An Island Divided: LGBTQ Rights in Hispaniola
The Massimadi Film Festival was set to be the first of its kind in Haiti. Its aim was to explore the history of homophobia and LGBTQ equality across the African and Caribbean diasporas, beginning a much-needed dialogue about queer inclusion in the conservative nation.
But in the weeks before the event, which was slated to open in September, opponents of the festival expressed their staunch disapproval. Death threats poured in over social media. Two gay men died after a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. In a message to his constituents, Senator Jean Renel Senatus wrote that the Massimadi Festival posed a “great danger” to Haitian morals by “promoting homosexuality.” The commissioner of Port-au-Prince bowed to public pressure and cancelled the event, effectively silencing the queer voices of Haiti and of the larger Caribbean.
Haiti occupies the western half of the island Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic to the east. Despite their proximity, these neighboring countries have different languages, ethnicities, and economies. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, suffering from slow rates of economic growth. The national language is French, and most of its citizens are of African descent. The Dominican Republic has a more stable economy and is developing at a faster rate. Dominicans are more split by ethnicity, though most speak Spanish and are of European descent.
Another divide between the two nations lies in how they treat their LGBTQ citizens. While neither country allows same-sex marriage, the Dominican Republic has passed some anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws. Haiti has no such laws. Haitian transgender people must undergo gender-reassignment surgery before they can legally change their names. In both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, however, only heterosexuals can adopt children.
Around the world, the status of LGBTQ rights seems like a regional agreement. Nations seem to follow their neighbors’ example in determining how to treat their own LGBTQ citizens. North American countries have made steps towards equal rights for queer citizens, as has Western Europe. Equality across the border can often place social and political pressure on nations to pass laws protecting their queer citizens. The trend, however, does not explain the gulf between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Andrew Dowe ‘08, a lecturer in Yale’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, said that the difference “has to be considered within the larger context of the rich and complicated history” surrounding Hispaniola.
For one thing, the countries have different colonial roots. Created as French and Spanish colonies, respectively, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have distinct histories that shape the evolution of queer rights.
According to Dowe, “The Dominican Republic’s particularly strong connection with the Catholic Church” has influenced the country’s policies on sexual rights. Church and state are much less separate in the Dominican Republic than in Haiti. Religion, therefore, plays an outsized role in shaping laws around reproductive and LGBTQ rights. In recent years, the Catholic Church has increasingly accepted queer people, boosting LGBTQ rights and giving pause to conservatives in the Dominican Republic.
The 2010 Haitian earthquake also elucidates the difference between the two countries. After the devastating earthquake ripped through thousands of buildings on January 12th, the country struggled to rebuild the nation and unite the people. As frustration, anger, and hopelessness spread, conservative Haitians began looking for scapegoats. They quickly turned their sights to the LGBTQ community.
Evangelical television and radio groups—some sponsored by American investors—blamed gay Haitians and their sins for the destruction wreaked by the earthquake. In the weeks following, news organizations reported an aftershock of violence and prejudice toward Haiti’s LGBTQ people. Some organizations cited incidents where LGBTQ Haitians were left in the rubble, unclaimed by their families for fear of persecution. In other instances, Haitian police forcibly removed queer people from refugee camps. Other stories described aid organizations that only distributed water and food to households with women in them. In his attempt to find clean water, a gay Haitian man dressed up in women’s clothes and was nearly beaten to death when he was found out.
“Disasters are going to happen. Gay people fare far worse, and gay people recover the slowest,” Cary Johnson, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told The Politic.
“We are completely invisible and forgotten,” he said.
In response to increased levels of homophobia after the earthquake, Haitian activists in 2011 formed Kouraj, a group to improve LGBTQ rights in the country. Kouraj, which means “courage” in Haitian Creole, urged silenced queer Haitians to unify under one group. Critics reacted negatively to Kouraj at first, believing them too abrasive and aggressive with their goals. Though Kouraj aimed to draw attention to LGBTQ issues, their efforts provoked a backlash. In 2013, over a thousand people marched in Port-au-Prince to protest homosexuality.
By contrast, LGBTQ Dominicans have had a markedly better experience. Queer equality took a step forward in 2013 when President Barack Obama appointed Wally Brewster as United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Brewster, the first openly gay ambassador to a Latin American or Caribbean nation, now lives in Santo Domingo with his husband, Bob Satawake.
Many Dominicans initially responded to Brewster’s appointment with outrage. Rafael Esteva ’19, a native of the Dominican Republic, remembers the anti-gay opposition to Brewster.
“The U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic is openly gay, and he and his spouse have been the object of much mockery and hatred since their appointment in 2013,” Esteva told The Politic. “A petition to the White House asking to remove him from office circled social media for some time.”
Despite the criticism, Brewster’s presence in the nation signifies tangible progress for many underrepresented people in the Dominican Republic. Not long after his appointment, Brewster met with LGBTQ activists in San Domingo to discuss possible HIV-prevention programs and awareness campaigns in the country. Earlier this year, the American Embassy helped to establish an LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
“[The LGBT Chamber of Commerce] is an improvement, even if its inauguration was followed by lots of criticism by society and another wave of hatred directed at [Brewster] for sponsoring the organization,” Esteva said.
Below the government level, Dominican society has seen slow improvements and increased inclusion for queer people. Alondra Mejia ‘19, another student from the Dominican Republic, has seen instances of both homophobia and LGBTQ acceptance.
“From the people I have met, it’s still a very taboo subject,” Mejia said in an interview with The Politic.
“People on the island give the impression that they still don’t feel very comfortable having open conversations and sometimes don’t publicly accept LGBTQ people,” Mejia reflected. “I have seen the positive reactions, in making people who identify as LGBTQ feel confident about themselves and how they choose to identify, but I have also encountered situations where there are negative comments, where people who identify as such are ridiculed,” she continued.
Mejia gave an example of her friend in the Dominican Republic who is gay. Despite the remaining anti-gay sentiment in the country, “their family in general accepted their decision and was proud to have such a confident human being in their family.”
Just north of Hispaniola, Americans have seen a remarkable push toward social justice for the LGBTQ community in the last two years alone. After a surge of legal battles, media campaigns, and various hashtags, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015. More queer characters are on TV, more politicians identify as LGBTQ, and more states have enacted anti-discrimination laws.
Some would argue that the goal of “equal rights” has finally been achieved. But with Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent rise of intense conservatism, queer equality may face more challenges in the future than previously expected.
Dowe warned that too much influence from the West could increase tension in nations like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “America is helping and hurting in nations with [LGBTQ] discrimination and has allowed for hyper-nationalist parties to push for specific political agendas like religious freedom as the right to discriminate,” he said. Dowe expects recent events in the United States to prompt backlash–similar to the reactions against the Massimadi Film Festival – in other Caribbean nations.
However, younger generations are still hopeful.
“There have been improvements,” Mejia said. “I haven’t seen them directly but I have the impression that the younger generations are a lot more accepting of LGBTQ people just from conversations that come up when I talk to people back on the island.”
“I would say that among some people, especially the youth who are more in contact with U.S. media and television, there is greater tolerance for LGBTQ people,” he said.
In Haiti, even with setbacks like the Massimadi Film Festival, groups like Kouraj have forged a path for queer activism to grow. The appointment of Ambassador Brewster has opened dialogue in the Dominican Republic. Going forward, Mejia, Esteva, and youth from across the Caribbean hope to see the progress they’ve witnessed in their own communities in the Dominican Republic reflected on both sides of the island.