In Caribbean, vibrant gay rights movement fights homophobia

St. John's (Antigua and Barbuda) (AFP) –


It may be a cheerful paradise of palm trees and sun, but the Caribbean is also grappling with a dead-serious problem: rampant homophobia.

On paper at least, gay sex remains illegal in many countries of the region and legalization of same sex-marriage is some ways off.

Still, a tenacious gay rights movement honing in on everything from erasing archaic 'sodomy' laws to instituting same-sex matrimony is sweeping the region of 44 million people.

"People think of the Caribbean as a homogenous place with rampant homophobia everywhere," says Donnya Piggott, a gay rights activist in Barbados.

"In fact there are many LGBTQ people living very fruitful lives and climbing the social ladder. Then there are others without the same access to education and healthcare living a life on the fringes."

Piggott is an ardent campaigner for anti-discrimination legislation in Barbados, which joined regional neighbors this month in staging vibrant Pride celebrations, turning city streets into a kaleidoscope of colors.

Such displays in, say, New York, are no big deal these days.

But they are in a region where colonial-era legislation still commonly criminalizes same-sex intimacy and many people hold deeply conservative beliefs rooted in religion.

Last year's election of Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who has herself faced questioning over her sexual orientation, has seen LGBTQ advocates invited to Barbados' policy table for the first time, Donnya says.

A new Social Justice Committee unites various marginalized groups, also including disabled and religious minority representatives.

For now, fighting discrimination in the workplace takes priority over battling the island's criminalization of same-sex acts. With a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, the law is among the harshest in the Western hemisphere.

"It?s a horrible law and needs to go but focusing on it reduces our campaign to a sexual act," said Piggott.

Same-sex activity remains illegal, although the ban is rarely enforced, in eight other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Guyana.

- 'In the right direction'-

In April 2018, Trinidadian campaigner Jason Jones emerged victorious from a 14-month crusade to overturn laws prohibiting homosexuality in his homeland.

Previously, gay sex between two consenting men was punishable with up to 25 years in prison. Also repealed were laws that criminalized lesbians.

Jones told AFP he believed the high court's ruling that the laws were unconstitutional would pave the way for similar moves in neighboring countries.

"Trinidad is such an important part of the puzzle because we are the powerhouse, economically and geopolitically, of the region," he said.

The Trinidadian government has appealed the ruling and the case is set to be heard by the Court of Appeal later this year.

Jones' case has inspired activists in Dominica where gay sex carries a penalty of 10 years behind bars. A lawsuit is set to be filed in the country's high court within weeks, with assistance from a Toronto-based advocacy group.

In Guyana, which saw its second Gay Pride celebrations this month, campaigners have also celebrated a milestone legal ruling. In November, the Caribbean Court of Justice struck down a Victorian-era law banning 'cross-dressing', long used to target transgender women.

Guyana may be the only nation on the South American continent to outlaw gay sex but "things are moving in the right direction", says Valini Leitch, of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

"People are more inclined to report attacks these days. They used to be too afraid of discrimination to come forward and access justice," she said.

Access to public transport has traditionally been an area of concern for trans-women in particular.

"We get many reports of them being left standing on the road, attacked at bus stations, chased off or simply told they can't get on because they're not 'normal'," said Leitch.

Laws allowing same-sex marriage may still be some time off in much of the Caribbean but recent court cases have seen them legalized in two of the region?s British overseas territories.

A 2017 Supreme Court ruling in Bermuda has been upheld by two subsequent court decisions, although the local government is fighting it.

And in March, the Cayman Islands saw a similar historic judgment following a petition by Caymanian Chantelle Day and her British partner Vickie Bodden Bush.

With two more islands ?- Bermuda and St Lucia ?- set to hold their first Gay Pride parades this August, activists like Piggott remain hopeful.

"Societies are slowly moving forward; people's opinions are no longer as violent and radical," she said.

"Those people still exist but there are many more willing to stand up against them. Thankfully, we have allies all over the Caribbean who believe that love is love."