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An open door: Gay Dominicans seek more visibility

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Monday March 24, 2008

It was a balmy Friday night late last month as hundreds of gay men, lesbians and transgender people gathered in Parque Duarte in the heart of Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone to meet friends, drink and even cruise. A handful of "bugarrones" or male prostitutes discreetly worked the crowd, but Ariel, a 25-year-old from the northern city of Santiago, described the park as a haven of sorts for the capital's LGBT residents.

"I come here for peace," he said. "There are many women who are lesbians and many men who are gay who can meet each other."

Parque Duarte has become the de facto hub for the capital's LGBT residents as they slowly become more visible. Homophobia remains pervasive throughout much of the Dominican Republic, but cosmopolitan Santo Domingo attracts LGBT Dominicans from across the country because its residents tend to be more tolerant of homosexuality than others who live in the countryside.

"Gay people from across the country come to live in the capital," journalist Glaen Parls Rosario said as he drank a beer with friends in Parque Duarte. "They are less abused and there is less resistance to the movement."

Santo Domingo activists have organized a variety of low key LGBT conferences and even pride marches in recent years, but the city's gay bars and clubs draw locals and tourists alike on any given weekend. Television personality Chachita Rubio, who also performed at La Escuelita in New York, opened Cha along Santo Domingo's dramatic oceanfront in February 2007. And hundreds of LGBT Dominicans pack the crowded dance floor each weekend as DJs spin merengue, salsa, American and Latino pop, hip hop, reggaeton and local drag queens, often wearing elaborate costumes, take to the stage.

Santo Domingo resident David Baez, his boyfriend Miguel and their friends are regular patrons. He acknowledged many older gay Dominicans remain in the closet because of homophobia or conservative attitudes towards homosexuality from within their families, but Diaz, 25, added he feels these attitudes continue to change.

"At the beginning, a lot of people judged us, but society is more accepting now," he said while having coffee inside a coffee shop along Santo Domingo's pedestrian-only shopping district near the Colonial Zone. "If people see you walking and holding hands, there is no problem. People may see you, but they won't judge you. You can do what you want."

Dominicans in New York moderate societal homophobia

Puerto Plata native Alberto Fermin, who is a club promoter in traditionally Dominican-dominated Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, agreed. He suggested the large Dominican diaspora that began to settle in New York in the 1960s have helped to temper homophobic attitudes in his homeland.

"People are being more open than before," he said. "People feel free to go down there and to be themselves."

Blogger Anthony Montgomery moved to Santo Domingo from New York in January 2004. He manages a gay-friendly hotel in the Colonial Zone. Montgomery echoed Fermin's assessment while adding many LGBT Dominicans he meets either deny their sexuality or simply remain in the closet.

"I actually feel much more comfortable being gay here than in the States, but it's still very homophobic and hard to be out," Montgomery said. "There are no [prominent] gay Dominicans. There are rumors about prominent gay people in the government, but there is no one who's going to come out and say I'm gay."

Church remains hostile towards LGBT Dominicans

Activists have attempted to pressure the Dominican government to enact pro-LGBT legislation, but the Roman Catholic Church and Cardinal Jes?s L?pez Rodr?guez in particular remain outspoken opponents of any attempts to expand right to LGBT Dominicans or to even give them a more prominent role in society.

He described gay men as "maricones" or faggots in an editorial published in a leading Dominican newspaper last October. And Rodr?guez criticized gay American and European tourists in the Colonial Zone in an April 2006 interview with the Associated Press.

"If people see you walking and holding hands, there is no problem. People may see you, but they won't judge you. You can do what you want."

"Take all of them away," he told the news agency. "We cannot allow that this place, the historical center of Santo Domingo, to be converted into the patrimony of foreign and Dominican degenerates."

Rodr?guez and other church officials and religious organizations have pressured local police to impose curfews that curtail the hours the capital's bars and clubs can remain open. The Spanish-owned Arena closed in March 2007 after police ordered it shut down following a raid that reportedly found two 17-year-old boys in the club.

HIV emerges as a new threat

Increasing HIV and AIDS rates in the Dominican Republic is another problem facing the country. The Presidential Council on AIDS (COPRESIDA), a commission former President Hip?lito Mejia created in 2001 to combat the epidemic, estimates nearly 80,000 people in the Dominican Republic live with HIV and AIDS and heterosexual sex accounts for 81 percent of all infections.

COPRESIDA has launched a variety of initiatives in recent years aimed at reducing these rates of infection and extending anti retroviral drugs and other treatments to Dominicans living with the virus, but Amigos Siempre Amigos in Santo Domingo seeks to reduce the number of new HIV and AIDS diagnoses among men who have sex with men through education, condom distribution and other outreach initiatives. ASA founder Leonardo S?nchez could not be reached for comment, but Gay & Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization (GALDE) founder Francisco Lazala told EDGE in an interview from his Manhattan office his organization regularly sends condoms and other resources to the capital.

COPRESIDA's Web site contains links to ASA, other Dominican and international LGBT and AIDS organizations, but Lazala maintains President Leonel Fern?ndez and his administration needs to extend more resources to combat the epidemic among LGBT Dominicans and MSM.

"It's really, really bad," he said. "They don't have adequate services for anybody."

Baez conceded HIV and AIDS remains a threat, but he quickly quipped LGBT Dominican themselves often cause their own problems.

"There are a lot of people who don't accept themselves and go against each other," Baez said.

He remains proud, however, of the progress he contends his country has made as it becomes more tolerant of LGBT people.

"This country is like any other country," Baez said. "You can find good people and bad people."

Further Information:

Amigos Siempre Amigos

Gay & Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization


Presidential Council on AIDS (in Spanish)

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.