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Puerto Rico LGBTQ activist blocked from Facebook accounts for two months

Platform restored Pedro Julio Serrano’s access after emails, messages

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Pedro Julio Serrano (Photo courtesy of Pedro Julio Serrano)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — An LGBTQ activist in Puerto Rico regained access to his verified and personal Facebook pages on Wednesday after being banned for more than two months.

Pedro Julio Serrano was unable to access his Facebook pages since late August, both platforms comprising of more than 140,000 followers in total. He was alerted he violated community guidelines and “pretending to be a well-known person or public figure.”

The initial alert Pedro Julio Serrano received that said he was banned from accessing his pages.

Serrano is not aware of violating any guidelines and wasn’t pretending to be a public figure. At the time, he was the sole administrator of his pages but added two users on Wednesday to act as administrators in case another ban occurs.

Serrano since August emailed Facebook weekly, directly messaged the platform’s accounts on Twitter and Instagram and submitted multiple forms of identification to regain access.

“(My) platform is critical for me to continue to lead a movement in Puerto Rico to make sure that LGBTQ people are treated fairly,” he told the Los Angeles Blade.

Facebook is heavily used in Puerto Rico, he said, and Statista reported Facebook accounted for 80 percent of social media site visits on the island thus far in 2020.     

In a message sent to Serrano from Facebook, the platform wrote the suspension was a “mistake.”

“We rely on automation that detects violations of Community Standards as well as 15,000 human content reviewers, but occasionally content is flagged or removed in error,” said a Facebook company spokesperson in an emailed statement when asked why Serrano was unable to access to his account for two months.

Facebook on Oct. 21, 2020, sent Pedro Julio Serrano a message that said his Facebook pages were once again accessible.

Serrano, a vocal LGBTQ rights advocate who regularly criticizes outgoing Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced and other members of her pro-statehood New Progressive Party, is unsure what caused this prolonged ban. He’s speculative the initial ban on his pages were due to mass reporting by anti-LGBTQ groups and individuals because of his work with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who lost in August’s gubernatorial primary.

Serrano has also been outspoken on violence against transgender Puerto Ricans.

Six trans Puerto Ricans have been reported killed on the island this year. Five of them were trans women.

Serrano said his advocacy and in particular his demands that the government make changes to protect trans people may have factored into him being blocked from his Facebook accounts.

“I know that when you are in a position of leveraging your voice, these things happen because they want to silence you,” he said. “But it shouldn’t happen. I’m hopeful that it doesn’t happen again, and I can continue using this resource that is so vital.”

In addition to his work in politics, Serrano is a founder and executive director of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy organization, and runs clinics in San Juan for trans people and people with HIV.

Serrano said he has never had a problem with Facebook to this magnitude in the past.

Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said platforms like Serrano’s are integral to marginalized groups that seek to foster community. Ruane said they also assist in spreading messages in ways traditional media outlets cannot in terms of content and reach.

“Social media has been, even in spite of some of the challenges that queer communities and communities of color face, a democratizing force,” she said.

C Rivera, a trans activist from Puerto Rico has also experienced bans on their personal page, with six alone this year so far, all with varying time limits.

Rivera also helps lead “Boicot La Comay,” a Facebook page with more than 100,000 likes and followers that advocates for the cancellation of “La Comay,” a Puerto Rican gossip show that promotes racist, homophobic and misogynist stereotypes.

Vázquez and other members of her party are regular guests on the program that a life-sized puppet hosts. Serrano is among those who called for “La Comay” to be cancelled in June after it mocked Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, a lesbian woman of African descent who is running for the Puerto Rico Senate.

Authorities a few weeks after the segment aired arrested Serrano and charged him with two counts of marital sexual assault against his former partner. A judge last month dismissed the charges on grounds there was no probable cause to prosecute him.

A scene from “La Comay.” (Screen capture via YouTube)

Rivera said they experience more censorship because of their identity. They often write back against hate speech directed to them and trans people, which has been the cause of most of the bans. Rivera once posted a screenshot of a transphobic message directed to them and was promptly banned, they said.

“Basically, about four months of the year I’m banned from Facebook for responding to some sort of attack, for being sarcastic,” they said. “And then the person that was attacking trans people doesn’t get banned, but I get banned.”

A sample of C Rivera’s Facebook ban history.

Ruane said Facebook has disproportionately silenced LGBTQ content for years.

Rivera is also forced to use their legal name and hasn’t been able to change it due to policy standards. Ruane said this is another instance of anti-LGBTQ regulations on Facebook’s part.

Ruane added Serrano’s lack of clarity on why his page was banned is also an issue.

“You can’t really contest Facebook’s decision if they are not providing clarity as to why they made it in the first place,” she said.

Ruane said social media is also a platform for advocacy and community. Limiting this outlet by banning pages and rejecting ads can cause loss of income and even risk lives, she said.

“De-platforming or censoring people from Facebook, or from any platform, may seem like this isn’t so much of a big deal, but it could have real-world consequences,” she said.

Ruane said Facebook needs to take steps to improve its regulation of content in building transparency when creating guidelines and enforcing them. Conducting meaningful review and having particularity in citing violations is also necessary, she said.

The platform, along with Instagram, said they would ban conversion therapy content on their sites in June, following a block on ads promoting the practice earlier this year.

Facebook recently refused to approve an ad containing a photo of a lesbian couple. The band Unsung Lilly submitted an ad of the duo, including a picture of the pair touching foreheads, to promote their new album and Patreon page in efforts to keep the band afloat financially. Facebook had labeled the video as containing “adult sexually explicit content,” according to the band and ACLU.

The ad was repeatedly rejected, and the couple decided to re-submit the ad but replaced the picture of them with a photo of a heterosexual couple. The ad was then approved.

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Vigil held after Wilton Manors Pride parade accident

Fort Lauderdale mayor expressed ‘regret’ over initial terrorism claim

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A vigil in the wake of the accident at the Stonewall Pride Parade took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — More than 100 people on Sunday attended a prayer vigil in the wake of an accident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

The vigil took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Clergy joined activists and local officials at a vigil at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

A 77-year-old man who was driving a pickup truck struck two men near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday. One of the victims died a short time later at a Fort Lauderdale hospital.

The pickup truck narrowly missed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade, and Florida Congressman Ted Deutch.

The driver of the pickup truck and the two men he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday described the incident as a “fatal traffic crash” and not a terrorism incident as Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially claimed.

“As we were about to begin the parade, this pickup truck, this jacked up white pickup truck, dashed across, breaking through the line, hitting people, all of us that were there could not believe our eyes,” said Trantalis as he spoke at the vigil.

Trantalis noted the pickup truck nearly hit Wasserman Schultz. He also referenced the arrest of a 20-year-old supporter of former President Trump earlier in the week after he allegedly vandalized a Pride flag mural that had been painted in an intersection in Delray Beach, which is roughly 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.

“I immediately knew that something terrible was happening,” said Trantalis, referring to the Stonewall Pride Parade accident. “My visceral reaction was that we were being attacked. Why not? Why not feel that way?”

“I guess I should watch to make sure there are no reporters standing by when I have those feelings, but that was my first reaction and I regret the fact that I said it was a terrorist attack because we found out that it was not, but I don’t regret my feelings,” he added. “But I don’t regret that I felt terrorized by someone who plowed through the crowd inches away from the congresswoman and the congressman, myself and others.”

Trantalis also told vigil attendees that “I guess we forgive” the pickup truck driver.

“But I regret that his consequences resulted in the death of an individual who was innocent and who was there to have a good time, like the rest of us, and I regret there is a man who is in serious condition … fighting for his life and there,” added Trantalis.

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Veterans Affairs to provide gender-confirmation surgery reversing 2013 ban

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and expand access to care for transgender veterans

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The new Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs )

ORLANDO – U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced his Department is moving to provide gender-confirmation surgery through its health care coverage reversing a 2013 ban on those surgical procedures.

Speaking at a Pride Month event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System Saturday, McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

The process to roll-back the restrictions may take upwards of two years. The federal rulemaking process, expected to begin this summer, will include a period for public comment, spokesman Terrence Hayes told The Washington Post on Saturday.

“This time will allow VA to develop capacity to meet the surgical needs that transgender veterans have called for and deserved for a long time,” McDonough said in his remarks. “and I am proud to begin the process of delivering it,” he added.

On February 8, 2013, the VA issued a directive that stated that the VA Healthcare System does not provide sex reassignment surgery. This directive sought to clarify a previous VA directive issued June 9, 2011, “Providing Healthcare for Transgender and Intersex Veterans,” which established the provision of hormone therapy, gender-related mental health counseling, and other transition-related services through the VA, as well as a mandate that the VA health system provides care “without discrimination and in a manner … consistent with the Veteran’s self-identified gender.”

“This directive, however, does not include coverage of surgical procedures although the VA does provide transgender veterans with pre- and postoperative care.”

The outcome was that the directive(s) effectively prevented transgender veterans from a surgery considered medically necessary by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

38 CFR § 17.38 Medical benefits package, is the specific federal code that makes provisions for veterans healthcare, which Section (b) clearly defines as; “Care referred to in the “medical benefits package” will be provided to individuals only if it is determined by appropriate health care professionals that the care is needed to promote, preserve, or restore the health of the individual and is in accord with generally accepted standards of medical practice.”

However, 38 CFR § 17.38 does limit care for transgender veteran’s stating: “(c) In addition to the care specifically excluded from the “medical benefits package” under paragraphs (a) and (b) of this section, the “medical benefits package” does not include the following: […] ‘(4) Gender alterations.'”

McDonough noted that changes “will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety” of all transgender veterans.

“There are several steps to take, which will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to veterans meet VA’s rigorous standards for quality health care.”

In a study related to the 2011 and 2013 directives, the VA noted that research showed that the transgender population in general experiences severe physical and mental health disparities, compared to the cisgender population, including high rates of HIV, suicidality, depression, anxiety, and mental health-related hospitalization.

Studies have found that these disparities are even more glaring among transgender veterans. In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

U. S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-CA, who is openly gay, issued a statement applauding McDonough’s actions.

“Veterans in need of gender confirmation surgery should not have to seek healthcare outside of the VA health system or navigate complicated processes to get the care they need,” Takano said. “VA must be inclusive of all veterans who have served, regardless of their identity.”

The Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Jon Tester, D-MT also approved of the expansion of health care offerings for trans veterans.

“Every service member and veteran deserves equal access to quality care from VA, and this includes our LGBTQ+ veterans,” Tester said in a statement. “We must reaffirm our commitment to making VA a more welcoming place for everyone who fought to protect our freedoms.”

Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality for the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel that her agency was “thrilled to have allies at the highest level of government” and noted the contrast with recent moves by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit transgender youth participation in school sports.

“In a moment of fierce state and local backlash against the transgender community, this move by the Biden Administration is a reminder that elections matter,” Duncan said. “Support for transgender veterans and the lifesaving healthcare they need to live authentically is a critical component to fulfilling our nation’s promise of caring for those who’ve served.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)
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Police describe Wilton Manors Pride incident as ‘fatal traffic crash’

Pickup truck driver identified as 77-year-old man

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A screenshot from a video taken at the scene by Joey Spears. (Image courtesy of @pinto_spears, via Twitter.) Screenshot used with permission from South Florida Gay News.

WILTON MANORS, Fla. — The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday released additional information about an incident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

A press release notes a 77-year-old man who was “a participant who had ailments preventing him from walking the duration of the parade and was selected to drive as the lead vehicle” was behind the wheel of a 2011 white Dodge Ram pickup truck that struck the two people near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” reads the press release. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.”

“The driver remained on scene and has been cooperative with investigators for the duration of the investigation,” further notes the press release. “A DUI investigation of the driver was conducted on scene and showed no signs of impairment.”

The press release confirms the driver and the two people he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue transported both victims to Broward Health Medical Center “with serious injuries.” The press release notes one of the victims died shortly after he arrived at the hospital.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which is leading the investigation, has not publicly identified the victims and the driver, but the press release describes the incident as a “fatal traffic crash.” The press release notes the second victim remains hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center, but “is expected to survive.”

“While no arrests have been made, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department continues to investigate this incident and will not be releasing the names of the involved parties due to the status of the investigation,” says the press release. “The Fort Lauderdale Police Department asks anyone who may have witnessed this incident, who has not already spoken to investigators, to contact Traffic Homicide Investigator Paul Williams at (954) 828-5755.”

The pickup truck narrowly avoided U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade. Florida Congressman Ted Deutch was also nearby.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic accident that occurred when the Stonewall Pride Parade was just getting started,” said Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus President Justin Knight in a statement he issued after the incident. “Our fellow chorus members were those injured and the driver was also part of the chorus family.”

“To my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” added Knight. “We anticipate more details to follow and ask for the community’s love and support.”

Fort Lauderdale mayor initially described incident as anti-LGBTQ ‘terrorist attack’

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially described the incident as “a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” without any official confirmation. Detective Ali Adamson of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Saturday confirmed to reporters that investigators are “working with” the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but stressed the “investigation is active and we are considering and evaluating all possibilities.”

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies. The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable,” said Trantalis on Sunday in a statement he posted to his Facebook page.

“I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events. It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away,” he added.

Trantalis added “law enforcement took what appeared obvious to me and others nearby and investigated further — as is their job.”

“As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he said. “As a result, one man died, two others were injured and the lives of two members of Congress were at risk. My heart breaks for all impacted by this tragedy.”

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