When President Barack Obama nominated a gay man as the new ambassador to the Dominican Republic on June 21, he touched off a firestorm of debate in the Caribbean nation — which has devolved even to derogatory name-calling.
Catholic Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez referred to Brewster as a “maricón” — which is usually translated as “faggot” — during a press conference. At his side, Monseñor Pablo Cedano promised the nominee such an unpleasant stay in the country that he will have to return home.
“I hope he does not arrive in the country because I know if he comes he is going to suffer and will have to leave,” Cedano said. He called it “a lack of respect” that Obama “sent … a person of this kind as an ambassador,” adding, “[W]e don’t despise the person.”
The dust-up over the nomination shows the direct impact that full equality for gays and lesbians in the United States can have abroad. The nominee, James “Wally” Brewster, was a major Obama fundraiser and a national LGBT co-chair for the Democratic National Committee. His nomination, which still must be confirmed by the Senate, is the latest in a flurry of appointments of gay Americans for ambassadorships by the Obama administration. Five others were named just in the last month. Only three openly gay ambassadors have served before them.
While these nominations have raised few eyebrows in the other countries where they will be working — like Spain, Denmark, or Australia — Brewster’s appointment has caused a great deal of concern in the Dominican Republic. Conservative religious leaders and other opponents of LGBT rights have called on Dominican President Danilo Medina to refuse to accept him if he is confirmed.
LGBT activists said the Catholic leaders’ remarks incited violence.
Evangelical groups echoed the Catholic leaders’ sentiments.
In a joint letter calling on the Dominican president to refuse Brewster’s appointment, the Community Christian Church and the Dominican Evangelical Fellowship called the nomination “an insult to the good Dominican customs” in “a country where gay relationships are not approved legally nor morally.”
The Dominican Republic is far from the most anti-gay country in the region. Unlike nearby Belize and Jamaica, sodomy is not a crime here. But same-sex marriage is expressly banned by the country’s constitution.
Newspaper columnist José Alberto Ortíz accused President Obama of trying to force same-sex marriage on the Dominican Republic through Brewster’s nomination, tying the appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the federal government must recognize same-sex married couples.
“Obama knows that a large majority of the Dominican population rejects that two people of the same sex can unite in matrimony and form a family,” Ortíz wrote. “As it is not possible to convince the population of his ideology, he has opted to impose it, a typical act of an imperialist government.”
Dominican gay rights groups, of course, have slapped back at this opposition and the threatening rhetoric coming from religious leaders.
“These prejudices are absolutely irrational and lead people to ignore the evidence, logic, and justice,” said Lorena Espinoza of the Feminist Forum.
LGBT leaders also accused Catholic leaders of having a “double standard” for attacking Brewster’s appointment while protecting a priest accused of raping 12 girls.
The attacks have also been denounced by a United Nations official in the country.
Valerie Julliand, who represents the United Nations Development Program, said that religious opposition “has no basis” and officials should not be “judged for their sexual preferences, but rather their abilities.”
After initially keeping mum on the controversy, an official of the Medina administration said it would be “indelicate” to reject Brewster if he is confirmed. Indeed, said Cesar Pina, a legal adviser to the Medina administration, the Dominican Republic signed off on the nomination before it was publicly announced.
The U.S. embassy ultimately felt it had to weigh in to defend Brewster’s appointment.
A spokesman for the embassy, Daniel Foote, said on Friday, “Brewster arrives as an ambassador, he’s not coming here as an activist for the gay community.”
The Obama nominations point the way toward making the appointment of gays and lesbians routine without the symbolic value they once held for domestic activists. The first openly gay man nominated for an ambassadorship, James Hormel, became a rallying point when Republican senators — including now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — attempted to block him from representing the United States in Luxembourg.
The controversy over Brewster’s nomination could be the first of many conflicts as the United States’ LGBT policies become more progressive and countries where LGBT rights lag behind.