Now that American Christian fundamentalists have lost the fight against marriage equality at home, they will certainly redouble their efforts aimed at preventing recognition of basic human rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* and Intersex (LGBTI) people around the world. All that money and political capital generated from fighting same-gender unions have to be spent somewhere and the Caribbean will be a convenient dumping ground of choice.
We have seen this sort of thing before. The region has often absorbed rejected global north ideologies, and this time will not be different. Homophobic agitation supported by preachers from the United States has been going on in my homeland of Jamaica for decades. US televangelists started beaming their bigotry into the island in the late 70s and early 80s, as they recorded losses in the domestic battle against LGBTI human rights. They used the onset of the AIDS epidemic as a pretext for decrying homosexuality, and their rhetoric was so successful that it quickly spawned local clones. Many of our pastors then went off to the US to be trained in fundamentalist doctrine and upon their return they became willing foot soldiers in the anti-gay crusades.
In a sad twist of fate, the June 26 ruling has not only liberated gay Americans, it also “freed” their persecutors. There is already intense lobbying of Caribbean leaders to retain and expand colonial-era anti-sodomy laws. However, there is now greater urgency to that movement, and the marriage case will be used to justify even more insistent appeals for cash and relevance by socially conservative organizations. Without the “distraction” of the Federal and Supreme Court marriage cases, the evangelical southward gaze will become dizzyingly intense.
Similar to our pastors in the late 80s, lawyers from the global south are now being trained in homophobic “legal boot camps” in America to devise insidious but seemingly innocuous arguments in defense of colonially imposed anti-sodomy laws. The Marriott hotel chain recently had to defend itself against an online petition that decried one such session being hosted at one of its properties. These gatherings were deemed necessary as most Caribbean governments have little appetite to preserve the archaic statutes, and only feel compelled to do so in order to pacify vociferous and powerful Christian factions. Two years ago, a dozen religious groups piled on as interested parties against a constitutional claim brought by a young gay Jamaican man. He alleged that the 1864 British colonially imposed law criminalizing all forms of male same-gender intimacy violates his right to privacy under the 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The churches declared that they had to “help” the Jamaican Attorney General protect the “anti-buggery law” because the government could not be trusted to mount a strong enough case. Regrettably, the claimant felt compelled to withdraw because of threats he and his family received.
I expect the efforts of the evangelicals to become more coordinated, sophisticated and extreme. For example, the aggressive and blatantly false anti-gay petition that was presented to the CARICOM Heads of Government at their meeting in Barbados July 2-4, 2015. Ironically, this petition, which had over 35,000 signatures on June 30, claims that, among other things, court challenges to the British imposed laws amount to a violation of Caribbean independence! Of course, the UK jettisoned these archaic statutes nearly half a century ago. A St. Lucian Bishop also made the highly spurious claim that marriage equality was on the agenda of the meeting while arguing that the largely dependent Caribbean territories are being pressured by unnamed foreign governments to recognize same-gender unions. Since eleven of the countries in the region have not even decriminalized private acts of intimacy between consenting adults, it is quite unlikely that gay weddings was a “thing” for them this July.
Recent events also demonstrate that the leaders of Canada, the US and the UK are adopting a less confrontational approach to securing global LGBTI liberation. For example, on a recent visit by a US contingent to Jamaica, USAID senior LGBT Coordinator, Todd Larsen, admitted that it would be hypocritical for the U.S to tell the island what to do with regard to LGBTI equality, because America is still wrestling with this, and other human rights issues. Instead, Mr. Larsen declared that the team was on the island to listen. He made it clear that Jamaica was not in jeopardy of losing aid because of the human rights situation for LGBTI people. This demonstration of humility earned high praise from activists on the ground and in the Diaspora while fundamentalists vilified the visit as foreign interference.
While diplomatic and other political endeavours continue to seek an end to these anti-gay laws, there are other legal cases going on in the region. With the support of AIDS-Free World, I brought a claim against the states of Belize and Trinidad and Tobago challenging their bans on the entry of homosexuals into their territories. A decision in this matter is pending from the Caribbean Court of Justice and is expected to be handed down in July.
Some LGBTI advocates in the Caribbean decry the involvement of global north entities in pushing back against the rising tide of imported homophobia. They argue that these efforts undermine the “authenticity” of the regional struggle. Considering that the opponents are incredibly well connected locally and internationally, we need all the support we can get from our global north allies, who we encourage to respect the local realities and our ability to navigate them. We welcome partnerships with agencies from the global north and I feel that now is the time for those partners to significantly strengthen their collaborations in the global south, through resources and capacity building. Otherwise, it will take another generation (or two) to make any progress on LGBTI equality in my region.