By Gemma Handy (BBC)
“It’s mainly snide remarks due to toxic masculinity,” Aziza Lake says. But homophobia in Antigua and Barbuda sometimes manifests itself in sporadic brutality too, she continues.
In her rainbow-coloured shirt and hat, seated outside a popular café in the capital, St John’s, she might consider herself lucky compared to her openly gay counterparts in neighbouring Caribbean nations.
LGBT people in the Eastern Caribbean described being stabbed, beaten, choked and pelted with bottles and bricks in a 2018 Human Rights Watch report.
Now the region which Time magazine dubbed in 2006 as “the most homophobic place on Earth” is the scene of a major battle to overturn British colonial-era laws that ban same-sex intimacy.
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The Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE) is in the throes of legal challenges in five countries that still outlaw “buggery” and “indecency”, effectively criminalising gay people.
Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, and St Kitts and Nevis all have versions of statutes that prohibit same-sex acts between consenting adults.
In Barbados, loving the wrong person could see you thrown behind bars for life, at least technically.
Fight on their hands
Like in most Caribbean countries, the “buggery law” is rarely enforced. But keeping it on the statute books marginalises LGBT people and sanctions violence and discrimination against them, campaigners argue.
They know they will have a fight on their hands to change this. In a region where the Christian Church is a cornerstone of social life, the campaign has put pro-LGBT activists at loggerheads with religious leaders and their followers.
“We are a Christian society as a result of our colonial history so, for a lot of people, homophobia is all they know. It’s ingrained in society,” Ms Lake explains.
Penalties for gay sex may not be enforced but they remain on the statute books in much of the English-speaking Eastern Caribbean.
- Antigua and Barbuda: Same-sex sexual activity is illegal and can incur a 15-year prison sentence.
- Barbados: Same-sex sexual activity is illegal. Penalty can be life imprisonment.
- Grenada: Same-sex sexual activity between men is cited as an “unnatural crime” and punishable with a 10-year prison sentence. Legal between females.
- St Kitts and Nevis: Same-sex sexual activity between men is illegal and punishable with a 10-year prison sentence, with or without hard labour. Legal between females.
- St Lucia: Same-sex sexual activity between men is illegal and punishable with a 10-year prison sentence and/or a fine. Legal between females.
“I don’t think any parliament is going to change these laws on their own; they’ll wait until they’re made to. But they should have the courage to tell the Church they can have their beliefs but they have no right to impose them on an entire section of the community. Governments are for everyone.”
Ms Lake had been a long-time LGBT rights activist before being appointed as a senator in 2017, a move that “made a lot of regional headlines”, she remarks wryly.
Retaining homophobic laws has a devastating effect on young gay people’s self-esteem, she continues.
“Many prefer to stay in the closet. My work as a parliamentarian includes being a voice for them, letting them know there’s someone who disagrees with the way things are and is willing to represent them.”
She adds: “At the basis of it all is adults who want to be treated equally, free from judgement and persecution.”
Alexa Hoffman agrees. Transgender people like herself often bear the brunt of overt prejudice.
In her native Barbados, many are afraid to take on the island’s homophobic law “for fear of becoming persona non grata”.
“The religious pundits say the law is in the interests of children and protecting the morals of the country. Anyone who tries to tackle it sets themselves up for their ire,” she tells the BBC.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says stigma deters victims of homophobic attacks from seeking help from the police. Indeed, one Antiguan trans woman suffered a vicious beating by officers while in police custody in 2015, resulting in the loss of sight in one eye.
An HRW spokeswoman said the organisation fully backed ECADE’s legal mission. “It’s time for Eastern Caribbean countries to acknowledge the full humanity of their LGBT citizens and let go of these discriminatory laws,” she added.
Antigua’s Attorney-General Steadroy Benjamin says that while he will “entertain discussions”, the issue is “not a matter of priority”.
Bishop Charlesworth Browne has been outspoken against any proposed changes to sodomy legislation in Antigua for decades.
“It’s not the law being challenged but the word of God,” he says. “Homosexuals are welcome in Church and to come to Jesus, but they will suffer the consequences for their actions.”
Optimistic of success
ECADE’s Kenita Placide says the group is prepared to take its fight all the way to the countries’ highest courts.
“We’re very hopeful changes will be made in 2020 as our courts have become more aware of the institution of human rights and what that means where laws are still discriminatory.
“We also need to look at hate speech legislation and how religious rhetoric is inciting hatred,” she adds.
St Lucia-based lawyer Veronica Cenac says ECADE’s drive follows four years of preparation, including establishing plans to protect litigants in the five nations.
“People have been tortured and even killed due to their sexual orientation in St Lucia, so local security training was vital,” she explains.
Ms Cenac says she is optimistic of success in the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. Recent years have seen victories elsewhere in the region, including Trinidad and Belize.
All of the five countries being challenged constitutionally to enshrine freedom of expression, equality under the law or an enforceable right to privacy, she explains.
“Most importantly, this action sends a signal to everyone that LGBT people are not unapprehended criminals subject to abuse and violence with impunity,” Ms Cenac adds.
“They are someone’s child, brother or sister, mother or father, and they’re entitled to the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”