By Neish McLean
Despite a strong and growing LGBTIQ community and civil society in the Caribbean, it remains a region in which over half the countries still criminalize same-sex relations under so-called “buggery laws” leftover from British colonial rule.
LGBTIQ activists in the region have been more or less quietly building strategies, forming alliances and networks, incrementally yet boldly heading towards decriminalization.
Headlines emerging from the region over the past couple of weeks have shown that these efforts have broken ground, spilling over from largely quiet underground activism into the public space. The momentum is undoubtedly mounting and prospects for decriminalization of same-sex relations in the Caribbean are looking more promising by the day.
On July 26 two men filed court proceedings to challenge St Vincent and the Grenadines’ so-called “buggery” and “gross indecency” laws. The week before, on July 19, a similar claim challenging the law punishing same-sex relations with prison terms and psychiatric confinement was filed in Dominica.
Last week we heard that the petition filed last summer with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) challenging the “buggery” laws of Barbados – which has one of the strictest such laws prescribing life imprisonment – has been communicated to the island nation giving it three months to respond. Other challenges are also mounting in the remaining Caribbean islands which still carry bans on same-sex relations.
The challenge at the IACHR is especially important. The commission can issue a recommendation to repeal the laws. If the Government of Barbados refuses to implement, the commission can refer the matter to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) – the highest court in this hemisphere – which can, in turn, issue a binding decision mandating Barbados to do so, and advising other member states to follow suit.
IACHR has long since welcomed decriminalization efforts, and the IACtHR has ruled not only that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity violates international law, but, more recently, it issued an advisory opinion stating that all existing equality mechanisms, including marriage, have to be extended to LGBTIQ people.
The subsequent actions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and, possibly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights could have a significant ripple effect for decriminalization of same-sex relations in the Caribbean. They could set a precedent which would be difficult to ignore even by the Caribbean nations which don’t recognize the jurisdiction of the court.
As stated by activist Alexa Hoffman upon filing the claim at the IACHR “my life depends on ending this law”. While in most of the Caribbean countries where the so-called “buggery laws” are still in place they are rarely enforced, their impact stretches far beyond the threat of outing, fines, or deprivation of liberty of LGBTIQ people.
Their continued existence paints LGBTIQ people as not only second class citizens, but as criminals, giving rise to a perception that anyone breaking assigned norms around sexuality and gender is somehow threatening to society, and thus legitimizing hate, violence, and persecution. Because of these laws LGBTIQ people who are victims of physical, sexual, domestic or intimate partner violence, of bullying, or discrimination in the workplace, can not turn to the police, as outing themselves puts them at risk of imprisonment.
Simply put – the laws perpetuate pervasively negative societal attitudes, demonize LGBTIQ people, and prevent us from being able to reach our full potential, thus harming not just us, but society as a whole.
After decriminalization we will still have a long road ahead to LGBTIQ equality in the region. Laws are virtually meaningless without proper implementation, without awareness among the communities affected, without education and training of law enforcement and judiciary.
A whole lot more will be needed to ensure that LGBTIQ youth are not ostracized by their families, or bullied in schools; that LGBTIQ people are not discriminated against in the workplace; that LGBTIQ people feel safe to go to the police to report the crimes against them. We as civil society have our work cut out for us. But without decriminalization, without removing the clauses which, in effect, legalize stigma against us, we will not be totally liberated and affirmed as citizens of our countries.
LGBTIQ activists around the region will be watching keenly to see how the current momentum on decriminalization progresses. Hopefully before too long we can leave it behind us and step onto the next path to ensuring that LGBTIQ people in the Caribbean can be who we are, love whom we choose, and live life free from criminalization, stigma, and violence.
(Neish McLean is the Caribbean Program Officer at OutRight Action International)