Puerto Rico’s new civil code, in context
On Monday, June 1, Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced signed into law a new civil code. 24 hours later, protestors gathered at the governor’s mansion to protest the signing of the new law. Both critics and supporters alike agreed that the civil code, written in the 1930s, was due for an overhaul, a process that had started 20 years ago. New Progressive Party Representative Jose Melendez called the old civil code “totally and completely obsolete”, indicating the widespread belief that it was time for change, particularly in regards to LGBTQ rights. Due to the fast-paced nature of law-making in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lengthy process that the legislation had already been subject to, criticism has been directed towards the new code as no public hearings were held on the amendments that were inscribed towards the end into the new code.
Some reports have claimed that the deemed controversial amendments were approved “less than 10 minutes” after hearings in the Senate, votes in the House without any discussion, and without public debate. Some fear that the lack of advocacy for marginalized peoples that may have been prevented by this lack of public debate could have influenced the new additions to the civil code. This is particularly important for several provisions within the new code, most significantly, an amendment that may unintentionally discriminate against the transgender residents of Puerto Rico.
These new laws come in the wake of a wave of transphobia that Puerto Rico has recently been experiencing, with 10 gay and trans individuals murdered within the last year and a half. The updated code, while providing impactful revisions to laws such as marriage—changing the definition to that of a contract between a “man and woman” to that of a contract between “two people”—leaves some important protections for trans individuals in ambiguity. Critics are citing language within the new code that references trans individuals’ ability to change their gender on their original birth certificate, an action that has been legal since 2018. Under this new civil code, instead of allowing trans individuals to change their gender on their original birth certificate, an annotation would note their gender identity.
This could leave trans individuals without clarity on legal protections, and open to discrimination based on their gender identity. Popular Democratic Party Representative Luis Vega stated that noting a person’s certificate with their gender identity “lends itself to stigmatization and discrimination”. This change may ‘out’ trans individuals without their permission or readiness. This action could potentially result in a ‘legal limbo’, as the new code does not undermine the already established process to allow a person to legally change their gender, however, it prevents authorization to the change on an original birth certificate. Pedro Julio Serrano, an LGBTQ campaigner, says about the code that, “if on the one hand you’re prohibiting it and on the other you are allowing it, it’s clearly unconstitutional”.
Though criticism of Vázquez has abounded since she signed the new code, she has stated that she consulted legal experts and that the changes to the code have been a lengthy process. She also stated that she doesn’t think the civil code violates the rights of anyone and that it would go into effect within 180 days.
The new civil code’s provisions regarding trans rights have been condemned by famous Puerto Ricans such as Ricky Martin, as well as Lambda Legal, who say that it could threaten women’s and LGBTQ rights. It has also been criticized by the Human Rights Campaign, whose president Alphonso David said, “we condemn anti-equality leaders’ furtive attempts to use this process as a way to target LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The secrecy surrounding the codes and the legislative process is particularly troubling in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has critically hampered the ability for citizens to participate and make their voices heard.” The full effects of the new legal code remain to be seen in the wake of the global pandemic and once the legislation begins to affect new individuals who want to address their gender identity.