Gay Pride and Prejudice in Dominican Republic

Shortly after taking up his post as American ambassador to the Dominican Republic in November 2013, Wally Brewster got a bit of unsolicited advice from the Vatican’s envoy to the Caribbean nation.

“If you keep your private life behind the walls of your embassy, you’ll be O.K. here,” Nuncio Jude Thaddeus Okolo told Mr. Brewster. He meant that Mr. Brewster, to be an effective diplomat, would be wise to keep his husband, Bob Satawake, out of sight in a country where prejudice against gay people remains widespread.

The advice went unheeded. Mr. Brewster and Mr. Satawake, who have been together for nearly 28 years, have been out and proud in Santo Domingo, sparking a spirited debate that has galvanized the nation’s fledgling gay rights movement and outraged local leaders of the Catholic Church.

The attacks against Mr. Brewster, a Chicago businessman who raised money for President Obama’s re-election campaign, began just days after the White House nominated him for the post. During a news conference in June 2013, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, the archbishop of Santo Domingo, said he was appalled that Washington would be represented by a “maricón,” a slur term for gay men. Monsignor Pablo Cedano, another senior church leader, predicted that Dominicans would make Mr. Brewster so miserable, he wouldn’t last long.

It was an odd time for the Catholic Church in the Dominican Republic to be attacking anyone. Just weeks after that news conference, the Vatican’s ambassador to Santo Domingo was quietly recalled after superiors learned that he had been paying poor underage boys for sex. And allegations of child abuse have been made against other priests.

Mr. Brewster never contemplated backing out of the job. “We knew the warmth of the people,” he said in an interview. “We also knew this was a place where there was a lot of opportunity to make progress on human rights.”

Soon after arriving, Mr. Brewster and Mr. Satawake, who had been active in the gay rights movement in the United States, hosted a small group of Dominican activists at their residence. At the time, the very few resources gay rights groups on the island had came from H.I.V. prevention initiatives, and they didn’t have a strategy to press for legal or societal reforms.

The embassy began providing money for gay rights groups as part of the State Department’s initiative to advance equality for gay and transgender people around the world. “The arrival of this ambassador is the biggest thing that could have happened to us,” said Marlenne Bennedeck Dumont, a transgender rights activist in Santo Domingo. “We’ve seen that change is possible and have begun to find allies.”

This year, for the first time, openly gay people in the Dominican Republic are running for local office. Last month, the American Embassy helped start a L.G.B.T. chamber of commerce. Mr. Brewster’s presence has brought about a national conversation about prejudice and tolerance, said Pablo McKinney, a Dominican newspaper columnist.

“In the Dominican Republic, it’s fine to be gay as long as you don’t acknowledge it and lead a double life,” said Mr. McKinney. “I think it’s wonderful that by coming here, this man has brought this reality to the fore.”

It’s a conversation that has deeply unsettled religious leaders. Last December, after Mr. Brewster spoke about corruption in the Dominican Republic, Cardinal López said the ambassador should stay home “since he is the wife of a man.” That prompted the State Department to lodge a complaint with the Vatican.

The administration of President Danilo Medina, by remaining silent on the controversy, creates the impression that the government condones bigotry. That is a big mistake for a country that depends heavily on trade and tourism from the United States. The Vatican, shamefully, has done nothing to rein in Cardinal López, whose crude prejudice undermines Pope Francis’ message of tolerance.

Mr. Brewster and Mr. Satawake say the support they have received from ordinary Dominicans far outweighs the insults. “I’ve been called a faggot since the third grade,” Mr. Satawake said. “I know how important it is to protect those who can’t protect themselves.”

Recently, a young Dominican man shyly approached Mr. Brewster in public and handed him a card that said: “I have no words to thank you for being here and give me and my lover hope to fight and stay together.”

Editorial Observer
by Ernesto Londono
Source – The New York Times