Thursday 27 December 2012

It Might Get Better: LGBT Rights in the Caribbean

by Jonathan Bellot

In a proposal from June of 2012 that briefly made him infamous on a variety of pro-gay websites, the Minister of Education of the Commonwealth of Dominica wrote that he had teamed up with former secondary school principal Simeon Joseph to combat “deviance and homosexuality” in a number of schools on the island. And eradicating homosexuality was a significant factor in fighting this deviance, Education Minister Peter St. Jean asserted. By stamping out such evil and disgraceful behavior, the Minister assured Dominicans, the schools would be well on their way to becoming safe havens for normality, places no longer ruled more by the devil than by God. Indeed, St. Jean noted in September of 2012 that the problem of homosexuality, violence, and general deviance was bigger than he had imagined and that he now had to form a “committee” to deal with the matter. For gay young Dominicans, the message was anything but gay: you are deviant, and you must change your desires, or face the consequences.

Portia Simpson-Miller
St. Jean’s proposal was hardly the first to demonize homosexuality in the island, much less the Caribbean (though St. Jean’s is all the more notable coming from a minister of, of all things, education). The Attorney-General of Antigua, Justin Simon, went on record in 2011 when asked about a repeal of the buggery law to make his stance clear: “there will be no change in the law,” he said, “being gay is morally wrong,” and, in case it was not clear, “I’m still homophobic.” Bruce Golding, the former prime minister of Jamaica, is well-remembered, among other things, for saying on BBC Hard Talk in 2008 that he does “not know” that a Jamaica in which homosexuals can be in the cabinet “is necessarily the direction in which I want my country to go” and does not want pro-gay lobby groups to change Jamaica’s values, while an extraordinary (though obscure) immigration law in Trinidad preventing gays from even entering the island briefly made international waves in 2007, when Elton John, who had been booked to perform there, came up against church leaders. Elton John made it in, and since then, Trinidad, like the other islands, has battled against the issue. However, both Jamaica and Trinidad may be on their way to creating more equitable landscapes for gays: Portia Simpson-Miller, current Prime Minister of Jamaica, famously said she supports civil rights for the LGBT community during her election campaign, and, more recently Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, has been at work with Minister of Gender, Youth, and Child Development, Marlene Coudray, to draft a gender policy that will end discrimination against individuals based on (among other things) sexual orientation.

Why the fuss over homosexuality? And, more on point: is there a legitimate reason for granting gays in the Caribbean rights they enjoy elsewhere in the world—the right to civil unions or same-sex marriage, the right to not be discriminated against at school or in the workplace, etc? At first, if you’re liberal on this issue, the answer to the second question might seem simple: yes, yes, and hurry up with it already so we can move on. Some islands have abolished their laws making buggery illegal, after all, and Saba, while part of the Netherlands, has made the pioneering step to not simply recognize but allow same-sex marriage. My own kneejerk reaction is to say “yes” as well. But the question is more complex than a simple “yes” can admit because of how deep assumptions and misunderstandings about homosexuality go in some islands. And to see why the question is complex, we need to look into the first question: what the big fuss over homosexuality is.

The most obvious source of antagonism over homosexuality comes from the bible’s references to men lying with men as with women being an abomination and to the popular interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction as stemming from God’s displeasure at the homosexuality of its inhabitants. Bring up homosexuality, be it in person or in an article online, and you can count on more than a little religious fanaticism. I’ll return to this issue later, but three quick points are relevant: it is by no means clear the Sodom and Gomorrah story refers to homosexuality; it is a serious question why those who proclaim themselves Christian obsess over this rule and not over the other rules near it, including the infamous ones: do not eat shellfish, do not wear clothes spun of multiple fabrics, etc.; and, this may be the biggest hurdle gays have to face in the Caribbean and is one reason getting rid of these laws quickly may not be for the best. So deeply rooted in so many islands is Christianity, in particular the evangelical versions that appeared in the 20th century, that to decriminalize buggery and in particular to legalize same-sex unions or marriages is to potentially endanger gays in the islands. But I’ll return to this shortly.

Another source of antagonism I have seen comes from race and heritage—specifically the idea that, in Africa prior to the Europeans getting involved, homosexuality was simply not an issue because it was not something any true African allowed or was involved in. Homosexuality, and in particular the LGBT civil rights movement, is a product of the white man in the West, so the argument goes, and one does not need any biblical verses to see that homosexuality was distasteful to descendants of Africans long before their ancestors even knew the bible existed. This argument, while not as pervasive as the religious one, appears relatively often in muted form. It is part of a series of sometimes very broad anti-Eurocentric arguments against a variety of practices and ideas, arguments employed by Africans and those descended from African ancestors alike. The most striking of such arguments is a recent claim by the proudly Zulu president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, that owning a dog is "not African" and is a "white" practice that should not be employed in Africa; similarly, Zuma claimed earlier this year, polygamy (part of his heritage) is the natural state of things, single women are abominations, and women are trained to be, well, women by bearing multiple children. More common racial claims, ones I heard myself growing up in Dominica, were that certain types of music and food were “white” and others “black”: dancehall and hip-hop were easily “black,” while electronica in general (but especially techno) and rock of almost all kinds were “white.”

These claims, while too sweeping to possibly be correct, often contain kernels of cultural truth: hip-hop, like jazz (which it partly evolved from), was developed by African-Americans, certain types of food are eaten more by cultures containing dominant populations of a certain color, etc. But none of this makes them “black” or “white.” And the fact remains that whether or not a society practiced something in the past, what matters more for human rights is what people practice today. Individuals should listen to and do what they enjoy, regardless of cultural norms.

Other common arguments are easier to deal with, since these stem from misunderstandings or propaganda from the anti-gay. These are the claims that homosexuality is “unnatural,” that it does not occur in any other animal but humans (though most users of such an argument would not accept evolution enough to accept that humans are animals), that homosexuality spreads like a virus, that allowing gay marriage will turn the world gay and cause the end of reproduction around the world, and that homosexuality is equivalent or inextricably linked to pedophilia and sex tourism.

The first thing to say here is that over 1,500 species of animals have been confirmed to engage in homosexual activity—and that’s only the confirmed species, not the ones suspected to, as well. (This is not an argument for following whatever animals do, however, since many of those species also engage in less savory practices, including rape and necrophilia. Rather, this is only a clarification of a claim that humans are the only animals to engage in homosexual activity.). Given that homosexuality is not a virus and that there is no evidence it is a choice (it seems there may be some genetic basis for it, though this is unclear; Richard Dawkins describes it as a misfiring of the brain in The God Delusion), it is impossible for it to spread if people are “exposed” to TV shows containing gay characters. All that can happen is that those who are already gay or bisexual may begin to understand their feelings better by seeing people they can identify with. As for the pedophilia/prostitution claim, which I have never seen anywhere more prominent than in Uganda, this is simply false, since pedophilia is separate from hetero- and homosexuality, and prostitution is an act that has nothing to do with orientation whatsoever, since you can as easily prostitute grinning dolphins as flamboyantly gay men. A pedophile can be gay or straight; there is no reason to link homosexuality with pedophilia. Moreover, the issue with pedophilia, both on an emotional and legal level, is primarily that of consent, and it’s clear that a normal young child is not in the same position to give his or her consent as a normal adult. Homosexual intercourse between two consenting adults, therefore, is very different from intercourse between any adult and a child, since the latter is, in many ways, closer to rape.

A chilling possibility?
With all this said, it sounds great to say we should have gay rights in the Caribbean. And I’m in full support. But I’m also a realist here. And it’s quite clear that, if I could brush a magic wand over the law books of the islands and decriminalize buggery and allow same-sex marriage across the board, the problem would not suddenly be solved. If anything, the problems might, at least for a while, be significantly worse. There would likely be riots, calls to miniature crusades by the evangelists, and more blood spilled than I would like. This is a somewhat absurd hypothetical scenario, of course, as opposed to more drawn-out legislation, but there is nothing to suggest it would be false. The infamous recent beating of a presumably gay young man at U-Tech in Jamaica, while tame compared to other such beatings and killings in the island, shows that the mob mentality to surround, attack, and antagonize “the other,” in this case the gay male, is alive and well there, and it is similar in other islands. Of course, the number of persons in support of gay rights, or, at least, indifferent to homophobia, is on the rise, primarily among young people who have gone to school or to live abroad in societies where homosexuality is not stigmatized to the same degree, but I fear that we still have a long way to go before people in general can be more comfortable with gay rights in the Caribbean.

But here’s the thing: we need to make those steps. While there has been international pressure from America and Britain in particular to stop abuses of human rights for gays in the region, we also have such models to look to as Uganda, which has done precisely the opposite: Uganda has recently signed in a law that, prior to being softened up, was rightly known best as the “Kill the Gays” bill. Uganda’s model is not the way to go. And while some people may say that this is an extreme example of homophobia, one far beyond anything even in Jamaica, this is simply not the case, in the sense that the seeds for such backwards-looking laws are already planted, amidst a few seeds of progressive opposition to the mindset that allows for such laws. We need to plant more of those progressive seeds. We cannot make the Caribbean a welcome harbor to the LGBT community overnight—eBay has stopped selling magic potions, after all, and few obeah men or women will help me with such otherworldly legislation—but we can make it a welcome harbor for tomorrow, or a few tomorrows from now. We need to attack the problem at the root, so it will be easier for better things to grow. Easier said than done, I know, but possible to be done.

We need to speak up. We need to keep this issue in the public eye. There must be more visibility for the LGBT community—more specifically, we must not allow the issue to be forgotten. The more we make the LGBT community visible and real, the more it will become humanized, and the more we will slip into our opponents’ minds the fact that gay people are not, surprisingly, evil monstrosities that must be beaten up and stoned.

But we also need to be careful how we speak. As much as I acknowledge that religion is a central problem here, attacking Christianity and Islam (those the central problem-makers) with broad, militant strokes is not the best solution. We must be prepared to have discussions, and we must be prepared to answer questions: why the bible is not the end-all-be-all of truth and advice, why we should not cherry-pick verses we like, etc. But we must do so empathetically. After all, there are many gay Christians and Muslims, and while I don’t deny the contradiction in that, it is a fact that we cannot ignore. The goal is not so much to eradicate religion as to eradicate homophobia, and so our first goal should be to show that one can still be religious and accept the LGBT community for what it is, without demonizing them as sinners. The next step may be to show more general problems with religion, but this is a much larger step than the first, and so we must go one step at a time if we’re to make realistic progress: that is, those of us, like me, who are nonbelievers can say so, but so as not to isolate our audience, we must also show the reality that many liberal Christians and Muslims accept the LGBT community, and then we can move from there.

We also need to acknowledge that many people simply know nothing about gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals (and transgender individuals will be a whole other post, given that transgenderism is related but nonetheless requires more nuance) and have gut reactions of disgust. I admit I have similar reactions at the idea of a man being attracted to a man, since I cannot personally see the male body as something to be attracted to. But even so, I fully acknowledge the legitimacy of such attraction for those who have it. We need to work to make the very idea of homosexuality more humanized, more everyday. Otherwise, the LGBT community will remain “the other,” a fringe group vying for superiority via transoceanic lobby groups.

The next time this issue comes up, please take the time to contribute in some way: a comment, a letter to an editor, a rebuttal, a petition, art, stories, something. After all, if you’re a heterosexual, imagine being in other shoes: being forced to go to secret areas to be among others like you, areas that, if discovered, could lead to your doom, all because you dance a different dance, a dance that should hurt no one, but that you must dance in private. Just imagine not being able to be who you are, to live a false life you hate, to be driven to depression, self-hate, and suicidal thoughts. The skeleton key to dealing with homophobia, you see, is empathy.

As Kei Miller writes in “This Dance” in his collection, Fear of Stones, a story that humanizes the struggles of a gay youth in Jamaica: “Jeremy would find a girl to hold on to. Always the one with the strong back, the wire waist, the foot movements, he could on, and wine down low low low low. Take the woman to the ground with him. And people used to say, ‘Lawwd, that yout’ can dance eeeeh.’
“But that wasn’t his dance.
“Wasn’t it.
“Almost his dance, but not quite.”

Let’s work to open the floor, so all may dance their dance in peace.

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