"Out" in a Closed Society
I cannot speak on every aspect of the gay experience in the Dominican Republic, but I would like to share some of my experiences as a feminine, “out” lesbian who has been living in Santiago for what is now almost four months. I add these descriptors because I imagine that my feelings and experiences would be slightly or even much different if I was a gay man, if I was more masculine (and therefore not able to “pass” for straight), if I was in the closet, or if I was living in the more liberal city of Santo Domingo (where the above picture was taken). Although perhaps only a relatively small number of people may relate directly to my story, I feel called to share it in the hope that I can help someone else find their voice.
Before arriving in the Dominican Republic, I was sure to do my research on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) rights in this country. I needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to one of those places where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, death, or anything crazy like that. I found that the situation here is not quite that bad. Homosexuality is legal, but there are no laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination or hate crimes. Same sex marriage? Forget about it; the government only recognizes matrimony between a man and a woman. I wasn’t planning on getting married here, so that wasn’t an immediate concern for me. I recognized, however, that where there are not laws to protect gay people, there is also most often a homophobic culture. I already knew that Dominican culture is heavily influenced by machismo and by Catholicism. A little googling confirmed my guess that Dominicans tend to be close-minded on issues of sexual orientation and that it is more acceptable for men to be gay. This has to do, again, with the religious influence and with strict gender roles that dictate that men must be macho and women must behave in certain ways, including being a good wife to her husband. I felt that I would be safer and that I would live more comfortably if I hid my sexual orientation. I was therefore determined to be in the closet for the first and only time in my life.
When I actually began living in Santiago, I found my experience to be quite different from what I had expected. I didn’t expect to meet any other gay people, especially Dominicans, who were “out”. To my surprise, I met an openly gay Dominican student at PUCMM within my first week of living here. I saw how she was able to be honest with her friends and family about her sexual orientation, even while she lived in a culture dominated by machismo and plagued by homophobia. She inspired me, and the day I met her I decided that I could not be closeted during my time here. I realized that I owe it to myself to be honest about who I am and that perhaps I also owe it to other gay people who have not yet found their voice to express who they are.
Since then, I have received support and have been accepted by all of the other CIEE students in my group and by the CIEE staff. Most surprisingly, I have also found acceptance and support from the Dominican friends that I have made. It’s not that I go around campus declaring that I am a lesbian, but the people that I have met and have felt comfortable coming out to have, for the most part, been very accepting and open. There was a moment when homosexuality became the topic of discussion in one of my classes. I was really touched when a straight Haitian student passionately expressed his support for gay rights and another Dominican student added that a gay person should have the right to hold his or her partner’s hand in the street without problems. It has been this support—unspoken and spoken, direct and indirect—that has made me a little more comfortable being gay and “out” in this country.
While most of my experiences regarding my sexual orientation have been positive, there have also been moments that have made me uncomfortable. Daily life is relatively easy for me, because I can blend in with Dominican women and “pass” as straight. However, when I am in public with the woman that I am dating we both know that we must show discretion. When we choose to show any affection in public, we usually try to make sure we are not in crowded places. When people see us doing anything that might indicate that we are dating, they sometimes stare or make comments. Almost every day I am angered that I can’t feel comfortable walking down the street holding her hand, that I must be kept a secret from her parents (who don’t know she’s gay), and that we must look to make sure nobody is around before I give her a kiss on campus, among other things. At the back of my mind, I have a fear that at some point someone could get hostile or physically violent with us if they have a problem with seeing two women together. This fear is something that I must grapple with while I am here, that has been put into my head by a history of LGBT people being harassed, beaten, and killed all over the world simply for their sexual orientation. While I sometimes feel this same fear in New York, it is amplified by living in a homophobic culture and in a country where there are few (or no) resources and laws that protect and help LGBT people.
Being “out” here has not been drastically different from my experiences in the U.S., but there are several dissimilarities that I must note. In New York, I have many gay friends, there are dozens and dozens of organizations aiding LGBT people, most people in my city are comfortable with homosexuality, and there is even a gay student group at my school. I almost always feel comfortable and supported. Here in Santiago, I know only a couple “out” gay people, there are no organizations that I know of that are dedicated to gay people, most people are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality, and there is certainly no gay group at PUCMM. I have interpreted this lack of openness and resources as a rejection of homosexuality, and this rejection of part of my identity has most definitely made my time here more difficult.
Living as an openly gay person in Santiago has felt how I imagine living in a small, conservative town in the United States would feel for me— at times isolating, scary, and extremely frustrating. I am enraged several times a week when I feel that I must censor myself in order to feel safe and comfortable. However, like people in the U.S. who have become LGBT allies despite living in a conservative, homophobic culture, my Dominican friends have shown me that acceptance for gay people is also possible here. I therefore will continue to be “out”, to keep positive despite the fact that I am often angered, and to help those that I meet learn about the importance of tolerance and gay rights. While I cannot change a whole culture, I hope that my decision to be “out” will influence the people I meet and that I can serve as a resource so that other people can also feel supported and comfortable in their own skin.