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Report on LGBT rights in US territories released

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, center, on May 14, 2019, spoke at a ceremony that marked the official opening of Puerto Rico’s first center for LGBT elders
Source: Washington Blade — America's LGBT news source

Washington, D.C. — Lambda Legal and the Movement Advancement Project on Tuesday released a new report that documents the status of LGBT rights in five U.S. territories.

The report ranks Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands on a variety of issues that include relationship recognition, nondiscrimination laws and whether transgender people can change the gender on their identity documents. The report also ranks the territories on health care and criminal justice policies.

Same-sex couples can legally marry in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Puerto Rico has the highest ranking of the five territories with a 21.75 out of a possible 40.5 points.

American Samoa has an overall tally of 1.5 out of 40.5 points. American Samoa does not allow same-sex marriage.

The Northern Mariana Islands, which has an overall tally of .5 out of 40.5 points, bans discrimination against government employees based on sexual orientation.

“There is progress happening in territories and there is fertile ground for more progress to happen,” MAP Policy Research Director Naomi Goldberg told the Blade on June 7 during a telephone interview. “There is an investment that we need to be making to further that progress on the ground by helping folks on the ground.”

The report states more than 3.5 million people live in the five territories, with the vast majority of them living in Puerto Rico. It also notes Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are part of the federal court system.

“The political status and the relationship within the U.S. filters into any constitutional case about rights in the territories,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney for Lambda Legal, told the Blade last week during a telephone interview. “The judges are mindful of that.”

This ambiguity came into sharp focus during the fight to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples throughout the U.S.

Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands both fall under the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit in October 2014 struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada. The first same-sex couple legally married in Guam on June 9, 2015, after a federal judge struck down the island’s law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

The government of the Northern Mariana Islands only allowed same-sex couples to marry after the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, issued its ruling in the Obergefell case.

Then-Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp on July 9, 2015, signed an executive order that required officials to allow same-sex couples to legally marry. Gays and lesbians have been able to tie the knot in Puerto Rico since July 17, 2015.

U.S. District Court Judge Juan Pérez-Giménez on March 8, 2016, said the ruling in the Obergefell case does not apply to Puerto Rico because it is not a state, even though the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously declared the island’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. The 1st Circuit and a federal judge later upheld their previous decisions.

The report notes American Samoa is not part of the federal court system and the territory’s residents are considered “American nationals” as opposed to U.S. citizens. Advocates have said the Obergefell decision applies to American Samoa, even if officials in the territory were to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Read more and access link to the full report at Washington Blade