuse because they identify as LGBTTIQ. But most of their legislators aren't working to change this. Not enough people, inside or outside of the church, are denouncing this type of aggression. Silence doesn't just perpetuate patterns of aggression, it also creates the false illusion of a non-discriminatory Christian Puerto Rico.

These individual stories speak to the experiences of many others who are being exposed to emotional or psychological abuse because they identify as LGBTTIQ. But most of their legislators aren't working to change this.

Pagán says not all Christian churches are homophobic and transphobic: "There is a religious sector that is pro-human rights and has always positioned itself" as allies, but no queer people I interviewed said that they perceive churches as a safe space.

Many of them did, however, acknowledge that they believe in God. Perhaps if they could find a community that embraces them, they would be church members. But in Puerto Rico, for most LGBTTIQ people, a community of faith that respects their rights is a fictional utopia, a non-existent reality.

Discriminatory narratives and actions are not only taking place in religious settings. This type of violence has taken root within the government. I think about the voices that I've heard as I write this story, the wounds that I've seen, the silences that I've shared, and I wonder when attacking the human dignity of thousands of LGBTTIQ Puerto Rican children, youth, adults, and elders will stop being the norm in my country.

When will we all be safe—or, at least, protected?

Alejandra Rosa

Alejandra Rosa is a Puerto Rico-based freelance journalist and producer covering immigration and the LGBT community through the lens of the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Her publications have been disseminated by local and international platforms, including The Orlando Sentinel, Politico Magazine, ViceVersa Magazine, Lapicero Verde, En Rojo, Noticel and Diálogo UPR. Her most recent projects include productions for HuffPost, Vice News, and HBO. A Truman and New York National Puerto Rican Day Parade Scholar, Rosa believes in the power of narratives to reshape the experience of minorities.