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Aaron Leonard: Review of Carlos Ulises Decena's "Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men" (Duke, 2011)

Aaron Leonard is a freelance journalist.

One learns many things in Carlos Decena’s book, Tacit Subjects, but the most revealing perhaps is that gay men living in the Dominican Republic tend to stay in the closet.  There are many reasons for this, but the greatest is because the culture of that country—it is macho in a most awful way.  What does that mean?  As one of Decenas’ informants (the men he interviewed for the book) put it, quoting his father, “If you turn out to be a faggot I’ll kill you.”

To understand the force of that threat it helps to understand the recent history of the Dominican Republic.  Between 1930 and 1961 the country was ruled with violent precision by Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.  This is a man who oversaw a massacre of 20,000 Haitians in 1937 in what is known as the Parsley Massacre.  Trujillo, notably, was one of the few world leaders to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.  He did not do this for humanitarian reasons He did it because he wanted more white people on the island.  He was also notorious for his sexual depravations, with any women in the country being fair game.  In short he was a racist, ruthless, murderous man that Junot Diaz, in his Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, called "the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.”  When El Jefe passed on (assassinated actually), things did not get much better.  Despite a brief interlude with a progressive figure named Juan Bosch—who was ousted in a coup, with CIA support—Trujillo continued to haunt the island through his old henchman Jaoquin Balaguer, who ruled on and off until well into the 1970s.

So if you’re Dominican and gay it is likely that you, or your father, or your grandfather, caught some kind of hell and was shaped by these repressive regimes.  It is because of this that you find the “undisputed authority of father figures in the household where most informants saw parallels between their fathers and Trujillo.”  Here you have men coming of age and discovering their unique sexuality in a situation in which it is extremely dangerous for them to be that kind of unique.

In the course of the book we get a picture of these men in both New York and on the island.  In New York there is a vibrant gay community and many of these men, who tend to be better educated than the larger Dominican population, are able to survive and thrive through the various social networks they plug into.  Yet, as one informant notes, there is a big difference between gay men living on the Upper East Side and those living in the Bronx and the Dominicans living Washington Heights and other of the poorer areas of the city.  Compounding this are the sexual stereotypes about Dominicans as sexually capable to a degree that expectations of love and mutuality are often replaced with assumptions—because Dominicans are so “macho,” they are there to satisfy in a one-sided way.

For those living on the island the situation is fraught.  Many men have had to immigrate to the U.S. just to get the proper treatment for HIV.  Then there is the corruption, the lack of electricity, the omnipresent machismo, the police routinely raiding clubs and making life generally miserable for gays.  People do not openly discuss their sexuality with their parents, and in those moments when things come out into the open, more times than not they lead to ugly confrontations.

The book is an academic text, so it’s not for everyone, but the larger understanding embedded in its content is universal. Not only is there the history that seems to be looming over everything, what is particularly striking is the struggle for self-respect and dignity in what is too often a brutal world.  These men yearn for the love and respect of their families and from their partners and acceptance from society.  It isn’t too much to ask, but in the world they inhabit it too often seems to be asking for everything.