Op-ed: A Bittersweet Trip to My Family's Home Country
This week I embarked on a bittersweet return to a place I am infinitely bound to, the Dominican Republic.
My parents were born there and their parents before them and their parents before them. I don’t remember this but am told that I learned letters and numbers there. I carried my chair above my head as my cousin walked me to school, while my mom and I waited for her visa back to New York. It's amazing how your ancestral bonds can tie you to a country you have no concrete memories for, but whose very air feels like an embrace.
I have read enough to know about Quisqueya, the Taino name the indigenous inhabitants gave the island before Columbus. I can tell you about U.S. interventions in the 1900s and how they birthed a dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who incited a massacre of Haitians in 1937 along with all the other horrible crimes he committed against his own people for 30 years, supported by countless U.S. presidents. I have been told about Joaquin Balaguer, who followed him, and the economic refugees who fled his pseudodemocracy (my mother being one of them). More recently I can tell you how mad I am that the Dominican government is stripping Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship in a violation of international norms and practices.
I can dance you a fast and fierce merengue ripiao, old-school style, following the riffs on the accordion without stopping. I can roll with the bachata, which some people have taken to fancy hotels and want to dance with a ballroom style. I sing palo songs to Anaisa, connected to Afro-Dominican traditional culture, and am aware of the progressive movements for Afro-Dominican history and celebration.
But here's the bitter part: Because of the media on both sides of the Atlantic and Caribbean, for the longest time I could not tell you about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex struggles in the country. My relatives tried to tell me that my love for another woman had to be a gringo thing, some imperialist product peddled by the United States. All this time people have been fighting for rights, marching in Prides, creating organizations that started out in people's living rooms and are now chartered as nongovernmental organizations, but so many of us Dominicans on the island, in the diaspora, and from first, second, or third generations don't know about it.
Thanks to a job I now have and cherish, I am making a trip unlike any other. Activists in the Dominican Republic have worked with the U.S. State Department to organize an exchange between GLAAD, where I work, and organizations based there. During the forum we will be sharing with each other about alliance building -- I will be talking about the broad coalitions in the U.S. that have pushed for and continue to work on marriage equality, immigration reform, antidiscrimination, and other causes. The Dominican activists will share their efforts against discrimination and raising the awareness of Dominican society about human rights and diversity.
Unfortunately, before I ever set foot in the Dominican Republic, a local evangelist has tried to claim that the trip is part of a U.S. neo-imperialist plan to force Dominican society to accept LGBTI rights as human rights as if it were a foreign concept. By asserting this, he seeks to make the work that Dominican advocates have been doing invisible.
This man cannot erase the impact of what LGBTI Dominicans have struggled for and still struggle for every day: simple acceptance and safety. LGBTI people around the world are rejected, bullied, taunted, hit, fired, sexually abused, and even killed every day, but they are also bravely fighting for their rights and searching for allies in their societies. GLAAD is a proud ally to the Dominican LGBTI movement. More and more, GLAAD and international organizations are working together to help LGBTI people around the world.
This man and others like him want to say they speak for their compatriots, but they cannot silence the LGBTI people and allies who each and every day come out and share their love, acceptance, and willingness to fight in solidarity with their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex brothers and sisters.
Those who are against human diversity, development, and dignity would love nothing better than to divide us from each other with hateful commentaries and misinformation. They would have us believe that is wrong to be who we are, to love who we love, to ask for justice, access, and equity. They would have us believe that we have no right to cross borders, find work and housing, and fight for the survival of our families. But we do. And we will.
So yes, it will be a bittersweet trip for me. It will also be a short one so I probably won't have time to see and hear from my big, loving family while I am there. All the conversations will happen in quick bursts as I go from formal event to event, not enough time for all the nuance, thankfully there will be so much that will not have to be said.
I know I will bring back many stories and renewed contacts, which I hope to use in my part of our larger human rights struggles. The sweet outweighs the bitter. I cannot wait to get on that plane.
JANET QUEZADA is a GLAAD's Spanish-language media strategist.