President Barack Obama’s choice for ambassador to the Dominican Republic is part of an historic class of nominees that would more than double the number of openly gay top diplomats to have ever held the post. Fresh off gay rights victories in the Supreme Court, Obama chose gay men for the diplomatic post in four countries and one Europe-based intergovernmental organization.
But the choice of James “Wally” Brewster, a top campaign fundraiser and prominent gay rights activist in Chicago, has angered religious leaders in this deeply Catholic country, sparking fears that the U.S. is trying to export gay rights.
Top members of the evangelical and Catholic churches, including the powerful Catholic cardinal, criticized Obama for a choice they say is out of touch with the country’s cultural reality.
Monsignor Pablo Cedano, auxiliary Catholic bishop of Santo Domingo, said the appointment of Brewster showed “a lack of sensitivity, of respect by the United States.”
Brewster’s position on gay rights “is far from our cultural reality,” he said, adding that if he comes, “he’s going to suffer,” due to the cultural differences, “and he’ll have to leave.”
Church leaders often comment on, and influence, social matters here, where 88 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. The conservative hand of the Church has been seen in the 2010 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and in pushing through a controversial ban on abortions.
Gay rights advocates, who applauded the appointment, say they are often harassed and threatened.
“The Church doesn’t accept us,” said Francisco Ulerio at a gay rights parade Sunday in downtown Santo Domingo.
Ulerio, who said he is Catholic, dressed as a Catholic cardinal to protest the comments made about Brewster. “They are very conservative,’’ he said. “They don’t have respect for us.”
The controversy is unlikely to stop Brewster from taking the ambassadorship, if the Senate confirms him.
Dominican President Danilo Medina’s legal advisor César Pina Toribio said the announcement of Brewster’s nomination indicates that the Dominican government had already been consulted.
“It would be indelicate for the Dominican state to refuse the nomination now,” he said.
In choosing Brewster, Washington sought to influence the Dominican Republic’s position on areas such as gay marriage, Santo Domingo’s archbishop said.
A similar argument was made in the 1990s when then President Bill Clinton considered nominating James Hormel, who was also openly gay, to the post in Fiji. Protests in Fiji led Clinton to reconsider.
But three years later, Hormel, whose family owned the Hormel Foods dynasty, was nominated, this time to serve as the top diplomat in Luxembourg.
Campaigns by conservative Christian groups alleged he was anti-Catholic (Luxembourg is mostly Catholic) and that a San Francisco Public Library collection that Hormel funded allegedly contained pornographic materials. Senate Republicans successfully blocked his confirmation, raising questions about whether Hormel represented U.S. values.
Clinton used a recess appointment to make Hormel the first openly gay ambassador in U.S. history in 1999. Three other openly gay men have served as ambassadors since.
In 2009, Obama chose David Huebner as ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, making him the third openly gay man to hold the post.
In recent weeks, Obama has nominated five more gay men, including Brewster. Obama also nominated John Berry, a former director of the National Zoo and federal Personnel Management Office in Washington, for Australia. And HBO executive James Costos to the position in Spain and others for posts in Denmark and to the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The men have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
None of the ambassador designates have been met with as much criticism as Brewster.
One of the top bundlers of campaign donations in Chicago, Brewster is an experience brand strategist and former executive for national shopping mall developers and owners. Obama chose him to replace Raúl Yzaguirre, who left the post in May due to health conditions.
But shortly after the announcement of his appointment to the ambassadorship, focus turned to Brewster’s work as a gay rights activist.
Brewster served as national co-chair of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) for the Democratic National Committee and a board member of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that campaigned against measures such as Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], part of which was struck down last week by the Supreme Court.
Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, archbishop of Santo Domingo, said he doesn’t “share in any way that sort of opinion or preference,” referring to Brewster.
“If the government of Washington considers they are apt to send that kind of ambassador, let the government in Washington go ahead,” he said.
López warned that if Brewster is sent to the country, “the United States can expect anything.”
The Dominican Evangelical Fraternity leader Cristobal Cardozo, meanwhile, said Brewster’s presence would be “an insult to good Dominican customs.”
Meanwhile, the small but vocal gay community here used its annual march Sunday to support Brewster.
Among the several hundred members of diverse groups representing gay rights organizations, several held signs welcoming him.
“It’s a great honor for our country to have someone of his prominence be named ambassador,” Estefanie Hernandez, a member of activist organization GAYP, said as she held a sign welcoming Brewster to motorists who passed a busy oceanfront drive. “To have someone from our community to serve as ambassador is a show of support.”
Hernandez said the gay rights community applauded the Supreme Court decisions. The top court struck down part of DOMA, thereby allowing for federal benefits to apply to married gay couples. It also cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by declining to rule on the constitutionality of that state’s controversial ban on such marriages.
“We watched what happened in the court last week and we want that type of progress to come here,” Hernandez said.