Several of them spent the next two hours dancing to merengue, reggaeton and Spanish pop music on a wooden stage overlooking the ocean as passersby on the beach watched through a chain-link fence. A young man who emceed the impromptu dance party repeatedly referred to himself as “Washington Heights,” which is a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in upper Manhattan.
The young people who greeted the foreign journalists were also eager to discuss their efforts to combat the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“We work to meet the needs of the LGBT community,” Este Amor Executive Director Melvin de Aza told them before they left Guayacanes, which is about 30 miles east of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.
Este Amor, which is based in La Romana, the country’s third largest city that is roughly 75 miles east of Santo Domingo near the resort of Casa de Campo, formed in June 2012 to combat the HIV epidemic in the eastern Dominican Republic. Grupo de Jóvenes Aliados Este Amor (JALEA), a group within Este Amor that works with young LGBT people in the region, came into existence earlier this year.
Este Amor distributes condoms and provides information about the virus to men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and other vulnerable groups in the provinces of Altagracia, Hato Mayor, El Seibo and San Pedro de Macorís. The organization also offers support and free health care to those living with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in the region.
“We are for prevention and helping you and educating you,” de Aza told the Washington Blade during an interview at the villa before the journalists returned to Santo Domingo. “It is about bettering yourself in our society as part of the LGBT community so you can better yourself.”
De Aza, 21, told the Blade that one of the overarching goals of his group is to change stereotypes about the epidemic in the socially conservative, predominantly Roman Catholic country.
“It is a country that is totally homophobic,” said de Aza. “It is a country that rejects us and that thinks HIV is a sentence for gays.”
“We try through one form or another to convince (those with HIV) to break this taboo and to be comfortable with us so they understand HIV is not a disease that will kill you,” he added. “It is a life condition you live with, as you would with a flu, like anything else, like diabetes. You can live with this like any other type of problem.”
A UNAIDS report notes that 40,000 people were living with HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic in 2013. The National HIV and AIDS Council, a group known by the Spanish acronym CONAVIHSIDA that implements the Dominican government’s policy against the epidemic, notes that trans people and men who have sex with men are among the groups that are disproportionately affected by the virus in the country.
The Center for Integrated Training and Research, a Santo Domingo-based HIV/AIDS service organization known by the Spanish acronym COIN, has worked to fight the epidemic among LGBT Dominicans, immigrants and other vulnerable groups since its founding in 1988. COIN is also a member of Caribbean Vulnerable Communities, a coalition that fights HIV/AIDS in the region.
COIN’s clinic in Santo Domingo’s Villas Agrícolas neighborhood provides an array of medical, psychological and other services to 500 to 600 people who visit it each month
The organization has offices in La Romana and Santiago, the country’s second largest city that is roughly 90 miles northwest of Santo Domingo.
COIN, which provides funding to Este Amor, has also launched launched ProActividad, an economic empowerment program for LGBT Dominicans. The Santo Domingo-based organization is also working with government officials and travel industry representatives to promote LGBT rights in the country.
COIN works closely with the Dominican Ministry of Health, in part because many of its staffers are former employees. It also receives funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, UNAIDS and other international organizations.
“We are always looking out for the needs of the population,” said Merelin Muñoz, a doctor who works at the COIN clinic.
’Many violations of rights’ in Dominican Republic
COIN operates an observatory that monitors human rights in the Dominican Republic. It is also among the dozens of organizations throughout the region that are members of the Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS.
COIN Executive Director Santos Rosario acknowledged to reporters during a meeting in his office on June 19 there are “many violations of rights” in the country that include violence against trans sex workers.
Rosario during the meeting highlighted COIN’s campaign that seeks to raise awareness of Dominican police officers who plant drugs on young people in order to extort money from them or meet arrest quotas. He also criticized the Dominican government’s controversial plan to legalize Haitian migrants and others who have entered the country without documentation.
CONAVIHSIDA Director Victor Terrero was among those who spoke at a press event in Santo Domingo on June 19 that highlighted the LGBT tourism campaign. Gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster and his husband, Bob Satawake, also attended the gathering.
The event took place two days after the deadline for migrants to register with the Dominican government passed.
“The images that you have seen are based on the desperation of many Haitian citizens,” said Terrero in response to the Blade’s question about efforts to document migrants in the Dominican Republic and how he feels the tourism campaign would improve human rights in the country. “We hope that in our future all the problems that we have with the business that take advantage of their illegality is overcome.”Terrero stressed that President Danilo Medina and his administration “has a firm conviction to work on human rights issues.” He further noted that CONAVIHSIDA is also the driving force behind a comprehensive anti-discrimination proposal that would include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Dominican Ministry of Tourism is currently working with CONAVIHSIDA to review the measure.
“This present government is very clear that we need to create a Dominican Republic that respects the rights of all people,” Terrero told the Blade.
COIN Medical Director John Waters during the Santo Domingo press event described Terrero as a “strong ally.” De Aza told the Blade that he feels the Dominican government has not done enough to combat the HIV epidemic.
“The Dominican government is not doing anything to combat HIV and above all to help the LGTB community,” he said.
His colleague, Luis de Paula, coordinator of Grupo JALEA, agreed.
“They are doing very little,” he said.
De Aza nevertheless said efforts to promote LGBT tourism in the Dominican Republic could potentially make the country less homophobic. He told the Blade he feels these efforts could also benefit LGBT Dominicans.
“There are many beautiful places here,” de Aza told the Blade. “(Tourism) could increase income and spur development in an impressive and great way.”