Pedro Julio Serrano: "Unteaching" an Island

PHOTO: Gay rights activist Pedro Julio Serrano eats lunch in his neighborhood in Queens, New York, while conducting a radio interview with a media outlet in Puerto Rico.

The words "CU├ŹDATE, PATO" were scrawled across a piece of paper that had been tucked under Pedro Julio Serrano's windshield wiper.

"'Take care of yourself, faggot,' it means in English'," Pedro Julio said.

It was 1998 and the then-24-year-old Pedro Julio was running as the first openly gay candidate of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. He spent a few seconds inspecting his blue Oldsmobile after reading the hateful words of warning, and noticing his car hood wasn't pushed down fully, he called a good friend to take another look at the vehicle. His brake chords had been cut -- an attempt to intimidate, injure, or kill the young candidate.

Anti-gay hate crimes are rampant on the island, which has a population of 3.5 million, about the size of Connecticut. Nearly two dozen members of the LGBT community were murdered in Puerto Rico between 2009 and 2011 alone.

Pedro Julio, who has led the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in Puerto Rico over the past decade, still doesn't go a day without some form of hate or bullying from the many who despise him. Now 38 years old, he is one of the most recognizable, and most controversial, public figures in Puerto Rico. For some on the island, he is a living historical icon, a Gandhi with a Twitter account, and for others, he embodies the erosion of a traditional Puerto Rico and its moral code.

From his dimly-lit office in Manhattan's Financial District, Pedro Julio, a thin man with a school-boy's part, influences many of tomorrow's headlines in Puerto Rico's top newspapers. With posts on Facebook and Twitter every hour which go out to his more than 30,000 followers, Serrano drives the news cycle.

Currently, he's advocating that the gruesome murder of a member of the gay community be investigated as a hate crime and pushing for the passage of a gay marriage bill on the island.

"I hope to be married in Puerto Rico in June," he said last month, in an interview on local TV. But, on the day I joined him in his office last month, he'd only slept a couple of hours in the previous two days, something not out of the ordinary for him. The night before, a key Puerto Rican political adviser on the government's payroll called him a gross, promiscuous scoundrel over Twitter and Pedro Julio decided that he would bring the case to court. His phone buzzed every few seconds with messages of love and support, but also messages of derision, and bigotry from Puerto Ricans living on the island and from those who have migrated to the mainland as part of a larger boricua diaspora.

"My job is physically and emotionally exhausting," he told me.

As I spoke with him, Pedro Julio's face underwent extraordinary emotional shifts at a rapid pace. He smiled with large white teeth as he told me a story about how his future husband Steven Toledo fell in love with him. Seconds later, his face turned sharp, his jowls clenched, and his tone became authoritative, as he prepared for one of his four phone interviews with Puerto Rican media that morning.

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