Countdown to Tolerance

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Wed Mar 20, 2013

Progress in Barbados despite harsh anti-gay laws

Barbados has the harshest penalty for homosexual activity in the Western hemisphere on its books, but overall enjoys a culture of tolerance.

Section 9 of the country’s Sexual Offences Act of 2002 reinstates the sentence of up to life imprisonment for anal intercourse (“buggery”). Section 12 of the Act also includes a law against “serious indecency,” which appears to criminalize all forms of same-gender intimacy, including lesbian love. 

Barbados LGBT training sessionThese laws were originally imposed during the period of British colonial rule.  Even though Barbados gained independence in 1966, like many Anglophone Caribbean territories, these colonial-era laws appear to be constitutionally entrenched and cannot be challenged in any local court in Barbados, despite their clear violations of the right to privacy.

It is important to note that Barbados is the only Commonwealth Caribbean country that recognizes the binding jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2010, the Court ruled in the Karen Atala case that discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation was a violation of the American Convention on Human Rights.  By retaining the anti-sodomy and “serious indecency” laws which disproportionately affect LGBT, Barbados is effectively in violation of its obligations under the American Convention. 

The country is also a party to a host of human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), whose treaty bodies have condemned discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. 

Perhaps most ironically, it was Barbados’ ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) who chaired the committee which approved the first OAS General Assembly Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2008.  The Ambassador effectively interjected when Caribbean countries tried to block the resolution using cultural relativist arguments.

Even with its draconian anti-gay laws, Barbados has recorded very few of the savage homophobic attacks of its fellow Caribbean Community country, Jamaica.This is perhaps a function of a tolerant culture where people in this small densely packed territory are quite likely to know at least one gay individual.  With a population of about 288,000 living on a land mass of only 430 sq km (166 sq mi), the population density is estimated at 670 persons/sq km (1735 persons/sq mi) making the country one of the most densely populated in the world.

Barbados has been very vigilant in keeping out the more homophobic performers of anti-gay “murder music.”  A popular trans, Didi, worked openly for many years as a jewelry retailer in one of the most prominent shopping districts on the island.  Barbados has hosted an annual regional trans show the “Queen of Queens” at one of the island’s most famous show venues.  The government has also provided a major LGBT group on the island, UGALAB with office space for its HIV outreach.

In addition, Barbadian politicians have also made supportive statements with regard to LGBT rights. On the occasion of the International Day For The Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2009,  Esther Byer-Suckoo, the Honourable Minister of Family, Youth and Sports of Barbados, condemned homophobic violence in the country and announced her government’s intention to craft domestic violence legislation that took into account the realities of sexual minorities.

Speaking at a public outreach activity at Cave Shepherd's, Broad Street, in Bridgetown on November 25, 2009, the Minister said:

We realize there is not only violence against women but also violence against men, and then also those persons who are transgender are also subjected to serious violence.

Regardless of our personal views towards transgenders, it's about respect for a person's life. In preparing the legislation one thing we are aware of is that legislation cannot be gender-biased; that is a case for all the legislation the Ministry of Family is addressing.

It can no longer be gender-biased… The law has to protect all its citizens. If we're amending legislation or drafting new legislation we have to take into consideration the nuances of the environment in which we live today.

Most importantly, in 2010, the Hon. Freundel Stuart, former Attorney General and current Prime Minister of Barbados, questioned the continued discrimination against homosexuals.

Speaking at a conference on HIV and Human Rights on September 13, 2010, Mr. Stuart said:

[V]ery little attempt is made now, to consider that it might just be that practitioners of this lifestyle [homosexuality] were responding to the irresistible promptings of nature with the result that imputing fault to them satisfied no known definition of fairness. Further, that even if rather than responding to nature’s promptings, these practitioners were pursuing this lifestyle as a result of nurture, in which case they may have been exercising some measure of choice, the right to choose in these circumstances was protected by the Constitution as long as its exercise did not interfere with the rights of others.[1]

It must be noted that in February 2013, Prime Minister Stuart was reported in a major daily newspaper as saying that same-sex unions will not be recognized in Barbados.  However, this may well have been political posturing in advance of general elections held on February 21, 2013.

Despite these positive statements, Barbados rejected the 2008 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendation to repeal its anti-gay laws. The country’s delegation claimed, among other things, that there was no political mandate to repeal these laws.  Barbados also underwent a UPR review on January 25, 2013 where a similar recommendation was made. A reply to the recommendation is due in June 2013.

Maurice talks to Barbados training participantsLocal groups in Barbados have been working to raise the profile of LGBT individuals in light of an attempt by American evangelicals to export their culture war to the island. In one noted incident, a “gay cure” North American Christian group visited Barbados and had a massive banner across the main street in the central business district to promote their event.

AIDS-Free World recently partnered with a coalition of LGBT groups in Barbados, led by Patsy Granum of MOVADAC, to offer documentation and advocacy training for groups working with LGBT individuals.

We also supported a one day LGBT sensitization session led by Rev. Tom Decker of Open Arms Metropolitan Community Church in Rochester, New York.  As the LGBT liaison for the Toronto Police Service, Rev. Tom worked with  Egale Canada,to develop  the award-winning Report Homophobic Violence, Period (RHVP)  programme, which has been used to train police in Canada, Europe and Australia.  Tom has extensively adapted the programme to suit the Caribbean context and has used it to train police in St. Lucia and Suriname. 

At the session in Barbados, participants included police, as well as members of the prison service, the defense force, Ministries of Labour and Health, and the National HIV Commission. 

Learn more about AIDS-Free World’s work on homophobia and follow Maurice’s blogs.

Contact Maurice at: mat@aidsfreeworld.org