SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Dominican LGBT rights advocates remain hopeful that gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster will continue to generate more visibility around their nascent movement in the Caribbean country.
“In reality the Dominican LGBT community is not a rather large community,” Cristian King of Trans Siempre Amigas told the Washington Blade on March 7 during a meeting with nearly a dozen Dominican LGBT rights advocates at the home of Deivis Ventura of the Amigos Siempre Amigos Network of Volunteers in the San Carlos neighborhood of the Dominican capital. “[Brewster] is a person from our community. It is a big impact.”
King spoke with the Blade alongside Amigos Siempre Amigos Executive Director Leonardo Sánchez, radio host Franklyn Sánchez, Edward Tavarez da Silva of the website Zona VIP, Lorena Espinosa of the Woman and Health Colective, Marinela Carvajal of Republika Libre, Anyi Fermin of the Metropolitan Community Church of Santo Domingo’s Women’s Ministry, Pedro Mercedes, Stephanía Hernández of Gente Activa y Participativa, Dominic Rincon of University Students for Diversity and Marta Arredondo of Amigos Siempre Amigos. Ventura is among the seven Latin American LGBT rights advocates who visited the U.S. earlier this year as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
Espinosa told the Blade that Brewster “helps us a lot.” Carvajal added the gay U.S. ambassador has brought more visibility to the Dominican LGBT rights movement.
“There is more discussion of [LGBT] issues,” said Carvajal. “There has been an opportunity to highlight our issues.”
The U.S. Senate last November confirmed Brewster as ambassador to the Caribbean nation.
Brewster, who is a former member of the Human Rights Campaign board of directors, introduced his husband, Bob Satawake, in a video to the Dominican people shortly after his confirmation. The two men met with Carvajal, King and other Dominican LGBT rights advocates last month at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.
The State Department said Brewster was unavailable to speak with the Blade in Santo Domingo. He and Satawake gave an exclusive interview to Ritmo Social, a society magazine published by Listín Diario, a conservative Dominican newspaper, in January.
“I was chosen by President Obama to represent his government and the American people as a reflection of our country, its diversity and its mission. I am committed to serving this ideal,” said Brewster. “President Obama was aware of our understanding of the Dominican Republic and knew that we were going to work diligently to advance the extraordinary relationship between our two countries and people.”
Brewster continues to face criticism from Dominican religious figures who oppose his ambassadorship because of his sexual orientation.
Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo last June referred to Brewster as a “maricón” or “faggot” in Spanish during a press conference. Rev. Luís Rosario of the Santo Domingo Youth Ministry last month said he feels the gay ambassador is a “bad example” for Dominican society and families.
Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, the Vatican’s envoy to the Dominican Republic, cited the country’s Constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman as the reason he declined to invite Satawake to a diplomatic reception with Dominican President Danilo Medina that was scheduled to take place in January. The event was cancelled after a number of ambassadors said they would not attend because Okolo did not invite Brewster’s husband.
Hernández noted to the Blade a group of Brewster’s opponents dress in black each Monday to protest “the homosexual ambassador.”
“We are defending a person who is homosexual, that is gay and has come to occupy his country’s public position in the Dominican Republic,” said Ventura. “We are defending the right that we have to occupy public positions equally as gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people. This is why we are defending Wally.”
LGBT Dominicans becoming more visible
The activists with whom the Blade spoke in Santo Domingo insist the country has slowly become more open and accepting of LGBT people.
Parque Duarte in Santo Domingo’s Colonial City remains Santo Domingo’s de facto LGBT community center. Hundreds of LGBT people gather on weekend nights in spite of López and some neighbors’ efforts to ban them from the square that is across the street from a church.
Listín Diario, which announced on Saturday that López will have a weekly column in the newspaper, in 2010 published an article with the headline “Parque Duarte is a center of promiscuity” that outlined “homosexuals, prostitutes and drug users have invaded it.” The newspaper also ran a picture of two trans women kissing.
A number of young gender non-conforming Dominican men on a recent Saturday night were dancing at Fogoo Discotec, a gay nightclub in Santo Domingo’s Colonial City that is across the street from the gay-owned Adam Suites Hotel. Middle-class Dominicans and visitors typically frequent Esedeku and other nearby gay and lesbian bars and clubs.
Listín Diario and Ritmo Social earlier this month published pictures of Brewster and Satawake at an Elton John concert they attended at Altos de Chavón near Casa de Campo on Feb. 28. King told the Blade that Dominicans are increasingly aware of their advocacy efforts because newspapers and other media outlets reach out to them for comment on LGBT-specific issues.
“We are in the press,” he said. “With any gay problem that has to do with the community, the press reaches out to us. We are the community’s spokesperson.”
Serious problems persist for LGBT Dominicans in spite of increased visibility since Brewster assumed his post.
Espinosa and other advocates with whom the Blade spoke pointed out López and others with close ties to the Catholic Church continue to discriminate against LGBT Dominicans, Haitians and other marginalized groups in the country.
“The Catholic Church constantly rebukes us,” said Hernández. “If you are gay, you’re discriminated against. If you’re trans, you’re discriminated against. If you’re poor, you’re discriminated against.”
Hernández told the Blade that trans Dominicans continue to suffer violence from the police and a lack of access to health care. She noted staff at a clinic frequently treats her as though she is a man, even though her gender identity is female and she lives as a woman.
“They call me by the man’s name that is on my documents,” said Hernández. “I make a scene. I reclaim my rights. But there are others who do not reclaim their rights. These people that need to go to a health service. What do they do? The don’t seek the service.”
LGBT advocacy groups receive the bulk of their funds from the U.S. and Europe through HIV/AIDS prevention programs and human rights initiatives.
Hernández and others noted the Catholic Church continues to block any efforts to expand access to condoms and contraception in the country. Dominican lawmakers in 2009 approved a constitutional amendment banning abortion that then-President Leonel Fernández introduced with the church’s support.
“The Dominican government does not give one peso to any LGBT group,” Ventura told the Blade.
Ventura added wealthy gay Dominicans who own businesses in Miami and other cities have also not contributed to Dominican LGBT rights organizations. One gay man with whom the Blade spoke at Esedequ said he was not familiar with their work.
“They are not going to donate a peso to the community,” said Ventura.