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.

ABC/Univision/Cristina Costantini

The words "CUÍDATE, 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.

Dethroning the Queen of Puerto Rico's Airways

Last month, Pedro Julio won perhaps the biggest victory of his life, when he helped bring down the most popular television show on the island, called SuperXclusivo. In 2006, La Comay, a sassy life-sized she-puppet who sat atop a red and silver throne tore Pedro Julio apart on television for his activism on the island. As part of his/her vicious attack (the puppet is voiced by a man named Antulio 'Kobbo' Santarrosa'), La Comay called him a "pato" -- a word which literally means 'duck,' but is widely considered a derogatory term for gay men on the island.

At the time, Pedro Julio demanded an apology from the lady-puppet and his co-host Hector Travieso. But instead, La Comay responded:

"Look, Pedro Julio Serrano, we, the Puerto Rican people, are not at fault for the fact that you have these repressed desires, for the fact that you are a 'pato,'" La Comay said on the show in Spanish, which aired on WAPA TV.

Following the broadcast, Pedro Julio told the Spanish news outlet EFE, "[Santarrosa's] greatest punishment, as a homophobic man, will be that an open and proud gay man will be the one to oust him from television."

But few believed it possible to dethrone the queen of Puerto Rico's airwaves. The same show has also faced criticism for using the word "monos" or monkeys to describe black people, for attempting to "out" individuals they believed were gay, and for poking fun at women for their weight. But in December of 2012, Santarrosa would make his fatal move by presenting the possibility that the victim of a brutal murder on the island had brought it on himself by soliciting prostitution.

"Was this man, José Enrique, asking for this?" La Comay asked.

It was the last straw. The statement triggered Puerto Rican activist and I.T. specialist Carlos Rivera to start a Facebook group called "Boicot La Comay," which in a few days ballooned to 70,000 people. Pedro Julio would be the driving force and spokesperson in the boycott which successfully pressured Coco-Cola, Ford, Chevrolet, WalMart, AT&T, and Sprint, and more than 40 other companies to pull their ad dollars from the program.

Pedro Julio says social media has provided the perfect tool to lead his movement.

"It's an instrument which levels the field. No one has to go through intermediaries anymore," Pedro Julio said. "Social media is like a public plaza, which allows us to denounce or support what we want, and people don't even have to go to the street anymore to do it."

Critics said the movement was censorship from a small minority, but Pedro Julio says that the mass outcry pressured companies, concerned for their image, to make good business decisions.

"Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It reaches a limit when you abuse the dignity of another person," said Pedro Julio. "And that's what La Comay did constantly. She was a bully."

Just over a month after the boycott started, Santarrosa resigned, and the show was canceled. A 12 year reign at the top was over.

Growing Up and Coming Out

Born in the Southern city of Ponce in 1974, and raised in Isla Verde, in the San Juan metropolitan area, Pedro Julio's biological father left shortly after he was born. The second of four brothers, he was raised by his mother Alicia Burgos and her husband of 30 years, Hector Mujica, who Pedro Julio now calls his father. Burgos and Mujica say their son has been defending people, asking questions, and fighting for justice from a very young age.

PHOTO: At age 13, Pedro Julio organized his first rally after a schoolmate was killed in drug-related gang violence.

The grandson of journalist who fought injustice through his reportage, Pedro Julio initially pursued a degree in media at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. But at the age of 19, after having unprotected sex with his first sexual partner, Pedro Julio tested positive for HIV.

"He knew, but he didn't tell me," Pedro Julio said. "But you know, I take responsibility for it, I have to."

On the same day that Pedro Julio came out as gay to his parents, he also told them that he had HIV.

"The gay thing, I didn't care about. I only cared about the health of my child. It's impossible for a mother to think that her son will die before [she will, and it was very hard. It was hard because of the HIV, not because of the gay thing," Burgos said. "It was a shock, I won't deny it."

And so Pedro Julio dropped out of school, unable to balance his school work and his recent discovery. From there, he entered the world of activism and politics, working to promote awareness and fair treatment of the LGBT community on a not-so-receptive island.

The incident with Pedro Julio's blue Oldsmobile wouldn't be the first, or the last threat on his life. A couple of months after the unsolved crime (most crimes in Puerto Rico go unsolved), Pedro Julio was followed by a pickup truck, and narrowly escape the four men with shotguns that pursued him.

"Their intent was to scare me, and it worked," Pedro Julio said. "I was terrified."

On a third occasion, Pedro Julio was followed through winding streets and back alleys by yet another car in San Juan while with his mother was in the car. To this day, Burgos believes that her son is risking his life with his work. As a mother, she has tried to convince him that sticking his neck out isn't worth it.

"A lot of times I say to him, 'Please, go slow,' but you know I talk to him about it, and he always turns me around," she said. "I leave understanding what he's doing, and that's his life, and that's what he wants to do and I'll respect him for that and I'll back him all the way."

Burgos says she feels relieved that her son moved to New York City ten years ago, where he works as a spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, because he's less subject to be a target of the widespread anti-gay violence on the island.

But that doesn't mean Pedro Julio doesn't return periodically to stir up controversy.

Kissing the Hate Away

When I visited Pedro Julio in his office, a yellowed newspaper cover hung on the wall behind him.

The image of Pedro Julio kissing Steven Toledo, his then-boyfriend, spread across the front page and the caption read, "Amor gay sacude al Capitolio" or "Gay love shakes the Capitol." Pedro Julio, wearing a white suit, eyes-closed, and Steven, head-angled to the side, were caught in a momentary kiss, which occurred while Pedro Julio was attending a hearing on civil unions on the island. The two men say they were aware that the act of kissing would cause controversy, but felt that it was being true to who they are to kiss in public.

"There was a tacit understanding that we're in the public eye," Toledo told me. "But we wanted to be who we are consistently, as part of maintaining our integrity, and so we kissed normally."

The front page cover, which scandalized a conservative Puerto Rico at the time and upset some even with the pro-gay movement for being "too extreme," might seem distinctly conventional for anyone who has lived in an LGBT-friendly city in recent years.

"People told me we were moving too fast, that we were doing the movement a big disservice," he said."But it was just a kiss."

Pedro Julio's controversial tactics have brought him dear friends, as well as outspoken enemies.

He receives dozens of messages of love and solidarity from his many ardent supporters, including celebrities like singer Ricky Martin and Rene Perez Joglar of Calle 13. A text from his 19-year old brother Antonio that said he'd stand by his brother through anything, moved Pedro Julio to tears as he read it aloud to me at his desk.

Pedro Julio must also face those who despise him, and cope with a constant barrage of bullying through the very same means which has empowered his movement.

"Muerete, marica," read one tweet directed towards Pedro Julio and myself last month after I tweeted an article about the La Comay controversy. Translation: "Go kill yourself, fag."

But not all of Pedro Julio's opponents are anonymous homophobes on Twitter. One Puerto Rican blogger Emmanuel Serrano Hernández, who blogs under the moniker Gazoo Starr, is an outspoken critic of the activist.

He wrote a blog earlier this month called "Un peligro para todos" (Translation: A danger for everyone), which is a play on the name of Pedro Julio's organization which advocates human rights on the island called "Un Puerto Rico para todos." The post received more than 2,000 likes on Facebook, and prompted the creation of a Facebook and Twitter accounts called Boycott Pedro Julio, which each have over one thousand followers.

In his post, Hernandez sticks with some of the most popular critiques of Pedro Julio. Hernandez says that Pedro Julio actually censors free speech, that he purports to speak for an entire Puerto Rico, even though he speaks for a small minority, that he craves media-attention, that he doesn't even live on the island that he seeks to influence, and that he's an indiscriminate complainer.

"What happened here was victory of the censorship by a few, lead by the hysterical Pedro Julio Serrano," Starr wrote. "Pedro Julio, you don't represent me nor do you represent Puerto Rico, and you especially don't represent us residing in New York and coming here to complain and brag."

Pedro Julio's closest friends say he is misunderstood by some Puerto Ricans who only see Pedro Julio amidst controversy. He appears on radio shows, talk shows, and is quoted almost daily in the island's biggest newspapers, fighting against the powers that be.

But for those who know him well, Pedro Julio's private persona is much less serious. He's a laugher, a prankster, and a charmer, his close friends say. He especially loves scaring his mother, most recently by pretending he was a ghost.

One of his best friends, Karlo Karlo, a makeup artist and gay rights activist in New York City, says that Pedro Julio can get anyone on his side, if he's given the chance.

When Pedro Julio was seated next to two conservative women in their late sixties from "el campo," or rural Puerto Rico, last year at a dinner at a close friends' house in San Juan, Karlo Karlo says that at first tensions were high.

"These two ladies were very very religious. They were evangelical, and they only knew Pedro Julio from seeing him on television," Karlo Karlo said. "But by the end of the night, were all laughing so hard. I mean, we were all truly having fun, and these two ladies loved Pedro Julio. They just couldn't get enough of him."

By the end of the night, the women were converts.

"'Pedro Julio, sabes que en realidad tu eres un muchacho muy bueno. Es que siempre te veo peleando en la television," one woman told him, according to Karlo Karlo. (Translation: Pedro Julio, you know what you're actually a very good man. It's just that I always see you fighting on the television.)

Since the dinner, the two women have continued to ask for Pedro Julio to visit, and when they returned to el campo they shared with their fellow lady-friends what they believed was Pedro Julio's biggest secret of all -- he's a closeted nice guy.

Pedro Julio's life hasn't been easy. He had a heart condition as a child which would cause him to faint, he survived cancer at the age of 36, he was hospitalized after collapsing from exhaustion at 38, and for the last two decades he's had to deal with the realities of living with HIV.

Still, Serrano is perfectionist, a micro-manager, and a "work-horse," as he terms it. Despite a compromised immune system, Pedro Julio routinely goes 24, 36, and even 40 hours without sleeping. To his frustration, his body often gives out before he does.

"I've had to learn that I'm human," Pedro Julio said. Pedro Julio's struggles have lead him to realize how short life is, and has made him impatient to finish his work and spread his message.

"I'm very impatient. I feel desperate to finish already. I always want to accelerate the pace of things," he said. "I just want to convince everyone. I feel like if I just talk to someone, I can convince them."

His boyfriend, and his mother, have tried to step in, but Pedro Julio doesn't like hearing it.

"He has HIV, you know, and he's always been delicate with his health, so I'm always concerned," his mother said. "He gets exhausted physically and emotionally, and I told him he needs to slow down, but he won't. Nobody can stop him."

Pedro Julio's work habits have taken a toll on other people in his life including his future husband Steven. The couple broke up for nearly two years because Toledo felt that Pedro Julio wasn't able to balance the activism with the relationship. But they both say they're happier than ever, and that they're working hard to make it work.

Although the two work in LGBT advocacy, there's are a number of ways they don't see eye-to-eye. Steven, a Bronx-native, loves wilderness and hiking. Pedro Julio doesn't. But part of working on their relationship means that Pedro Julio has agreed to take more camping expeditions.

"I just need access to a bathroom, a shower, and a place to charge my phone, and to be connected with what's going on in the world," Pedro Julio said. They also have vastly different dietary habits. Pedro Julio describes Toledo as "almost vegan" and Toledo says Pedro Julio "runs away from anything green." The couple is getting married in New York in the next year and planning to have a child through a surrogate. If it's a boy, he'd be named Gianmarco, but the girl's name remains subject for debate.

I met up with Pedro Julio in his neighborhood in Jackson Heights, where the couple lives with their mean little dog Coqui, named after Puerto Rico's national frog, and their kind golden retriever puppy named Ralph. Pedro Julio took me to a Uruguayan restaurant where, true to form, we ate nearly a dozen varieties of grilled meat. He interrupted the meal only to respond to tweets from a handful of Puerto Rican politicians and conduct a quick radio interview.

After finishing our parillada, he told me he is planning to move back to Puerto Rico with his new family next year, and "won't rule out" a 2016 run for political office of some sort. "Actually, I'm considering it," Pedro Julio said, with a flash of his white smile. He declined to go into further detail.

A Politician, An Activist, A Teacher

Above all, Pedro Julio is a teacher, his closest friend, Karlo Karlo said. Nearly every Facebook post, blog, and tweet that Pedro Julio shares has a moral to it. His favorite phrases repeat messages of peace and harmony: "Human dignity is inalienable," "Equality is inevitable," "With solidarity and respect for all."

"He teaches us all so much," Karlo Karlo said. When he told Pedro Julio's father that his son was a teacher, Karlo Karlo says he'll never forget how he was corrected.

"Pedro Julio is not teaching people," Mujica told him. "He's unteaching them and that is much harder."

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