February 2, 2015 at 9:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
EXCLUSIVE: Dominican advocates, officials to launch LGBT tourism campaign

Dominican Republic, gay news, Washington Blade

Dominicans supporting a Pride parade that took place last year in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capita. (Photo courtesy of Gustavo Dion)

A Dominican advocacy group is working with government officials and travel industry representatives on a campaign designed to promote LGBT tourism and gay rights in the Caribbean country.

Members of the Center for Integrated Training and Research, a Dominican advocacy group known by the Spanish acronym COIN that has fought the AIDS epidemic in the country and throughout the Caribbean for more than two decades, on Monday will meet with representatives of the Dominican Ministry of Tourism and Tourism Police at the JW Marriott Hotel in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. Representatives from the country’s travel industry and a staffer from Human Rights First, a Washington-based human rights advocacy group, have also been invited alongside members of the media.

Bob Satawake, the husband of gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster, is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the meeting.

Charlie Rounds of Out Think Partners, a California-based group that seeks to promote LGBT tourism by working with corporations and non-profit advocacy groups, met with representatives of the Dominican tourism sector in Santo Domingo, Punta Cana and Samaná in the days leading up to the meeting.

John Waters, medical director of the Center for Integrated Training and Research, told the Washington Blade last week during a Skype interview from the Jamaican capital of Kingston that the official launch of the campaign will take place in May.

“One of the purposes of this project is to see the value added that community groups can bring to the tourism project,” he said. “[It] also [seeks] to explore ways in which the tourism and travel sector can actually support the work of civil society and the LGBT community more specifically.”

Waters also co-chairs the Jamaica-based Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, a consortium of groups that seeks to expand health care, HIV-prevention programs and related services to LGBT people and other marginalized groups throughout the region.

He told the Blade he feels the Dominican Republic is a good place to implement such a program in the Caribbean.

Homosexuality is not criminalized in the Dominican Republic, unlike many English-speaking countries in the region. The nation’s immigration laws also allow gay men to enter the country, unlike those found in Trinidad and Tobago and Belize.

Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone also contains a number of gay bars, clubs and other establishments along with the cities of Santiago and La Romana. Puerto Plata and La Romana are among the other Dominican cities with visible LGBT scenes.

Waters noted there a number of gay and gay-friendly hotels and resorts throughout the country. His organization also operates a café and a tour and event-planning agency that he said could “help jump start” the campaign’s work.

“One of the things that we’re hoping to do with this project is strengthen the networking and the information about LGBT tourism in the Dominican Republic,” said Waters.

He added the campaign “will be done in conjunction with these groups who have a lot of knowledge as to how to maneuver and how to best manage things in the Dominican Republic.”

Advocates hope to expand campaign to other Caribbean countries

The Santo Domingo meeting will take place less than six months after travel industry representatives met with Waters and other LGBT rights advocates from Jamaica, the Bahamas, Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago and Belize at Celebrity Cruises’ Miami headquarters to discuss ways they can support advocacy efforts in the Caribbean.

Both Waters and Dr. J. Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, told the Blade they feel the campaign could prove successful in other Caribbean countries.

“We’ve managed to get together a very broad-based but important grouping that needs to buy into the concept, that needs to be aware of everything that’s going on and that needs to be then selling it back, refining it and making sure it works,” said Gomes.

LGBT advocates seek progress, setbacks in region

The International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association estimates LGBT tourists have a global spending power of more than $140 billion.

LGBT advocates in several countries and territories in the Caribbean, which are largely dependent upon tourism, have made significant strides in recent years.

Same-sex couples can legally marry in Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy and the Caribbean Netherlands that include Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius.

Mariela Castro Espin, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro Espín, right, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, speaks with LGBT rights advocates attending the ILGA World Conference last October in Mexico City. (Photo courtesy of Francisco Rodríguez Cruz/Paquito el de Cuba)

Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, has spoken out in support of marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Lambda Legal earlier this month petitioned the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to overturn U.S. District Judge Juan Pérez-Giménez’s ruling that dismissed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s gay nuptials ban.

Maite Oronoz Rodríguez last July became the first openly LGBT judge to sit on the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. Cuban lawmakers a few months earlier approved a proposal that would amend the country’s labor law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Trinidadian lawmakers and other officials last April attended a reception with Dennis and Judy Shepard that took place in the country’s capital of Port of Spain. Jowelle Taylor de Souza, a trans Trinidadian woman, a few months later announced her intention to run in the country’s parliamentary elections.

Queen Elizabeth II in June will honor Donnya Piggott, founder of Barbados Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination, and 59 other young human rights advocates from the British Commonwealth during a ceremony in London.

Dominican advocates with whom the Blade has spoken over the last year have credited Brewster for prompting an increased awareness of LGBT-specific issues in the predominantly-Roman Catholic country. LGBT rights advocates in Belize have also applauded the country’s first lady, Kim Simplis-Barrow, for speaking out against anti-gay discrimination and violence.

Challenges nevertheless remain in spite of these advances.

Same-sex sexual activity remains criminalized in Belize, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago.

A report from the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays notes at least 30 gay men were murdered on the island between 1997 and 2004.

A man stabbed Brian Williamson, who co-founded the Jamaican LGBT advocacy group, to death inside his home in Kingston, the country’s capital, in 2004. A group of partygoers outside Montego Bay in July 2013 killed Dwayne Jones after they discovered the teenager was cross-dressing.

Anti-LGBT murders and attacks in Puerto Rico, Dominica and Haiti have also made headlines in recent years.

Bahamian LGBT rights advocates last September cancelled a Pride event on the island of Grand Bahama because of vocal opposition from local religious leaders. A Bermuda church last week hosted members of an Arkansas-based ministry who claim they were once gay.

Bermuda, gay news, Washington Blade

LGBT rights advocates in Bermuda last month criticized a local church for hosting a U.S. group that encourages people to “break free” from homosexuality. (Image courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

The Cayman Islands in 1998 refused to allow a cruise ship with 900 gay passengers to dock. Religious officials in the British territory in 2010 pressured local authorities to prevent an Atlantic Events vessel from visiting the islands.

Authorities in Dominica in 2012 arrested two men who were reportedly having sex on the balcony of their cabin on a Celebrity Cruises ship as it docked in Roseau, the country’s capital.

Religious groups in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Grenada have also spoken out against gay and lesbian cruise ships visiting their respective countries.

A number of anti-LGBT groups that are based in the U.S. in recent years have backed groups defending anti-sodomy laws in Jamaica and Belize. These include the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and the Liberty Counsel.

Economic benefits of LGBT tourism ‘very convincing’

Gomes told the Blade she feels there are “certainly opportunities” to expand the campaign into other English-speaking countries, noting gay cruise ships are now docking in St. Lucia.

“The benefits became clear to the local population,” she said.

Gomes told the Blade that some of the large hotel chains in Jamaica have “very quietly” dropped “their opposition” to same-sex couples booking a room with them.

“There’s opportunity at that level,” she said. “They in turn have influence at the government level, which they can use — and quite significant influence because our tourism sector is one of our biggest earners.”

Gomes told the Blade her sister and her wife married on the beach at Negril during a “really awesome ceremony” their friends from Atlanta who are of “varying persuasions” attended.

She said everyone “had a really wonderful time and the hotel was open.” Gomes nevertheless pointed out a Reggae bar adjacent to the property played a homophobic song during the wedding.

“You can come and you can have a wonderful time,” she told the Blade in response to lingering concerns about Jamaica’s LGBT rights record that may dissuade travelers from visiting the country. “You need to be careful and research a bit before stepping out.”

Waters acknowledged he “wouldn’t be totally surprised” if Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo, who has previously described Brewster as a “faggot,” were to react negatively to the campaign. He nevertheless said gaining support from Dominican government officials is not as difficult as it would be in Jamaica.

“The economic argument, there’s no doubt about it, is very convincing,” said Waters. “That’s our main selling strategy to get people on board who might otherwise not be too enthusiastic about being part of this.”

Steve Roth, president of Out Think Partners, was equally as optimistic.

“We’re very excited to broaden and expand this innovative program to use travel and tourism to help improve the lives of LGBT people in the Dominican Republic,” he told the Blade. “This meeting will really help move the effort forward and once fully implemented, this program can serve as a model for other nations throughout the Caribbean.”

Satawake told the Blade after the meeting the U.S. supports the initiative.

“I feel honored to have been asked to participate in their planning session,” he said in a statement. “The positive impact this potentially has on our commerce relationship is extraordinary.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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