The Dominican Republic is famous for its idyllic beaches, effervescent people and bomb culinary traditions. But the reality of living on the island of Quisqueya rarely mirrors the glossy pamphlets found at travel agencies, especially for queer people.
Santo Domingo’s LGBTQ movement is still in its infancy, and though strides are being made in visibility and acceptance, discrimination based on sexual and gender identity is still pervasive within the conservative Catholic society. To fill the vacuum of subversion, a series of groundbreaking parties are popping up around the country’s capital, challenging gender norms and infusing nightlife with a much needed dose of camp and rebellion.
“This kind of work, queer visibility, parties; it all needs to happen in the DR.”
“We saw there were no spaces where people could be fucking queer,” says Carlos Rodríguez, the photographer and documentarian behind the anarchic Draguéalo parties. “There were too many rules in the scene. Gay bars that wouldn’t admit drag queens. Lesbian bars that wouldn’t admit cis [gender] men. From that came the need to start these kinds of parties.”
Draguéalo was conceived in 2013 as a gender-bending birthday party hosted by Rodríguez in his home. The party was so popular he began holding it twice a year, keeping the affairs intimate but open to friends and newcomers. In June, Rodriguez held two Pride-related exhibitions of his photography at local galleries, where he encouraged attendees to dress in drag, building even more buzz around his events. By July, the first official Draguéalo was making waves in Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo’s oldest neighborhood and home to the highest concentration of queer friendly spaces in the city.
“We called the first party Draguéalo: Santo Domingo is Burning, and it was a hit,” he says with glee. “There was some fear expressed about attending this kind of party, but the whole point is for people to drag it up; to queer it up,” he adds. Though fear of violence is always present, most people worry about family reactions to being outed and social ostracism. Regardless, Draguéalo has since seen a second installment themed after Caribbean club kids, and a third party planned for December 16th was billed as a leather and lace Christmas kink extravaganza.
Juanjo Cid, a film editor and long-time activist colleague of Rodriguez’s has also been cooking up his own venture named El Cocoró del Futuro. With a flyer issuing an Afropunk-esque manifesto including the edict “Aquí no se dicta, se escucha / No se cuestiona, se comprende,” the party brought raucous Halloween glam to Zona Colonial in October. Cocoró – a Dominican reimagining of the term kiki, denoting a gay party – featured sets by DJs Mystique and Jesse James, indie pop darlings MULA and performances by high profile local queens La Jonás and Drag Klembert.
For Juanjo, dance floor hedonism is only the first step in a much larger plan. “Part of what I want to do is create a community where everyone is sharing stories,” he tells Remezcla, reflecting on the decision to pair fresh on the scene Drag Klembert and local icon La Jonás. “I want to celebrate the new, but I also feel an urgent need to document things before they are lost to history.”
One example of Juanjo’s queer preservation efforts is a documentary currently in production, also titled El Cocoró del Futuro. The film will focus on the emerging scene at Penthouse, Santo Domingo’s first popular queer establishment, and will feature interviews with patrons and entertainers who witnessed the rise and impact of the club in the mid-1980s. “[Penthouse] stemmed from the need to create a space that was inclusive, welcoming, judgement-free and fun,” he says. “They were putting on drag shows, plays and musicals, which is something I would like to see happening again.”
Juanjo is also committed to developing a uniquely Dominican queer identity despite the allure of emulating foreign celebrities and shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race. “There are a lot of things happening here right now, and it’s cool to have outside influences, but we should also be celebrating our history and queens,” he offers. Queer figures of note in Dominican popular culture include Los Creadores de Imagénes – a legendary theater troupe of gay and trans actors active in the 1980s – and multi-faceted artist and author Rita Indiana. Tangentially, Juanjo also alludes to merengue legend Toño Rosario and his flamboyant sartorial choices, joking, “I think he does amazing drag.”
The scene is committed to developing a uniquely Dominican queer identity, instead of emulating foreign celebrities.
Aside from using their platforms to create art and spaces that support the community, both Juanjo and Rodríguez are co-founding members of IURA, an organization started in 2009 that leads media training workshops on how to cover LGBTQ issues respectfully and inclusively. “There were lots of organizations working within the community but not many focusing on education,” says Rodríguez. “We do these workshops called ‘Safe Zone’ and they are to encourage the use of proper language in media, and breaking down all the new terminology that is being used.”
Dominican queers have a long road ahead before reaching a satisfactory degree of dignity and equality, but the government seems more open-minded than one would expect. Sex work is legal in the Dominican Republic, and in 1993 the country was one of the first to enact HIV and AIDS legislation, making treatment accessible to all citizens at a time when the illness was ravaging the community. More recently, Obama-appointed Ambassador James Brewster stirred controversy for refusing to live in the closet while on assignment. “That did wonders for us because people were forced to talk about it!” says Juanjo excitedly. “The ambassador meets with the president about once a week, so people had to check themselves before being openly homophobic.”
Ultimately, the parties are a means of celebrating the differences between all the groups living under the LGBTQ umbrella while also challenging antiquated paradigms of gender and sexuality. For Rodríguez, who has lived between the US and Santo Domingo for the last seven years, the parties represent a pursuit of the openness he saw on the streets of New York City.
“I think that’s one of the main reasons I am here at this moment, trying to break those boundaries,” he reflects. “I would say it’s a kind of compromise. Not something I have to do, but something that needs to happen. This kind of work, queer visibility, parties; it all needs to happen in the DR. I’m not saying it has to be fully through what we’re doing, but I definitely think we’re adding our own few grains of sand to the pile.”