“When you open the doors, it feels like a new world.”
Myrtle Dulcet, a non-binary drag artist and wig stylist, gives me a pep talk while we stand in line outside a pair of ordinary-looking doors. But the doors are the only ordinary thing about this place: the exterior walls are a combo of bright pink, cheetah print, and neon green that, strangely, work all together. The decor would have popped anywhere, but it’s a stark contrast against the gray cement of the surrounding buildings. I know the feeling. This is only my second time visiting Puerto Rico after moving permanently to the contiguous U.S. in 2017. A lot has changed since then, but it’s difficult to convince myself I belong here when so much of my queer soul-searching has occured outside the archipelago. Would there be any room for me? Myrtle Dulcet insisted there would:
“You’re not gonna regret it. You’re gonna feel so welcomed. You’re gonna feel so loved,” they say as we approach the front of the line.
We’re here at Loverbar in Puerto Rico, a pink camp explosion of a queer bar and vegan restaurant located in Río Piedras, a neighborhood in San Juan that has become an epicenter of sorts for much of Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ+ happenings. Loverbar is the first place of its kind, radiating queer energy from the plastic butterflies taped to the walls and leopard-print high-heel chairs to the rainbow and transgender pride flags that hang from the rafters of the second story. Where else are you going to get your reggaetón and drag shows with a vegan dinner? Where else do the waiters ask for pronouns before taking your order?
Founded by pop-punk aficionado and roller skating enthusiast Jhoni Jackson during the dog days of the pandemic, Loverbar first opened its doors in August 2020. It aimed to house alternative drag performances outside the traditional concursos. It would be a place where drag queens and kings could express themselves in any way they wanted without concerns for traditional beauty standards—something that’s still not widely accepted at traditional drag venues on the archipelago. (“The heteronormative has also affected drag in a sense. So here, I don’t necessarily have to feel bad because I’m not padded—foams on my hips—or I’m corseted. It’s my art,” said Myrtle Dulcet.)
For Jackson, Loverbar is the literal rainbow at the end of a period of darkness. She’s been struggling with her sexuality since she was 20, relating her full realization and self-acceptance with the queer community in Puerto Rico and the drag shows they used to put on. She began raising money and applying for permits, despite innumerable challenges to herself and her community. She made the decision to get sober, but Hurricane María hit, which made sobriety extremely difficult. The pandemic came and stayed. Alexa Negrón Luciano was murdered in a high-profile case, the fifth trans woman to be killed on the archipelago that year alone. Loverbar, Jackson hoped, would be an oasis for the most marginalized within her community.
“The whole point was to provide a safer space. Safer, not safe, because we know that that’s not possible,” Jackson said. “This is for us. This is for us to be happy and safe. It would be irresponsible of me to call it a safe space. But I will try my fucking damnest every single day to make it as safe as possible.”
“It would be irresponsible of me to call it a safe space. But I will try my fucking damnest every single day to make it as safe as possible.”
But the reality is that Puerto Rico is not safe for many of Loverbar’s patrons. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 12 LGBTQ people were murdered in Puerto Rico in the past two years. Local police are contributing to this harm. At the start of the year, the death of Samuel Edmund Damián Valentín marked the first trans killing in Puerto Rico; however, the police report misgendered the man, referring to his death as the “first femicide of 2021.” Meanwhile, an archipelago-wide misinformation campaign has empowered transphobia and homophobia, where even passing laws prohibiting conversion therapy has proven difficult.
Even among LGBTQ+ friendly neighborhoods and venues, there’s ample transphobia, with very little respect for pronouns or people’s gender expression. No matter where I went, I knew I had to get used to people calling me “chica” or using “ella,” even if I dressed and presented myself in a masculine way. No matter how hard I tried, I was always seen as a girl.
“Not every place is gonna accept you for how you want to look,“ says Loverbar employee Jere Carmona Rosario, who switches between a more masculine or a full-glam feminine expression between shifts. “[Loverbar] feels like a second home,” says Jere.
At Loverbar, the community is their security. Considering the law enforcement-related trauma of so many who visit and work at the venue, hiring police to provide protection and surveillance is out of the question. There have been moments when the community has had to drive out people who don’t follow its simple rules. As the sign at the entrance makes clear, transphobes, racists, homophobes, and machistas are not welcome. The message is reiterated throughout the bar. In the bathroom, another sign reminds patrons, “Here, everyone’s pronouns are respected. You don’t know their pronouns? Then, ask: ‘What are your pronouns?’ Never assume.”
“I didn’t have that conversation with myself before about my gender and how I wanted to be addressed in my pronouns. Loverbar helped me and a lot of people [have] that conversation, because you see it [take place] so often here,” Myrtle Dulcet said.
They and I have been discussing our different experiences with our non-binary identities over food and cocktails on Loverbar’s second floor, practically yelling over the DJ who is right next to us. My best friend joined the conversation, offering their own perspective. Recently, when I was having a similar conversation with a different group of friends at a nearby bar, a part of me wondered, “what if someone heard this and reacted badly?” But at Loverbar, this conversation feels easier. It even feels easier to breathe.
Six months after it opened, Loverbar has established itself as the queer destination for everything exciting, progressive, and radical about the Puerto Rican queer scene. COVID-19 measures call for limited seating inside the bar, but there are makeshift tables outside and a window to order so the party can continue. They are open from Wednesday to Saturday, and have drag performances every day by new-comers and professionals. Here, there is no dress code. People wear everything from the most extravagant outfits and makeup to the very casual (I didn’t feel too out of place in my airport clothes that first night). At Loverbar, you can perrear by yourself, you can make out with your partner, or you can chill out with a drink and a meal.
Despite Loverbar’s best efforts to ensure the safety of its queer and trans guests, heavy policing along Paseo de Diego, where the bar is located, puts the very lives Jackson hopes to protect at risk. Often, police gather to disperse the crowds that gather outside the club, something the bar can’t control. On another occasion, two armed police officers stopped Loverbar employees from leaving after their shifts, stating that businesses are supposed to be closed early due to COVID-19 regulations.
But the biggest fright came on the night of July 22, 2021. That evening, Loverbar was hosting the music video premiere for singer, podcaster, and drag performer Ana Macho’s Cuerpa. But half an hour before closing, much to the shock of those assembled, 10 officers blocked the entrance to the bar; some of them held assault rifles and others had handguns strapped to their legs. Inside, another 10 officers raided the bar. Videos and photos of the raid began making the rounds on social media. Many people questioned the need for this level of force, calling it a “fundamentally homophobic and transphobic attack.”
“I literally started crying. When I was outside, I was just shaking because this happens all the time,” said Loverbar employee Jere. “Like, they close small businesses down. It’s really unfair. I literally stood in front of the line of cops in front of the bar. I just stood there watching their faces. They didn’t even have the nerve to look at me back.”
When contacted by Refinery29, local police said that they were dispatched to check whether Loverbar’s permits were in order and to resolve a complaint filed by a resident in the neighborhood. The complaint questioned the conduct of “these people” and mentioned that they had called the police numerous times to “deal with the issue.” They claimed that the owners were irresponsible with COVID-19 regulations, and guilty of using public space for private use. Jackson herself was informed that San Juan officials would be conducting visits to Río Piedras businesses, but was not informed that administrators would be accompanied by about 20 police officers. A spokesperson from San Juan Mayor Miguel Alberto Romero Lugo’s office said that other local businesses were also checked that night, but they declined to say which businesses, despite multiple requests. Permit enforcers did not find Jackson in violation of any of the allegations listed in the original complaint, but discovered that she did not have the permits required to maintain its bar while its kitchen was closed. She was fined $2,000.
Video de La Police entrando.
¿Cuál es la necesidad? Cualquiera juraría que esto es un raid a un punto pic.twitter.com/MkFVHfVFsE
— ✨ A d o n i s ✨ (@MrWolfheart) July 23, 2021
Patrons don’t buy the police’s story. “You don’t [come at us with guns] if you’re just checking for documents,” Myrtle Dulcet said. “That is not the intention that you’re coming to this place with, so don’t lie about that and don’t dismiss the fact that we were scared.”
The complaint also listed other businesses in the area, one of them being Club 77. A representative from Club 77 said they had similar experiences: “When agents from different public agencies visit a business, they do so with armed police in the area.” When reached for comment, Michelle Cobb-Ramos, the Director of Communications for the city of San Juan, said that the permits office has the option to use “municipal police forces to dispatch administrative fines.” Yet, it’s undeniable that the presence of so many armed officers rattled partygoers. Romero hotly denied that the visits were motivated by homophobia, releasing the following charged statement: “There’s people that only have space in their agenda for lying and manipulation with the purpose of generating controversies and antagonisms where there aren’t any.” After backlash, the city of San Juan hired a third-party lawyer to investigate whether discriminatory practices took place during these permit checks, but have yet to release their findings. The mayor’s office told Refinery29 that the investigation was close to completion, but declined to provide any more information.
“They’re ridiculing us. It’s meant to hurt. It’s meant to minimize. It means to invalidate or to dismiss a whole fucking community,” said Myrtle Dulcet.
Loverbar is a business that doesn’t want to only be a business. Jackson pays her staff well above the minimum wage. She pays performers above minimum wage, sells food and drinks at reasonable prices, and does not charge for tickets to drag shows. As such, the $2,000 fine was enough to disrupt Loverbar’s delicate financial balance. Luckily, the community, both living on the archipelago and in the diaspora, donated to Loverbar’s Patreon, Venmo, and Paypal accounts to help foot the bill. It helped, but it’s no miracle. During my visit, Jackson admitted that she had to take out another loan.
I asked many people — sources, and my own friends — what Loverbar meant to them and why it was so important to keep it open. They all said one thing: the people. The community. That’s Loverbar.
“All I want is for us to survive,” Jackson said, and I didn’t have to ask her to clarify whether she means the bar itself, her employees, her patrons, or her community. They’re all one and the same.
I’m part of that community. Leaving Puerto Rico after Hurricane María in 2017, I never got the chance to live out my queer dreams in my homeland. I wasn’t accepted when I came out to my parents at age 18. They pointed to Puerto Rico’s homophobia and transphobia as evidence that life would be hard for me if I kept talking openly about my sexuality and gender identity. “It’s not safe here,” they’d tell me. “You won’t get a job here if you go around saying that,” they warned. So I hid. I didn’t feel truly comfortable being a lesbian until two years ago; and it wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn earlier this year that I even realized my gender identity might also be different. I think about how much more confident I would have been if I’d had a Loverbar to go to when I most needed it, but I imagine it’s similar to how I felt visiting for the first time as a 24 year old. It’s the safest, happiest, most comfortable I’ve ever felt being me. I felt heard, seen, supported, and — above everything else — celebrated. I never wanted to leave.
My parents might have been right. Maybe Puerto Rico isn’t safe if you’re queer. But where would we be if we didn’t try to change that? Armed police officers entering a queer space shouldn’t be the norm. Following “protrocol” shouldn’t traumatize trans and Black queer people. Just because a space can’t be 100% safe doesn’t mean it has failed.
“It’s history. This is queer history from Puerto Rico. It’s the first queer bar [like it] from Puerto Rico,” Jere insists, describing the dearth of venues catering to non-binary and trans people. “We’re making history,” they said.
It’s a testament to the creativity, vitality, and diversity of Latinx communities that the cruel origin of Latinidad — what connects people whose ancestors were colonized — is rarely reckoned with. Given international liberation movements in our communities, we’re devoting coverage to examining what freedom looks like in 2021, specifically for Afro-Latinx and Indigenous people. In a series of reported articles, essays, and stories to commemorate this Latinx Heritage Month, we’re looking at beautiful expressions of freedom, who gets to experience it, and the ways in which we claim for ourselves.
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