Life

“We Could Do Things Without Having to Ask Permission”

After Hurricane Maria, life on Puerto Rico is incredibly hard. But the island’s queer scene is more vibrant than ever.

Macha Colón performs to a crowd of mostly young queer and trans people at La Repuesta nightclub in San Juan. She sings in front of photos of women who were killed by an intimate partner in 2018 in Puerto Rico.
Macha Colón performs to a crowd of mostly young queer and trans people at La Respuesta nightclub in San Juan. She sings in front of photos of women who were killed by an intimate partner in 2018 in Puerto Rico.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Rosa Emmanuelli Gutiérrez.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of a queer “scene,” perhaps most often from people who don’t care for it. But what, exactly, is this scene? Who’s a part of it? Who isn’t? Who decides? Is there more than one? What happens when a scene evolves—or when it doesn’t? These are the questions we’ve gathered a group of writers to consider for an Outward special issue on “the Scene” in LGBTQ life today. You can read all of the stories in the issue here, and you can listen to a full episode of the Outward Podcast covering more of the queer scene by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.

Twenty-six portraits hang along a wall in La Respuesta nightclub in San Juan’s trendy Santurce neighborhood, the faces glowing in a dim red light. Aside from these, La Respuesta has all the familiar elements of a small queer club: a stage, one bar, and a genderless bathroom. The pictures, printed on copier paper and taped up behind the stage, form a kind of backdrop. A crowd of more than 50 people gathers in front of it, waiting for Macha Colón to perform.

Colón is a queer Puerto Rican icon who describes her music as “psychedelic, tropical rock.” Her show tonight is a mix of performance art, punk, drag, and musical theater. The temporary gallery is also part of her performance. She says she uses her live shows as a space for people to “reflect on what is currently happening politically and socially” in the world. The pictures are that idea put into practice: Each is of a woman who was murdered in Puerto Rico in 2018 by an intimate partner. And in a room of mostly young, queer Puerto Ricans, the women’s faces are a reminder of the patriarchal violence women and femmes must confront every day.

Dressed in a large white tablecloth adorned with plastic fruit and a crown of pink flores de maga atop her dark, curly brown hair, Colón strides onstage with effortless confidence. The crowd is calm, and an air of intimacy fills the room—one that could only be ushered in by a veteran artist in her hometown performing for her people. Colón opens the show with a cover of Argentinean singer Amanda Miguel’s “Mi Buen Corazón.”

“Penas/ siempre penas/ encontre en el amor,” she sings softly. The rhythm from her band’s drums and the strings from a Cuatro guitar guide her quiet voice.

“Pain/ always pain/ I found in love.” Something all too resonant with the portraits behind her.

The crowd sways left and right as Colón takes us on a ride headed not away from our everyday struggles but directly into them. Her tone rises and strengthens with each passing line. And then the voice that started not much louder than a whisper is a roaring proclamation.

“Mi buen corazón/ ayúdame por favor!” Colon belts from the stage. The faces of the 26 women lit behind her.

“My good heart/ help me, please.”

More Queer, Not Less

Colón’s performance is part of a larger cultural moment unfolding in Puerto Rico—one where amid massive depopulation and social instability, queer and trans visibility and acceptance, both legally and culturally, are more present than ever.

As a result of social crises brought on by over a century of economic exploitation by the U.S. and worsened by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is rapidly depopulating. The island is estimated to lose more than 470,000 residents—14 percent of its population—by the end of 2019, according to a report by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

It’s easy to assume this mass exodus would be especially devastating for the island’s LGBTQ community, an already small population on a small island with a little more than 3 million residents. However, many queer and trans Puerto Ricans see the island as becoming more queer because of this social unrest, not less.

“The more work there is to be done, the more queers are getting out there!” says Tara Rodríguez Besosa, 35, a queer farmer and food activist. She’s using her 8-acre farm as a collective for queer and trans people who want to help in local efforts like decolonizing Puerto Rico’s food system. Rodríguez Besosa sees the flourishing queer scene as directly linked to “all the fucked-up things that are happening” on the island right now. And to her, the scene is much more about solidarity and liberation than it is about socializing.

Rodríguez-Besosa and her partner, Lex Barlowe, sit alongside a road outside the community garden in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in early February.
Tara Rodríguez-Besosa and her partner, Lex Barlowe, sit alongside a road outside the community garden in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in early February.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Justin Agrelo.

“Of course the queer movement is so strong right now,” she says. “At this moment there is so much going on. Homophobia, assassinations, continuous violence, a fiscal control board.” These major issues, she says, have made people on the island say “enough.”

Many other queer and trans Puerto Ricans agree that the island’s queer world is at its most vibrant. They point to thriving queer art and literary scenes, legal wins like the recent banning of conversion therapy, openly queer political leaders, the growing use of gender-neutral Spanish, intersectional activist movements, inclusive restrooms at the University of Puerto Rico, and even the recent arrival of drag brunch.

“Right now, there is a flourishing queer scene in Puerto Rico,” says Larry La Fountain-Stokes, a gay Puerto Rican scholar and author of the book Queer Ricans. La Fountain-Stokes has spent years studying Puerto Rico’s queer diaspora. He notes that the current moment isn’t completely spontaneous, though. Rather, it is part of a larger and longer fight stemming from a long history of work led by the island’s queer and trans communities for mainstream visibility, inclusion, and respect. This work has helped propel the island into this current moment where, La Fountain-Stokes says, “there’s just a lot more going on” in the scene right now compared with decades before.

Progress Sin Permiso

From the outside, Tia Maria Liquor Store doesn’t necessarily look like a gay bar. For one, it has “liquor store” in the title. And the bar’s minimal blue-and-white sign is so low-key that the place could easily be a small convenience store selling spirits and wine. It sits in the middle of a busy residential block in Santurce next to an Indian restaurant and down the street from a Banco Popular. Before Hurricane Maria, the biggest clue that Tia Maria Liquor Store is not the neighborhood bodega might have been its windows—the blue-and-red glow from a fluorescent “open” sign is the only thing visible from behind its completely blacked-out storefront. Today, it being a bar and being the kind of bar it is are much more obvious. Dark patio chairs line the sidewalk along the blacked-out windows, creating space for queer Puerto Ricans to socialize outside the bar’s small, dark interior.

Macha Colón tells me she’s been going to Tia Maria Liquor Store, one of San Juan’s oldest gay bars, for years. “The gay bar was so important for me growing up.” she says. “It was a space that felt special, mysterious, and wonderous.”

Colón always used to wonder why Tia Maria Liquor Store didn’t have a patio, because the bar is so small. Then Hurricane Maria hit and the bar reopened without electricity, which also meant no air conditioning or fans. The bar’s staff began putting the chairs in front so people could socialize more comfortably in the open air. Today, the power is back on, and the chairs are still on the sidewalk.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, we had to go through this to be able to [sit outside]?’ ” Colón says. “It was sort of like [Hurricane Maria] allowed people to explore things that they couldn’t do, and now they realize that they can do it, and who the heck is going to tell them no?”

Tia Maria Liquor Store’s new patio, drag brunch, and the co-opting of spaces that would never have been allowed to be queer by the local government, places like those in San Juan’s old financial district—Colón points to these examples in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as evidence of a new era in the island’s queer history. Now, queer and trans Puerto Ricans are no longer secluded behind the blacked-out windows of the gay bar or underground shows in makeshift, alternative spaces. Rather, many are out in public, in plain sight, taking up space on the sidewalks in Santurce. Though a small example, Colón sees the chairs at Tia Maria Liquor Store as a symbol of a new sense of freedom many queer and trans Puerto Ricans feel today—a feeling she believes to be a direct result of Hurricane Maria.

“It was something about how being in that time of not having electricity and not kind of having rules and laws … it allowed for [the queer scene] to thrive because … it was sort of like we could do things without having to ask permission,” she says.

A Queer Response to the Apocalypse

María José, 26, is a trans feminine artist from Caguas. She echoes many of Colón’s points of view when asked if she thinks the island is queerer post–Hurricane Maria. She says it only makes sense that Puerto Rico’s queer scene would be flowering right now.

“As the apocalypse continues, why wouldn’t people be queerer? There’s no potential future,” she says, before laughing. “That sounds really nihilistic. But as professionalism, and capitalism, and the way that we know the world keeps crumbling, there’s going to be more space to be queer.”

María José says cisgender identity and heterosexuality are social constructs used as the foundation of capitalism and normalcy. And once those screws come undone, “you can do whatever the fuck you want.”

María José performs at La Respuesta nightclub in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood on Feb. 14—her first live performance.
María José performs at La Respuesta nightclub in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood on Feb. 14—her first live performance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Justin Agrelo.

In 2011, she left Puerto Rico to study theater and art in New York City. She returned shortly after Hurricane Maria in 2018 because the storm made her links to her family, both biological and chosen, and to the land itself in Puerto Rico feel fragile. Moving back to Puerto Rico, she says, was an act of love.

Her journey back to the island from New York City has been just as challenging as it has been rewarding, though. While she sees the island as becoming more inclusive to LGBTQ people, she is also careful not to romanticize things. She makes sure to highlight that there is still much more progress to be made, especially for trans and nonbinary acceptance. “Heterosexuality and cisgender identity are still the law of the land,” she says. “We’re still a minority.”

In recent years, the queer scene in Puerto Rico has established itself separate from the gay scene, which consists primarily of bars and events built specifically for cisgender gay men. However, the queer scene—which is more inclusive of female, trans, and nonbinary people—is significantly smaller than the gay scene and relegated to either nightlife or domestic spaces. And aside from several health clinics throughout the island, María José says there aren’t really any spaces made specifically for trans and nonbinary people. Right now, they tend to hang out in alternative spaces like La Respuesta, straight bars they co-opt for a night, which isn’t always safe, or at home. The limited outlets to meet other trans and nonbinary people make life as a young, trans feminine person on a small, conservative island feel isolating.

This is why María José pushes back on the idea that Puerto Rico’s queer scene is “thriving” right now, saying that label feels a bit “too celebratory.” She says there still are risks and a palpable sense of fear amongst queer and trans folx who live openly in Puerto Rico. “We’re actively doing our best to make spaces where we can exist and where we can be safe,” she says. “But those things are not always possible or easy.”

Still, she does see the progress people like herself, Colón, and other radical queer and trans folx are making to help Puerto Rico become more inclusive for its LGBTQ people.

“We are fucking it up,” she says. “In a good way.”

Read more from Outward’s special issue on “The Scene,” and listen to the podcast.