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Puerto Rico and the Caribbean  
 
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The islands of the Caribbean are renowned for their pleasant tropical climate. The social climate for glbtq people, however, is not always an inviting one.

Native Americans had already been living on many of the Caribbean islands for centuries when European explorers, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, arrived in the New World. The advent of the Europeans spelled doom for the native cultures. Conquerors massacred many people, and settlers enslaved others. Oppressive treatment and new diseases took a heavy toll. Some Native Americans assimilated into the Europeans' communities, but for the most part the native peoples were eliminated.

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The Spanish led the way to the Caribbean with voyages of discovery and the establishment of settlements. Other nations--England, France, and the Netherlands in particular--fought for territory in the region. In many cases islands were conquered and reconquered by warring countries numerous times over the centuries. Pirate ships also sailed the Caribbean, wreaking their own havoc.

The Europeans had hoped to find gold, but the Caribbean yielded little of it, and so the settlers turned to agriculture. With the native populations virtually wiped out, Europeans began bringing slaves from West Africa in the early sixteenth century to labor on their plantations.

Interaction between slave-holders and slaves gave rise to new languages called creoles. The best-known of these is probably the French-based Haitian creole. Others include the English-based creole of Jamaica and Papiamentu, which includes Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch elements and is spoken in the Netherlands Antilles.

In addition to their language the Europeans brought their religions. Particularly on the Spanish and British islands these have historically played and continue to play a major role in shaping a cultural prejudice against glbtq people.

The nineteenth century brought a major debate over slavery. Haitian slaves led by Toussaint L'Ouverture rose in revolt in 1801, leading to the country's independence in 1804. In other areas events were less dramatic. Freedom for slaves came gradually, mainly between the 1830s and mid-century.

Cuba (about which there is a separate entry in this encyclopedia) became independent in 1902, but for the most part the Caribbean islands remained colonies or territories of European nations. In the 1960s many of the British islands opted to become independent members of the Commonwealth. Aruba became an autonomous member of the kingdom of the Netherlands in 1986, but the rest of the Dutch islands remain politically part of Holland. Likewise, residents of the French islands are citizens of France. Puerto Rico has been under United States control since the end of the Spanish-American War. U.S. citizenship was extended to Puerto Ricans in 1917.

From the twentieth century onward, the tourism industry has been of great importance in the Caribbean. Despite aggressive marketing campaigns to lure visitors, glbtq travelers will not find a warm welcome in all destinations. Sasha Alyson, the owner of a gay and lesbian travel agency, commented, "Very broadly, the Dutch and French islands, just based on their heritage, are very good. The British are the worst. The Spanish islands are fine, but they are less open."

Puerto Rico

The long and pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic church in Puerto Rico historically prevented gay men and lesbians from achieving any degree of public acceptance. Further contributing to their marginalization was the concept of machismo, which equates "manliness" with power. Various traits such as physical strength or the ability to provide for one's family are considered manly, but central to the image of the macho man is his sexual appeal to and prowess with women. Even a man with little power in any practical or objective sense can strive to gain the respect of others within his social circle through displays or talk of his machismo. Conversely, a man can be socially devalued for not behaving in a way considered macho.

In recent decades Pentecostal churches have been gaining ground in Puerto Rico. In a 1990 interview activist Roberto Caballero called the Catholic and Pentecostal churches "the most influential forces in molding public opinion" against glbtq rights.

Nor have political parties in Puerto Rico shown much enthusiasm for advancing glbtq rights. Activist José Santini stated in 1991 that "historically there has been a lot of in the independentista movement," referring to the faction favoring independent status for Puerto Rico, an issue on which there have been non-binding referenda in 1967, 1993, and 1998. The independentistas, one of the more liberal groups, have attracted many glbtq supporters. Santini stated that despite their contributions, "their work as lesbians and gay men hasn't been recognized."

The fight against AIDS led some glbtq Puerto Ricans to favor the option of statehood, which would have brought more funds for health care to the island. Proponents of statehood feared that the economy of an independent Puerto Rico would not be strong enough to afford better health care services.

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