SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A year ago, if you asked me what my opinion on Puerto Rico’s status issue I would openly say I was an unaffiliated supporter of statehood. While growing up, I would always view the New Progressive Party (PNP) as an extremely conservative party.
Some of these extreme PNP conservatives include representative María Milagros Charbonier, the arch-nemesis of Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ. There was also governor Luis Fortuño, who during his administration left thousands of citizens unemployed, citing his views on limited government—contrary to mine. With politicians like them, it would be impossible for me to become affiliated to PNP.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2019 that I started to consider myself a penepé because I began to meet younger estadistas with whom I share similar political views outside of the status position. Particularly, members of the Young Democrats of Puerto Rico. In addition, former governor Ricardo Rosselló —whom I did not support back in 2016 for his stance on marriage equality— vetoed a religious liberty bill and began displaying a more socially liberal side before he resigned from office. Nevertheless, my faith in the PNP and the statehood movement as a whole was resurrected primarily because of one person: former senator Zoé Laboy.
Locally, she’s a penepé and nationally, she’s a Democrat. We need more of these kinds of leaders in Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood coalition.
Zoé (how she prefers to be called) and I met during a viewing party she hosted of the popular Netflix documentary “Reversing Roe.” The event was one of the many other initiatives she held in order to bring awareness against a bill authored by ultra conservative senator Nayda Venegas that pushed to restrict legal abortion in Puerto Rico. Fun fact: liberal Laboy (Democrat) and conservative Venegas (Republican) are members of the same local party in Puerto Rico. Within the PNP, there are both Democrats and Republicans. I know, it’s a mess, but keep reading.
At the same time, Zoé and members of various delegations of the upper chamber proposed a bill that changed my life. Senate Bill 1000, a ban to conversion therapy, was a historic attempt to protect LGBTQ youth. As someone who grew up in a religious environment, I remember talking to fellow churchgoers of different ages about how they would meet with religious leaders in hopes of being “healed” from their “sins“—homosexuality particularly. Hearing Zoé talk about how important it is to ban this sort of torture against LGBTQ youth in Puerto Rico brought me back to my childhood and church-going days. I finally knew how to describe the experiences that many of my friends went through—my friends who were all victims of conversion therapy.
The day the bill was brought to the floor for a vote, it passed, but what I remember the most is hearing Zoé’s speech. She had a green scarf (in solidarity with the feminist movement in support of reproductive rights), and in front of the whole Senate she exclaimed the importance of diversity, and how she’ll continue advocating for LGBTQ rights regardless of what other members of her PNP party think. For the first time I was proud to be an estadista because former governor Rosselló also supported banning such practices in Puerto Rico—after pressure from people (like Zoé) who wanted to ban the practices.
After that, I became more familiar with Zoé’s legislative work. Her team was composed of feminists, atheists, some lefties and centrists—I felt at home when I interned there. She advocated against human trafficking and in favor of separation of church and state by opposing various religious liberty bills which potentially could have hurt the LGBTQ community and other religious minorities. By this time, she became the religious right’s (mostly evangelicals) worst nightmare.
That made me like her more.
Zoé prioritized advancing women’s issues during her tenure in Puerto Rico’s Senate. Therefore, she authored numerous bills in support of gender equality. In addition, she authored a bill to establish revenge porn as a criminal offense. Similarly, she was the proponent of the Senate Resolution 953, which ordered an investigation of the scope, effectiveness and needs of the government’s Women’s Advocacy Office.
In a similar fashion, she advocated for more funding towards crime labs and to put an end to rape kit backlogs. One of her biggest achievements, and something for which she rarely is given credit, is that she conducted the various public hearings throughout the island’s main public university system with hopes of protecting survivors of sexual harassment and assault, and making college campuses safer, particularly for young women. The Special Commission to Investigate Protocols on Sexual Harassment and Harassment in Government Employment (which included members of all parties serving in the upper chamber), under her wing, was able to visit approximately nine campuses of the UPR system. She did this alone most of the time.
Finally, I had a penepé I could look up to. Zoé’s time in Puerto Rico’s Senate is historical for many reasons. Furthermore, she has become a symbol for liberal estadistas with hopes of reforming the PNP. Many disapprove my support for the PNP, and I won’t lie, it’s not easy most of the time. However, I believe that we need allies in the fight for social justice on all sides. I trust that my actions are for the greater good.
History has taught me that there have always been estadistas on the center and the left of the ideological spectrum—contrary to popular belief that has situated us only on the right. For instance, the movement has been the home of socialists such as Santiago Iglesias Patín, who was a labor leader and avid statehood supporter. It was also an estadista legislator who was the first Puerto Rican politician from any party to participate in a LGBTQ parade. Her name is Albita Rivera and marched in both in Boquerón and San Juan parades during Pride Month.
Still, I know that there is still a lot of work to do, and perhaps it’s a lost cause. However, I’ll keep pushing for change regardless of where I find myself. I have hope. That’s possible today because it took a woman like Zoé to renew my faith in the statehood movement and the PNP.
Joshua Manuel Bonet is the former president of the UPR (Río Piedras) College Democrats. He previously interned with the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and in former senator Zoe Laboy’s office. Additionally, he’s a Political Science graduate from the University of Puerto Rico with an emphasis in Gender Studies. Currently, he’s interning with the Puerto Rico chapter of the ACLU. Twitter: @joshuabonetpr.