Voices for Equality: Dr. John Waters

In His Words

“In the Caribbean tourism has been an important economic tool against poverty. Now we want to see if we can use it as a social tool to achieve more human rights. Our Tolerance through Tourism initiative in the Dominican Republic looks at promoting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender tourism. Once the private sector gets it that the LGBT tourist is a quality tourist, who spends money and sets trends, and realizes that personal safety and general public openness to LGBT visitors are basic requirements for making a destination gay friendly, we put some formidable human rights wheels in motion.” 

– Dr. John Waters, Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN), Dominican Republic


In 2013 President Obama named James “Wally” Brewster as the new ambassador to the island nation of the Dominican Republic. The decision was largely heralded as a continuation of the Obama Administration’s commitment to keeping the human rights of LGBT persons at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Sentiment within Santo Domingo, however, was polarized. For the Dominican LGBT community, Brewster’s arrival signified a moment of optimism, an opportunity to challenge embedded homophobia within the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, prominent public figures responded to the appointment with bigotry and homophobic slurs, some went as far as to claim Brewster would shepherd in an age of moral decay.

Unlike a number of Caribbean nations, the Dominican Republic does not maintain a colonial-era law banning sexual acts between members of the LGBT community. Homophobia, however, is still reinforced by long-held discriminatory regulations. Article 330 of the  Dominican Criminal Code calls for punishment of up to 2 years imprisonment for those convicted of perceived violations of ‘decorum and good behavior.’ Under the National Police Law of 1954, members of military and police are prohibited from engaging in homosexual sexual acts. More recently, same-sex marriages were constitutionally banned in 2010.

In the face of these obstacles, members of the Dominican LGBT community and their allies see hope for change. Estimates indicate that the global spending power of LGBT tourism is more than $140 billion, and as a top tier destination for tourism in the Caribbean, activists believe that such purchasing power could be used as a tool to increase tolerance and acceptance.

Recommendations for U.S. Action

  • The U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should implement a strategy to help Dominican leadership respect the rights and freedoms of all person without discrimination, including members of the LGBT community
  • The U.S. Department of Justice should strengthen U.S. training for police to increase their capacity to recognize, prevent, and respond to crimes motivated by anti-LGBT bias.
  • The U.S. Embassy should continue its work to increase the ability of civil society and the LGBT movement to influence change.
  • Consistent with President Obama’s Memorandum of December 6, 2011, on international initiatives to advance LGBT rights, USAID should review all of its programming to ensure it is inclusive of LGBT issues and coordinated with the LGBT community.
  • The U.S. Congress should raise the issue of human rights in the Dominican Republic in oversight hearings and support U.S. leadership on human rights and LGBT rights, including through legislation.

Published on June 2, 2015


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