Serena and Layla-Transgender Women Killed in PR Serena and Layla are the most recent victims of violence against the transgender community in Puerto Rico. Five brutal murders have been confirmed since February.
Image courtesy of Pedro Julio Serrano for The Americano

Every life lost to hate is worth talking about in-depth. Two more trans women were killed in Puerto Rico to a total of five in the last two months.

They’re hunting us. As far-fetched as it seems, it’s how we feel. In the past 15 months, 10 LGBTQ people in Puerto Rico have been murdered — five of those were trans people killed in the past two months alone.

The last time we suffered an epidemic of anti-LGBTQ violence in Puerto Rico was a decade ago. Between October 2009 and October 2010, 11 LGBTQ people were brutally murdered.

One of those was Jorge Steven López Mercado, a 19-year-old gay man who was found decapitated, dismembered and partially burned. His killing marked a milestone in the LGBTQ struggle in Puerto Rico. Vigils were held in many cities in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and around the world. For Puerto Ricans, it was the realization that homophobia is real and it kills people.

A few days ago, we learned of a double homicide that took the lives of Serena Velázquez (32) and Layla Peláez (21), two trans women who were burned to death. The parallels with Jorge Steven’s murder are a chilling reminder that — as we gain more rights — homophobia and transphobia are very much ingrained in our society.

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Two months ago, Alexa Negrón, a homeless trans woman was bullied, harassed, and falsely accused of being a predator for the only reason that she used the women’s bathroom at a fast-food restaurant. She used the correct bathroom according to her gender identity.

But the hateful rhetoric that political and some religious fundamentalist leaders have been spewing for years came to life at the fingers of those who went to social media to falsely accuse her. An infamous post falsely accusing her became viral. A few hours later, Alexa was hunted and videotaped as she was viciously killed because the public opinion had unjustly convicted and sentenced her.

In this type of case, the police usually botches this kind of investigation by violating their own protocols on how to interrogate several persons of interest. To complicate things, the Police publicly said they believed the version of one of the suspects who alleged that the sounds heard in a video posted online was a Gotcha gun used to scare Alexa. On that same video, transphobic and hateful remarks were made. There is no stronger evidence to classify this as a hate crime.

The indignation following her death, and the outcries over the botched investigation that has led nowhere, also marked a milestone. It was, again, the realization that transphobia is real and it kills people.

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To make things worse, the government’s inaction has added insult to injury. Even though Governor Wanda Vázquez said Alexa’s “would be investigated as a hate crime,” the silence surrounding the other four murders of trans people in two months has been deafening.

This epidemic of anti-LGBTQ violence does not happen in a vacuum. As in 2009-10, hateful rhetoric and actions from some political and religious leaders, this time around, have been the spark that ignited the hunting of LGBTQ people.

When you have people in positions of power — like U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, Puerto Rico Representative María Milagros Charbonier, Puerto Rico House Speaker Johnny Méndez, Puerto Rico Senator Nayda Venégas, Pastor Wanda Rolón, Pastor César Vázquez, Priest Carlos Pérez and many others— demonizing and dehumanizing LGBTQ people, that rhetoric gives permission to others in society to discriminate us, to harass us, to attack us, to hunt us, to kill us.

Puerto Rico is a welcoming, loving, and hospitable place. We welcome and embrace everyone. But sometimes we also harass, discriminate and bully our own because of the fears that have been incited by some of the same people who are supposed to put the interests of every single person first rather than their own prejudices.

Hate must end. NOW. There is no place for hatred in our society. We cannot call ourselves a society when we are killing our own for being who they are or loving who they love.

While we continue to create that loving society, let’s unite our voices in one single cry: JUSTICE.

Justice for Kevin. Justice for Alexa. Justice for Yampi. Justice for Serena. Justice for Layla. Justice for Penélope. Justice for Javier. Justice for Carlos. Justice for Luis. Justice for Emilio.