Gay people’s rights in the Caribbean have to be respected

By Chiara Liguori, Amnesty International researcher on the Caribbean.

The mob killing of Dwayne Jones, a 17-year-old cross-dressing individual, on 22 July in St. James, Jamaica, after somebody pointed out that he was cross-dressing, is the latest dramatic instance of high levels of intolerance and homophobia in the Caribbean. The threats received by activist Caleb Orozco in Belize last May after he brought a challenge against the “buggery law” in the Supreme Court, is just one further example of the risks that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights defenders have to face while carrying out their essential work.

High levels of discrimination against people, including episodes of hate-motivated violence, have long been widely reported in the English-speaking Caribbean nations. The continued retention of colonial laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults legitimises such discrimination and violence, creating a climate of hostility towards individuals because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, recent episodes have shown that unfortunately other Caribbean countries, such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, might not be exempt from worrying trends of discrimination and intolerance against LGBTI people.

In Haiti, Haitian organizations working to raise awareness about LGBTI rights and create public debate about the stigma surrounding same-sex sexual activity in Haiti, started to receive threats after they became more vocal. A Haitian coalition of religious and moral organizations (Coalition haïtienne des organisations religieuses et morales) called a march on 26 June to protest against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Since the march, 19 July, a reported spike in the number of violent attacks against LGBTI people across the country has left many people, activists and organisations living in a climate of fear.

In the Dominican Republic, the recent appointment by the United States of an ambassador who is openly gay and an activist for gay rights, sparked a wave of negative reactions from religious groups. They called for “Black Monday” protests on July 15th inviting opponents to take the street wearing black clothing and adorning their cars and buildings with black decorations to protest against the appointment.

What these stories tell us is that the road towards tolerance, respect and acceptance of diversity is still very long for the Caribbean nations, but also that activism and consciousness across the region are growing day after day.

At a time when more and more brave activists across the region are raising their voices against discrimination, including by bringing judicial challenges against discriminatory laws in countries such as Belize, Guyana and Jamaica, there is more than ever an urgent need for Caribbean governments to make clear stands against hate-motivated violence and discrimination against LGBTI people.

The condemnation by the Haitian and the Jamaican governments respectively of the homophobic violence during the march on 19 July and the killing of Dwayne Jones is certainly a good first step that other governments of the region should regularly undertake whenever incidents of this kind occur. This should always be followed by independent and thorough investigation of all instances of violence and abuses against LGBTI people. Furthermore, all Caribbean governments should abolish discriminatory laws – including the ‘sodomy’ and ‘buggery’ laws criminalising consensual, private sexual activity. They should enact laws and policies forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.

However, it is only through the implementation of public information campaigns and of human rights education programmes that the plight of intolerance and discrimination will be fought on the long term, in the region as around the world.

It was inspiring to see last week archbishop Desmond Tutu, icon of the anti-apartheid movement and Nobel Price laureate, together with UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay and South African Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, launching an unprecedented global public education campaign to promote greater respect for the rights of LGBTI people everywhere. As Ms Pillay said at the launch, “eradicating discrimination requires more than just changes in laws and policies. It takes a change in people’s hearts and minds as well”.

Hopefully Caribbean governments will respond positively to this campaign and they will feel encouraged to replicate it at national and sub-regional level. After all, they have the responsibility, and the chance, to make their society as inclusive and respectful as possible.