When President Obama nominated a prominent gay rights activist to be US ambassador to the Dominican Republic, it was bound to provoke controversy in an island nation known for hostility toward gays and lesbians. And it has, from the moment James “Wally” Brewster Jr. and his husband landed in Santo Domingo.
The country’s Roman Catholic bishops accused the ambassador of “presenting a distorted version of the family.” The country’s largest Evangelical organization petitioned the White House for his removal. And Santo Domingo’s Catholic cardinal said “he should stick to housework since he is a man’s wife.”
Now, 70 members of Congress, led in part by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, have stepped in to defend Brewster.
In a letter released Monday, Kennedy and other members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus called on the Dominican president, Danilo Medina, to voice his support for the ambassador and renounce the attacks against him.
“This is a matter of fundamental human rights,” said Kennedy, who spent about 2½ years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer. “There should be a clear call from the Dominican government that this is not reflective of the views of the Dominican government.”
Kennedy took the lead, along with US Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, in drafting the letter. Massachusetts is home to the fourth largest Dominican community in the United States.
Representatives of the Dominican government did not respond to messages on Monday.
Medina, who is running for reelection, has not spoken about the controversy, likely because he wants to avoid alienating conservatives, said Rosario Espinal, a professor of sociology at Temple University and columnist for the Dominican newspaper “Hoy.” The election is in May.
“He’s trying to keep out of anything that is controversial at this point,” Espinal said. “He doesn’t want to be exposed to negative comments on either side.”
Obama, who has made the advancement of gay rights a priority for US embassies around the world, nominated Brewster -— a wealthy Chicago business executive, board member of the Human Rights Campaign, and major Democratic fund-raiser — to serve as ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 2013.
It was a provocative choice for a predominantly Catholic country that bans same-sex marriage and has no laws to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Dominicans who are gay and lesbian have reported being arrested without reason, denied jobs, housing, and health care, and subjected to intimidation, harassment, and bullying, according to the US State Department.
Gays and lesbians are almost entirely invisible in Dominican public life and there is only a small gay rights movement on the island, Espinal said.
“The appointment was expected to create a controversy because gay issues have not been widely discussed in the country before,” Espinal said. “Now, because the US ambassador is an important figure in the country, that makes the issue public and present in the national discussion.”
Brewster has advocated for gay rights as well as for thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent who were driven from the country by violence and deportations, said Dennis Benzan, a former Cambridge city councilor who has met the ambassador and his husband.
“He has really fought harder than any other ambassador in my lifetime to make sure the Dominican people make real, democratic progress, and he’s taking on an issue that’s not very popular in the Dominican Republic,” Benzan said.
“There’s been lot of backlash,” Benzan said. “But I think the more Dominican people are forced to have this conversation, the more progress we’re going to have in the 21st century.”
This month, Brewster and his husband, Bob Satawake, helped launch a branch of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in Santo Domingo. The couple has also released a video recognizing gay pride month and calling on all nations to protect the rights of gays and lesbians.
“To those individuals who continue to discriminate against people because of who they are as human beings, I have to ask, ‘Isn’t it time to stop hating?’ ” Brewster says in the video.
Despite his plea, the attacks have continued.
Earlier this month, the country’s Catholic bishops released a letter urging the Dominican government to issue a formal protest against Brewster.
“At stake is the sovereignty of the nation and its traditional values,” the bishops wrote.
The petition to the White House from the Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity that calls for Brewster’s ouster has collected more than 32,000 signatures online. It says Brewster’s support for gay rights is “disrespectful to the culture and traditions of most Dominican families.”
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, rejected calls for Brewster’s ouster earlier this month. And Kennedy said the vitriol Brewster has faced does not match the warmth he experienced in the Peace Corps.
“It’s a country that accepted me,” he said. “It’s also a country that is divided on many social issues.”