Tourists who visit Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic can spend their time wandering around the Fortaleza Ozamaothe oldest military castle in the Americas or the equally magnificent Catedral Santa MarÃa de la EncarnacÃon. They can enjoy spectacular ocean views from the luxurious Malecon Center skyscrapers, find an adventure in the Les Tres Ojos caverns, or travel a couple of miles out of the capital city to kick back with a cocktail on the white sand beaches of Boca Chica.
However, there is a shadowy side to the Dominican Republicimages not to be found in brochures advertising the historic and natural wonders of its capital city. There are decaying buildings with rusted metal rooftops set so close to each other that one can barely discern the ground beneath them. Also, there are places where running water and electricity are virtually non-existent, where the hopeless and their half-dressed children scrounge for food in piles of garbage or wander crude streets, simply trying to stay alive. Because they are of Haitian descent, they are not welcome in the country, with no access to education, jobs or even an identity.
Although homosexuality is not considered illegal, Catholic and evangelical leaders in the Dominican Republic foster continual hatred and disdain for the LGBTQ population. When former Chicagoan James "Wally" Brewster Jr. moved there with his husband to take up the post of U.S. ambassador last November, there was vociferous language from religious groups who encouraged the populous to wear black in protest of a perceived U.S. attempt to install same-sex marriage in the country. Meanwhile, LGBTQ people are marginalized, youth who come out are abused or live in fear of violence and the only work the trans*population can find is via the sex trade. The Trans* Murder Monitoring project has reported a dramatic increase in the murder of trans* people living in the country since 2008.
It is this part of the Dominican Republic that a group of Chicagoans traveled to see May 18 of this year. They came from all walks of life and yet were united under a common goal: to support grassroots, human-rights organizations and NGO's ( non-governmental organizations ) working in the Dominican Republic to ensure that the marginalized people there have a voice and claim a chance at life that many people in the United States take for granted.
Debra Shore is the Chicago Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District; Dr. Danny W. Cohen, Ph.D., is a professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University; Jonathan 'Yoni' Pizer is a real estate developer; Jackie Kaplan-Perkins is a celebrated philanthropic leader, consultant and political activist; and Elena Grossman is a project manager working to build resilience against climate change. Openly gay and each a Global Justice Fellow with the American Jewish World Service ( AJWS ), theyalong with the executive director of the newly created Chicago office of the AJWS, Taal Hasak-Lowytalked with Windy City Times about their visit to the Dominican Republic and the people they encountered whose suffering and resilience are mirrored both historically and in LGBTQ communities in present day United States.
"After the holocaust, many people wondered how the world could be silent while these atrocities were happening," Hasak-Lowy explained. "The AJWS is the Jewish voice to ensure that we will not remain silent when injustices happen to other people. We work to help protect people's sexual health and rights, their civil and political rights and their access to natural resources."
In that capacity, the AJWS is often the first funder to more than 500 organizations in 17 different countries around the world. The representatives from Chicago who went to the Dominican Republic received warm hugs of welcome and an education from those considered by the Dominican Republican government to be the least of its people; the sex workers, the communities living in the Batey slumsfaces and names the AJWS travelers will remember for the rest of their lives.
"It was interesting to be in the D.R., both as a Jew and a lesbian," Kaplan-Perkins said. "The statelessness experienced by Dominicans of Haitian descent was devastating. The people we met. The slums they lived in. Just to be there and makes you realize 'I am a citizen of the world.' You keep coming back to the [Hebrew] words 'Tikkun Olam'how do I repair the world?"
"One of the most powerful pieces of this trip was making the connection between the fights for LGBT and immigration rights happening there and those happening here," Grossman added. "When something happens in a foreign land, it does affect us on some level."
Cohen has made the study of the holocaust a quintessential part of his life's work. He sees a direct line between Nazi persecution of homosexuals and the ongoing persecution of LGBTQ communities world-wide. "The way that homosexuals under Nazism were treated and perceived in the decades after the war effect how our community remembers itself, perceives itself and continues to struggle for basic rights in many parts of the world," he said. "There's a history of shame, hiding and silence."
"When we met with representatives of the LGBT rights organizations there, I told them I'm an elected official and openly gay," Shore said. "Andlike Senator Tammy Baldwin and others have said 'If we're not at the table, we're on the menu.' That resonated with them, and I think they will take that idea and be out and be in the political arena in some way."
"The trans* sex workers we met have been completely marginalized by society there and abused by the police and ignored by the government," Pizer noted. "Despite all of this, they keep fighting and doing what they need to do to get some respect. It was just so impressive to meet them and hear their stories."
"It seems as if trans* communities in the United States and in the Dominican Republic seem to be organizing and working in many of the same ways," Cohen added. "If we want to engage members of our community in international issues, we need to point out those similarities, so that we can see that we are all a part of the same worldwide movement."
Each of the AJWS representatives recalled names and images so powerful thatweeks after their Memorial Day return to the United Statesthey are still trying to process their feelings from a journey that has forever changed their lives and their perspectives.
"One of the kids in the Batey was a little girl named Jessica," Kaplan-Perkins recalled. "She was a survivor. She had this incredible smile and she wanted to be hugged and loved. Despite it all, there was something about her that was so hopeful, as if she was saying 'one day, I will get out of this.'"