“Everyone seemed to think, even if they had mixed feelings about it, that overall it was a net positive,” said Shawn Gaylord, a lawyer for the group who works on LGBT issues. “The presence of Ambassador Brewster has really spurred a larger conversation.”
The Dominican Republic does not have laws criminalizing homosexuality as numerous English-speaking Caribbean countries do. But the U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report that non-governmental organizations who work with LGBT people in the country have reported widespread discrimination in health care, education, the justice system and employment. Ventura says he was dismissed from his teaching job when he came out as gay in 2008 and others tell similar stories.
The Human Rights First report said transgender people are vulnerable to violence in the country, with several dozen suspected hate-crime murders since 2006.
A bill that included an article prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation failed in the Congress amid opposition to a provision for sex education in primary school. Terrero is coordinating an effort to get a bill that would bar any form of discrimination, including based on sexual orientation, before lawmakers in the coming weeks.
“The Dominican LGBT population has woken up,” said Telemin, a 36-year-old attorney and activist. “People aren’t afraid now.”
Earlier this month, about 20 businesses came together to form the first LGBT chamber of commerce, with support from USAID.
“Ten years ago we would never even talk about it,” Francisco Castillo, the president of the new chamber, said of homosexuality. “It was shameful to even mention it, we preferred to avoid the subject.”
Brewster was guest of honor at the chamber’s March 2 inauguration ceremony, prompting a wave of angry denunciations. Fidel Lorenzo, a pastor and leader of an evangelical Christian organization, accused Brewster of trying to promote homosexuality and led efforts that collected more than 31,000 signatures for a petition calling on President Barack Obama to remove the ambassador. Catholic officials also denounced the American diplomat, temporarily putting up a sign at one school that said he could not enter.
The ambassador, who had been a prominent fundraiser for Obama, encountered similar condemnations starting weeks before his arrival in November 2013 with his husband, Bob Satawake. But the Medina government accepted his credentials and business has apparently carried on as normal between two countries that have long had warm relations.
The U.S. Embassy did not respond to a request by The Associated Press for an interview with the ambassador. Brewster dismissed his critics in a radio interview. “I think it’s a small group,” he said. “People who are just haters and want to marginalize others.”
Ventura said he has encountered only signs of support so far. He is running in the party of the main opposition presidential candidate, Luis Abinader, and his chances of victory are uncertain in his busy, industrial district. But he is optimistic about both his prospects and those of the Dominican Republic. “The country keeps getting better in terms of human rights and I, as a gay man, can exercise my right to be a candidate,” he said. “People are supporting me, and they are supporting my candidacy.”
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.
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