Although Fabiola expressed being treated with respect in the center where she currently lives, she acknowledged that more education is still needed to protect trans people from being discriminated against in long-term care centers and elderly homes. (Courtesy by Zach Oren/ZachOren.com)
By DAVID CODERO MERCADO (El Nuevo Día) and JOAQUÍN A. ROSADO LEBRÓN
SAN JUAN — Fabiola, a trans woman, has lived alone since she was 18 years old. Before reaching the age of 61 and the long-term care facility where she now resides, she had her own apartment in Río Piedras, a San Juan neighborhood. “I worked, I had an independent life,” she recounts.
Among the LGBTQIA+ communities, she was recognized for her performances as a drag queen. She says she interpreted boleros from the repertoire of the fifties ballrooms Puerto Rico stars, Lucy Fabery and Ruth Fernández, and that with her shows she raised funds for the open doors church she attended.
But her health conditions, the amputation of her left leg at the knee and the absence of a family to care for her, forced her to depend on services and assistance. She now moves with the help of a wheelchair and waits for a prosthesis.
“When you lose your independence, it is very difficult, you lose your freedoms. The process was so fast that I didn’t have time to process it,” Fabiola shared with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) and El Nuevo Día.
Prior to her arrival at an elderly home in San Juan, the social worker from the Department of the Family —who was in charge of finding a home for her and whose name Fabiola does not remember— told her there were centers that did not accept her because she was a trans person, she said. Where she has been living for about a year now, Fabiola said she is called by that name and is treated with respect, although she perceives the need for “more education.”
“That the people who work in the centers and in the Department of the Family be better prepared, that there be an openness that’s more in keeping with the times,” she said. Although she said she has not suffered discrimination where she currently lives, she stated that she fears that at some point this could happen, including discriminatory treatment from the relatives of other residents.
“There may be people or staff who are not instructed on how to treat us,” she said.
The administrator of the home where Fabiola lives, Ilsa Vargas, said they provide her with caring service and that the staff and the residents “have not expressed an opinion against her orientation,” but she said she will be “more attentive” to possible scenarios of discrimination by gender identity or sexual orientation that may come up.
“There’s like eight or nine of us, most don’t care, and she’s treated as anyone else. I’m certainly going to do a review and I’m going to be very aware of who can come up with comments or anything that goes against any orientation. The staff would not dare to be against these things in front of me,” Vargas said.
Wilfred Labiosa, director of the Waves Ahead organization, which offers services for older people from these populations and other vulnerable communities, explained that in 2015 he led a congress with other organizations aimed at identifying the needs of older adults in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) populations. Labiosa said that during that congress it was evident the need for a safe home in which these persons feel comfortable.
“(LGBTQIA+ people) look for spaces where they have a little bit of their life, living it to the fullest,” he said.
Data from the 2020 Census revealed that Puerto Rico is the U.S. jurisdiction with the lowest percentage of LGBTQIA+ people (0.5 percent) or same-sex couples (0.2 percent) who reported having a home. Of the 1,340,534 couples households in Puerto Rico registered in the census, only 0.7 percent correspond to married or cohabiting same-sex couples.
The lack of access to housing for LGBTQIA+ populations in Puerto Rico gets worse as one gets older, people who work with these communities interviewed by the CPI and El Nuevo Día said.
Although there are protections aimed exclusively at older people in Puerto Rico, none directly mention older adults who self-identify as LGBTQIA+, the CPI and El Nuevo Día confirmed.
For example, the Bill of Rights and Public Policy for Older Adults (Act 121 of 2019) establishes general rights of “integrity, dignity and preference,” but does not address gender identity or sexual preference.
This law puts the responsibility of preventing, identifying, investigating, and supervising the treatment of any older adult who is a victim of negligence, institutional abuse, or by their family, on the Department of the Family.
The law also establishes the right to “a quality of life, freedom and without violence or physical or mental abuse, to ensure respect for their physical, psycho-emotional and sexual integrity;” and “to live in an environment of calm, respect and dignity that meets basic housing needs.”
However, compliance with the law becomes complicated by the lack of statistics on the LGBTQIA+ populations and the disparity in the collection of complaints between the Department of Family and the Ombudsman for the Elderly (OPPEA), experts in matters related to these communities pointed out.
José Acarón Rodríguez, director of the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), explained “there is never a way to reconcile the complaints, because (the Department of the) Family has some numbers and the Ombudsman for the Elderly [OPPEA] has others and there are times that the Ombudsman’s Office can classify it under three or four different areas.”
Regarding this disparity, the interim director of the Department of the Family’s Licensing Office, Bárbara González Nieves, said that a complaint module had been added to the Uniform Licensing System for File Management to resolve the matter.
However, in a subsequent request for information, she said, “the complaint module is under development” and that it would not be operational until at least mid-August.
“It’s a module that is being developed to add to our Uniform Establishment Licensing and Monitoring System (SULME, in Spanish). Several tests have been done jointly with OPPEA. An additional try will be needed to adapt to the module, one of the forms that the OPPEA uses to respond to the complaints,” she stated in writing.
Although the bill was sent to Gov. Pedro Pierluisi for his signature, La Fortaleza sent the measure back in August and is still waiting for amendments suggested by the executive.
“Returning measures are used to prevent a veto when there is the possibility from Fortaleza of reaching a consensus that eventually allows the governor to sign the legislative proposal,” the senator explained. “As of today, we don’t have a clear explanation of what Fortaleza is looking for.”