Queering Hispaniola

A digital research project investigating activism, public opinion, state discourse and secondary literature on non-normative sexualities and gender identities in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
By Zachary Etheart, Karina Jougla, Salma Nakhlawi & Nichelle Watkins

I. Introduction

We undertook this project with the goal of assembling a social and political history of non-normative sexualities and gender identities in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. To this end, we divided our research into four threads: The first two are public discourse and state discourse around queerness, whether regulating or otherwise commenting on it; the next two are LGBTIQ activism and organizing in response to these conditions, and finally secondary literature on the subject, whether creative or academic. By organizing our research in this way, we have tried to make sense of the ongoing dialogue between various hegemonic, heteronormative forces and the LGBTIQ voices responding and reacting to them in both countries.

As a point of clarification, the title of our project, "Queering Hispaniola," is not meant to imply that we as researchers have projected an American sexual politic of "queerness" onto an island where most discourse relies more on the notion of distinct gayness, lesbianness, and so on. Rather than conflate these distinct labels by using the term queer(ness), we have found it useful as a term that simply encompasses and refers to all of the various identities within the LGBTIQ community however variously they are defined in either country. Furthermore, a queer studies lens has allowed us to see connections between the discourses on gender and sexuality that might otherwise remain disconnected. Our project is to present histories that prevailing discourses on gender and sexuality have underemphasized or erased. In other words, we are not queering Hispaniola, for queer identities exist on both sides of it, in spades. Rather, our goal is to unsettle heteronormative (and homonormative) perceptions, both domestic and international, of the social, cultural, and political life of the island.

Of course, this topic is immense; what follows is by no means a complete history of non-normative sexuality and gender on the island of Hispaniola, but a valuable, inaugural effort at research that we hope others are able to continue, possibly building off of our own.

II. Timeline

III. Findings

Several patterns emerged in our research. The Dominican Republic has a busy, complicated history of queer organizing, in which mostly social groups, largely led by self-identified lesbians, formed and disbanded frequently from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s. These groups, as noted in the timeline above, all had relatively short lifespans, ranging from three months to roughly three years. Remarkably, all of them dissolved due to personal conflict among members—perhaps as largely social organizations, they were more organizationally vulnerable to such conflict. Today, they have been survived and eclipsed by Amigos, Siempre Amigos (ASA), an internationally-funded organization with its beginnings in the AIDS crisis of the '80s. Its focus today is almost exclusively on men who have sex with men, and most of its programming concerns health education.

Police argue with demonstrators at a July 2012 pride parade in Santo Domingo over their display of the Dominican flag. Gay Star News

Similarly—while no sources that we could find spoke to such a prolific grassroots history on the Haitian side of the island—SEROvie is currently Haiti's preeminent gay organization, founded in 1999, with a mostly male-identified base like ASA's, and an HIV-prevention platform. Both of these organizations, which could be said to have somewhat of a monopoly on queer politics in their respective countries, also act as safe social spaces for the men they serve. However, their prioritization of gay men has had the effect (just as much gay activism has had in the US) of erasing queer women, gender nonconforming people, and trans people from popular discourse around sexual difference. They have also overwhelmingly framed LGBTIQ rights in Haiti and the DR as a matter of international human rights and public health, with a funding from USAID and NGOs such as The Global Fund. In Haiti, one of the most exciting additions to this landscape has been the grassroots organization Kouraj, founded in late 2011. With a more abrasive, politically radical platform, and poorer, less "respectable" constituents, they have become an important complement (and at times a perceived adversary) of SEROvie.

To research public discourse, we decided to search key terms in the online archives of French- and Spanish-language Haitian and Dominican newspapers. Op-eds, interviews, and news reports spanning the period from 2005 to 2015 proved to be telling indicators of the range of attitudes towards queerness among the public. It is important in framing the public discourse around queerness on both sides of the island to note that queerphobia is not just a phenomenon in Haiti and the DR; many of these articles could have been about any country in the world. There were many reports of anti-gay protests, assaults and murders motivated by queerphobia, and one instance of a suicide. In the same vein, several examples of polemic speeches made by religious and state spokespeople in both countries are documented in the timeline.

A still from Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire's 2002 documentary Of Men and Gods. Documentary Educational Resources

More promisingly, many op-ed authors called for public acceptance of homosexuality and same-gender marriage. A few articles even noted that the gay community is beginning to gain support from certain presidential candidates and political parties. Additionally, it was interesting to note that papers in both countries seemed interested in LGBTIQ rights-related stories in other countries. The DR was especially attentive to Latin America, Haitian papers reported on France, and both covered some gay politics in US, although there was very little cross-talk on the subject between the two countries, except for Dominican news coverage of Haiti's 2008 AIDS rally. Notably, there was a conspicuous absence of queer voices in these news outlets, which may reflect the often tacit or unspoken nature of queer identity on the island.

Secondary sources, literature, and film relating to the theme of queerness in both countries were mainly found in the period between the early 2000s and now. This can be connected to an increase of documented action in the LGBTIQ community. Writers rose up in the diaspora just as activist organizations were gaining traction. Books such as Divagaciones bajo la Luna: Voces e imágenes de lesbianas dominicanas/Musing Under the Moon: Voices and Images of Dominican Lesbians and Erzulie's Skirt by Ana-Maurine Lara were published in the same year, 2006, as groups such as the Haitian Gay and Lesbian Alliance was founded in New York. Not longer after, in 2010, the first OutFest, a LGBTIQ film festival, took place in Santo Domingo. It can be observed that activism is occurring concurrently with scholarship. Films such as Hermafrodita and Of Men and Gods: Vodou and Homosexuality in Haiti were also published around the same time. Given the increased visibility of queer individuals in both countries, we can expect see the publication of more secondary sources on this topic.

In order to address state discourse around queerness, it was important to begin researching primary documents on both islands. The main primary documents we looked at were the Haitian and Dominican constitutions, civil codes and criminal codes. In the Haitian Citizens Address of 1823 on marriage and divorce, heteronormative ideas of marriage and religion are cemented by specifically describing men and women as being part of the natural family. This is one of the earliest documents expressing the rights of marriage and entitlement under marriage. It is evident on both sides of Hispaniola that Catholicism and religion are essentially the progenitors of the legal discourse on sexuality. The language in the Dominican Republic's constitution and civil codes was particularly interesting in terms of its language around gender. The codes specifically cite man and woman in marriage as being legally protected and able to receive rights under the law. The constitution primarily focuses on the need for family, church and state, and the nuclear-family structure being the basis of the well being of the state. There are no criminal codes or civil codes prohibiting violent speech or hate crimes against queer people.

IV. Challenges & Limitations

One of the biggest challenges we encountered in our work was the apparent dearth of existing academic literature devoted to queerness in either country. Some exists—notably, Jacqueline Jiménez Polanco's publications, Mark Padilla's book Caribbean Pleasure Industry, and Maja Horn's writings, including her article "Queer Dominican Moves: The Interstices of Colonial Legacies and Global Impulses" (see our bibliography at the bottom of the page for details and other sources). Furthermore, the academic sources that we could find focus predominantly on the DR; literature on queer identities in Haiti is especially scarce. That said, we relied most heavily on online sources to understand the histories of queer people and discourses around queerness in both countries. Such sources included the official webpages of organizations such as ASA, SEROvie, and Kouraj; reports published by the such groups as International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association; and, importantly, news outlets ranging in nationality and reputability from Al Jazeera to El Diario Libre to The Haiti Observer to USA Today. Many disbanded organizations' web addresses are now defunct, where we presumably may have found valuable information on their work while they were still active.

In researching public discourse, a major challenge was finding online newspaper articles from before 2005. This is likely a reflection of two factors: First, it seems that LGBTIQ stories only started entering the mainstream media in either country around the turn of the 21st century, and second, Internet access has not been even across Hispaniola, so news seems to be mainly distributed through print and radio. According to data from the World Bank, as of 2014 there were 10.6 internet users per 100 people in Haiti and 45.9 per 100 in the DR. Haiti and the DR both "come online" in the data in 1996-97 at one Internet user per 100 people. Over the next two decades, Internet use increased rapidly in the DR but very slowly in Haiti, as one can see in the graph of Internet users per 100 people, below with the world average and US lines as relative points of reference:


However, the data on mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people show a more promising trend that might serve as a vehicle for expanding Internet usage, especially in Haiti:

This gap in internet usage places a limit on the extent to which one can access public discourse through online newspapers. The time period covered by online newspapers is very limited; some newspapers' search functions can search back as far as 2000, but it is not until 2005 that key search terms such as "homosexual" begin to yield any hits.

It also proved somewhat difficult to locate a body of queer literature published in either country. It is useful to think about the (in)visibility of queer voices and stories—both in literature and also in newspaper archives—through the lens of Carlos Decena's work in Tacit Subjects (which we have listed in our bibliography at the bottom of the page). As Decena documents through interviews with gay Dominican immigrant men, queer individuals may feel for a number of reasons that they do not want or need to be openly out in their families and communities. Therefore, the lack of explicitly, identifiably queer narratives in the archive might be at least partially accounted for as an intentional, meaningful silence. The work of close-reading individual texts for tacit queerness was beyond the scope of our research.

Without access to national and governmental archives, it was incredibly difficult to research official state discourse on sexuality. Because the Internet was our primary source of researching we were largely restricted to studying articles, state-official speeches, and interstate agreements that occurred from 2005 to the present.

V. Further Research

Ultimately, we believe researchers in Haiti and the DR would be able to find much more information than we have been able to from New York. Important oral histories might be gathered from participants or witnesses of queer organizing in decades past. Primary and secondary sources not available in our libraries or online might be available at universities or national archives in Haiti and the DR, including more detailed information on the activity of activist groups who have left little to no trace of themselves online or in the academy after disbanding. Also, while two members of our group had a working knowledge of French and Spanish, someone with a knowledge of Kreyòl would have access to many accounts of activism and queerphobic violence in Haiti that are written or spoken in the language and available, untranslated, online.

More research might also be done specifically on transgender activism, as well as the trend of mounting violence against transgender persons, in both countries. Trans people in both countries appear to have been subsumed within gay-male-focused organizations, but some trans-specific organizing, with such groups as TRANSSA and COIN in the DR, has begun.

In pursuing further research on public discourse, a next step would be to turn to blogs and social media. Readers of online newspapers were very vocal in expressing their opinions in embedded Facebook comment sections. Radio stations are also a very important source of cultural and political social transmission, especially in Haiti which has less developed Internet infrastructure than the Dominican Republic. In order to go back further than 2005 and look at news stories in print newspapers, it would be necessary to do in-country archival research.

One of the fantastic research librarians at Barnard who has done documentary work in Haiti, Miriam Neptune, also provided some suggestions for further sources for research on public discourse, namely:

For further research on state discourse in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, we believe it would be necessary to visit archives on the island that are not accessible remotely. Interstate discourse on sexuality might also be better researched through United Nations archives and U.S. government archives. Another fantastic source for further research is the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, founded in 1992. It is one of the country's first research institutions dedicated to studying Dominican history, life and culture. While the institute primarily focuses on the experience of Dominicans in the U.S., they also have access to archives, libraries, and researchers on the island with whom they are able to connect students and other researchers. The Journal of Haitian studies might also be a valuable resource.

VI. Bibliography

This project was completed as part of Translating Hispaniola, an undergraduate seminar at Barnard College co-taught by Prof. Maja Horn and Prof. Kaiama Glover in the spring of 2015. It is best viewed in Google Chrome, on desktop.