Activists have been fighting for LGBT rights in the Dominican Republic for decades, but in 2016, that fight grabbed some international headlines thanks in part to US Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster. Brewster, who has served as US ambassador to the Dominican Republic since 2013, is the first openly gay top diplomat that the US has ever posted to Latin America. Since beginning his tenure three years ago, his presence and vocal support of gay rights have sparked a larger conversation about the status of LGBT people in the DR – one that bubbled over recently when he visited a school with his husband and was accused by a coalition of evangelical Christian churches of pushing a “gay agenda” on students.
Brewster has, in some ways, become the face of a movement to de-stigmatize LGBT identities on the island. But he is just one part of a large network of Dominican activists, artists, and legislators working to create visibility and change. Dominican visual artist Carlos Rodriguez is one such artist; through his photography, films and advocacy, he is countering harmful misrepresentations of LGBT communities in the media. De-stigmatizing these identities is important, because while the Dominican Republic’s criminal code doesn’t explicitly ban homosexuality, it also doesn’t outlaw discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This means LGBT communities face widespread discrimination in health care, education, the justice system and employment – not to mention violence. Transgender people in particular are vulnerable to violence, and there have been several dozen suspected hate-crime murders since 2006, according to a recent report by US-based organization Human Rights First.
Rodriguez – who has experience shooting NY Fashion Week, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and editorials for Dominicana Moda, as well as films Dólares de Arena and the Maria Montez biopic – has dedicated much of time to raising awareness around LGBT issues in the DR, with a special emphasis on trans communities. His 2015 documentary Trans’it, follows three transgender Dominicans “who live on the edge of a very constricting male and female binary in the ultra-conservative Dominican Republic.” The film is an ode to trans activists in the city of Santo Domingo, and since premiering in Bologna, Italy, it won Best Documentary Short 2015 at the Santo Domingo Outfest Festival Internacional de Cine LGBT and is currently making the film festival rounds.
Carlos’ recent projects also include a photo series created in collaboration with Dominican fashion designer, Jose Duran, featuring Scarlett DosAmantes, a trans beauty pageant contestant. Shot in her native hometown of Moca, Dominican Republic, the portraits show the fierce beauty queen expressing her gender identity while being accepted and celebrated by her ultra-conservative hometown peers.
We sat down with multi-faceted creative activist Carlos Rodriguez to hear more about his creative process and how his values have influenced his work.
Why the decision to focus on the trans community in your work?
The basis of my work surrounds themes of race, gender and sexuality. I normally work with the LGBT community. As a filmmaker, I understand there are few gay stories, fewer lesbian stories, and even fewer trans stories that portray transgender issues in a positive light. There is a lot of misrepresentation in media of the trans community, and my intention is to tell these stories from folks themselves and their personal experiences. As a gay man, I can be a trans ally and use my cisgender privilege to help de-stigmatize issues that the community faces.
How do you identify your subjects?
It all depends on the intention of the work. Since I do photography and film in art, fashion, human rights, issues of race, gender and sexuality or portraiture in general, the identification or selection of the subject can vary. If I’m doing a documentary film, it will depend on the storyline I am doing and the subject’s personal story. If it’s fashion or fine art creation, it will depend on a specific look needed. My intention is for all the characters are as diverse from one another as possible. The scenario will always vary and so will the subject. And of course, as RuPaul once said, the Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.
How do you balance your fashion photography, fine-art photography and activism while staying true to your artistic theme?
At the beginning of my career, or when I started shooting, my biggest concern was how my work would be perceived when working on such different genres within filmmaking and photography. I have been able to feel comfortable with my work, which takes time, and have gotten the chance to merge fashion, social issues, and activism – developing an aesthetic that can, in my opinion, work. I see myself as a portraiture artist whose work explores different genres.
Have you been able to measure the impact your work has had in the LGBT community in the DR?
In a broad sense, I seek that my work can contribute a least a little in the long run. From direct personal testimonials to myself, I’ve gotten great feedback from people stating that after seeing work I’ve done, it has shifted their perspective on trans and queer issues, making it possible to expand their ideologies on what it means to be trans and what the lived reality is for folks.
In the DR, I co-founded the LGBT rights organization IURA (Individuals United for Respect and Harmony), an education-based organization that promotes and celebrates LGBT diversity in the country. I have documented the Pride Caravan since 2009, and have created exhibitions with these photographs to create more visibility. With the documentaries Trans’It and Afuera Hay Aire, I’ve been able to tell stories from LGBT folks themselves with the intention of creating a closer connection between the characters and the audience. All of these works opens opportunities for coalition building and raising awareness in a broad sense.
If your activist work continues down the path of success it is on, would you consider restricting your work to support this cause exclusively?
Exclusively sounds too exclusive (LOL). It’s definitely one of my dreams to work for this cause during my time on this earth. But ideally, in a perfect or better world, there wouldn’t be a need to do this kind of advocacy work.