SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Students at public schools across Puerto Rico for the first time can choose to wear pants or skirts as part of their uniform regardless of their gender without being punished, a move that has unleashed a debate in this socially conservative island.
Education Secretary Rafael Roman said Monday that the new regulation he recently signed is meant to be inclusive of gay, lesbian and transgender students. He added that teachers will no longer be allowed to discipline students who prefer to wear pants instead of skirts or vice versa.
"No student can be sanctioned for not opting to wear a particular piece of clothing ... that he or she does not feel comfortable with," he told reporters.
Girls at public schools in Puerto Rico traditionally wear skirts as part of their uniforms and the boys wear pants.
Gay rights activists and some school officials praised the measure, which comes months after Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an executive order prohibiting bullying in public schools based on someone's sexual orientation.
"It's a bit late, but it was approved, which is important," said Cristina Torres, director of a high school in Ponce, Puerto Rico's second-largest city. "Changing people's mentality from one day to another will be hard ... The most incredible thing is that young people can accept this with an open mind, but it's the adults who discriminate."
Torres is familiar with the issue. Teachers filed a complaint against her two years ago for appearing in a picture with a student who wore women's clothing at his graduation. The student was a victim of bullying and had received an award for overcoming difficult circumstances, she said.
"Our responsibility is to protect students' rights," Torres said.
However, critics of the new regulation accused government officials of acting like dictators and stripping parents of their power.
"Once again, this government and the Department of Education work against what's best for our children," said officials with Alerta Puerto Rico, a group that says it was founded to promote family and childhood values.
But Roman argues that parents have the final word on how their children dress for school since they're the ones buying the uniform. He added that several school districts in the U.S. mainland have adopted similar regulations.
Messages left with the U.S. Department of Education were not immediately returned.
Paola Gonzalez, a 39-year-old transsexual woman who grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in Albany, New York, said she wished the measure would have been approved years ago.
"It would have simplified my life," she said, adding that she has some concerns about the new regulation given what she described as Puerto Rico's "macho" culture.
"For a student to come out and say I identify with this gender and wear these clothes ... that will be a big step," Gonzalez said. "The school may also have to consider the safety of the student."
Garcia's administration previously approved several measures in favor of the gay community, including one that allows transgender and transsexual people to change their gender on their driver's license and another that protects their rights when seeking medical services.