From the 1940s to the 1960s, Myrta Silva was one of the most famous Puerto Rican singers and songwriters, known internationally as the Queen of Guaracha. She was also maybe, possibly, very likely queer. While rumors that Silva was lesbian flew, they have never been confirmed nor denied. Still, more than 30 years after her death, she is regarded as one of the earliest lesbians in Puerto Rican pop culture. Like Silva’s story, much of the history of Puerto Rican lesbians is built-in chisme — an open secret. It’s understood in the community, without it having to be said outright.
Even presently, I can relate to this. While in my private Catholic school in my hometown of Guaynabo, some of my classmates referred to me as a lesbian. By no means was it constant — it was only a couple of times by some boy who didn’t know anything about anything — but those few moments felt eternal; they lived on in my memory whenever I considered identifying as the forbidden L word. What was it about me that had others identifying me as queer before I knew what queer meant? I wasn’t sure, but I tried my best not to become whatever that was.
That was probably a rebellious nature that disregarded gender roles and men’s opinions. Those whispers that followed me also orbited current lesbians and our sapphic ancestors. They’re meant to be malicious, no doubt, but we wear them as armor. Like me, Puerto Rico’s lesbian history is made up of equal parts whispers and fighting yells of activism. From the bochinche of celebrities’ sexualities that’s taken as common knowledge to the fight for same-sex marriage, the stories of the lesbians of our past are only secret because we’re not listening.
“By the 1960s, when Myrta Silva had television programs, everybody knew that she was queer,” Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, author of Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora and professor at the University of Michigan, tells Refinery29 Somos. “She was very atrevida, very upfront. She was always negotiating what could be said and what could not be said.” Her career can be characterized as an evasion of censorship via androgynous dressing and songs full of queer double entredres.
This was common among lesbian, bisexual, and trans women entertainers and artists on the archipelago: live boldly and stay silent. Like Silva, Lucecita Benítez’s, an iconic singer of the ‘60s and ‘70s who was known for her gender-bending lifestyle and aesthetic, sparked rumors of queerness that were never confirmed. Yet, it’s extremely well-known among fans that Benítez — who always wore tailored men’s suits and sometimes referred to herself with male adjectives in Spanish songs and interviews — was a part of the LGBTQ+ community. When I asked my parents, who grew up listening to Benítez, if they knew about this, they said, “Ah! Pues, claro!” — of course.
At the time, whispers about Benítez’s sexual orientation were widely shared, both by those who craved any sort of positive representation and those with more malicious intent. “People were very happy with her as long as she presented as a feminine, cisgender, white-passing woman,” La Fountain-Stokes says. “As soon as Lucecita Benítez started talking more about the independence of Puerto Rico, letting her afro grow out, and wearing men's clothes, people started to get very upset, very nervous.”
This risk of public admonishment is, perhaps, why neither singer entertained gossip around their queerness — and it’s likely why there’s very little to be found about their queerness online. It only survives in the minds of the people who lived it, and it gets passed down from generation to generation as common knowledge, something ingrained in pop culture. “So much of it is based on rumor, hearsay, gossip and unofficial accounts,” Regner Ramos, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico and creator of the queer mapping project Cüirtopia, says.
While it might be difficult to confirm or deny the gossip today, the queer women of Puerto Rico’s past are certainly felt — forever cemented in our cultural lexicon. From songs to poetry to literature, sapphic women made their mark with subtle phrases and clever pronoun avoidances. Others were published in LGBTQ+ publications like Pa’Fuera!, a newspaper owned by Comunidad Orgullo Gay that printed informative features, personal essays, poetry, ads for queer-friendly businesses, and more throughout the ‘70s. An example is the poem “A Celeste,” signed simply by the name “Marcia” and a date of September 13, 1974, which says, “En los ojos del amor [...] desafiando vientos de mentira, huracanes de miedo, caminando unidas por fuego y agua” (“In the eyes of love [...] defying winds of lies, hurricanes of fear, walking together united with fire and water.”). The only way to decipher that the piece is about lesbians is because of the use of the female pronoun in one line, the poem’s title, and, of course, the name of the author — who notably opted for anonymity.
During my college years in Puerto Rico, I was still mostly in the closet even though I had come out to my parents. I’m sure there was a queer culture somewhere around me, but I wasn’t interested in looking for it. I was afraid of being othered; all I wanted was to keep myself in the background. During the last summer before I moved to New Jersey, I went to my first Pride march with a friend from school. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I belonged. It felt easier to breathe seeing so many people decked out in rainbows — there was space for me, still. When I returned home, giddy with queer joy, my parents yelled at me, and they proceeded to give me the silent treatment for days. My identity became an open secret in our home, even in our apartment — known, but never spoken.
Queer spaces in Puerto Rico are just like its pop culture — you simply had to be there. They only exist in the briefest moments before being replaced. Even the most recent of closed queer spaces on the archipielago, like the now-closed Loverbar, have transformed from a must-have experience to a brief “remember that one time” conversation topic.
“We'll be able to borrow certain spaces, and have them for a particular night. Then that space becomes a regular heterosexual space,” Ramos tells Somos. “The trade-off is that we never really own any of these places. We're at the mercy of somebody lending us a space.”
The few fleeting queer spaces that do exist, remain male-dominated. Not many exclusively lesbian spaces have ever existed in Puerto Rico — and those that have, have come and gone, like Nök Nights, former San Juan-based parties organized for and by queer women. This celebration of queer womanhood only lasted a year and a half, with the last party organized in December 2019.
This lack of physical space hasn’t stopped queer women from demanding to be seen and heard. Since the 1970s, feminist and lesbian activist groups have offered community, representation, and organizing. “The organization Las Lesbianas De La Comunidad De Orgullo Gay provided a space where adolescents could redefine the image of what a lesbian was,” Elizabeth Crespo-Kebler, founding member of feminist lesbian organization Las Buenas Amigas and professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamón, tells Somos.
While activism has always been important to the LGBTQ+ community, it a took priority in 1974 when Puerto Rico’s Penal Code defined sodomy in article 103 as “any person that has sexual relations with another person of the same sex” with a fixed sentence of 10 years in jail. According to an article in Pa’Fuera, the defunct queer publication available only through digital archives from El Archivo LGBT+ De Puerto Rico, before the law went into effect, a gay and lesbian couple went to San Juan’s Federal Court to question how consitutional the new notion was. For nearly three decades, the law was used to terrorize queer people. In 1997, for instance, Reverend Margarita Sánchez presented herself to the Department of Justice as guilty for violating article 103 after a legislator accused her of “lesbian practices.” “To intimidate you, they would ask if you were lesbian,” Crespo-Kebler says.
It wasn’t until 2003 that sodomy was eliminated from Puerto Rico’s Penal Code, days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision that the criminalization of sodomy is unconstitutional. Later, in 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized.
Today, while Puerto Rican activists have fought legal, health, and social battles that are worth celebrating, it’s also important to remember what all queer puertorriqueñes already know: it’s still not safe for us to be us. Throughout Puerto Rico, trans people are murdered on the streets, queer communities are menaced by law enforcement, and youth continue to undergo faith-based conversion therapies.
Despite these threats, more queer Puerto Rican women are living their lives authentically and unapologetically — something our boldest lesbian heroines couldn’t do. While we try to construct and map a precise history of lesbians in Puerto Rico, we must not forget that for a large part of history, their silence was safety. And that has to be OK. In San Juan Gay, a book by Javier E. Laureano that chronicals queer Puerto Rico from 1948 to 1991, he says, “It’s the issue with visibility, of questioning until what point we want to be visible.” Is it worth it to be visibly queer if there’s a chance you’ll get murdered in the streets of Río Piedras?
In Puerto Rico, being visible in lesbian history meant getting arrested, but that didn’t mean queer women were hiding from themselves, their families, or their friends. That silence protected them; in some ways, it allowed them to continue living their authentic lives. They weren’t just queer; they were also women at a time when being both of these things meant silence and danger.
I thought my experience as a lesbian puertorriqueñe in Puerto Rico wasn’t valid. After all, it wasn’t until I moved to New Jersey that it felt safe to identify as a lesbian. I didn’t get to experience la cultura cuir, and even when I go back, there may not be any queer spaces left to visit. That’s what being queer and Puerto Rican feels like: an abstract feeling, a moment that just barely slipped through my fingers. But at least, I will always have the history — a connection to this community I’ll never exist in, but always identify with. Even if their stories never make the pages of history books, queer women most definitely existed, some, likely, in your family and in your ancestry. And isn’t that such a comfort, knowing that we’re never really the first?