By Kenrick Ross
When the United Nations convened a high-level panel on global LGBT rights at last September’s General Assembly, the most distinct speaker on the list was Caleb Orozco. Orozco was neither a renowned diplomat like the UN Secretary General, who chaired the discussion, nor one of the presidents or foreign ministers who spoke before him. He wasn’t Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered an impassioned speech that included a shout out to Orozco. Orozco is head of the Belizean LGBT rights group UNIBAM, and he was at the UN in the wake of the rarest of victories – challenging his country’s anti-sodomy law, and winning.
On August 10, 2016, six years after he first filed UNIBAM’s challenge, Belize’s Supreme Court overturned the British colonial-era law. It ended a harrowing journey during which Orozco had been vilified by conservative and religious factions, physically attacked, and even had his last name turned into a homophobic slur. Orozco’s victory yanked Belize out of a slowly shrinking and exclusive club- the last 10 remaining Caribbean countries that still criminalize homosexuality. All are English-speaking former British colonies, spanning an arc from Belize perched on the Central American coast, through Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles, to Guyana in South America.
When it comes to LGBTQ legal rights, the Caribbean is as diverse as its peoples and languages. Some countries, such as the Dominican Republic, decriminalized homosexuality two centuries ago while others, like Haiti and Cuba, did so in the last few decades. Overseas European dependencies, remnants of Dutch, French, and British empires, tend to be legally and socially more progressive, either having granted or now wrestling with such rights as marriage equality, to align local laws with the home countries. Yet, even in the countries where homosexuality is legal, the battle for acceptance and safety, much less equality, is far from won. LGBTQ Caribbean people routinely face a spectrum of challenges, from workplace discrimination and unrecognized partnerships to extortion, family disownment, beatings, and even murder.
In most Caribbean countries, the right to exist does not equate a secure existence. Just two months before the Belizean court decision, two gay men in Jamaica, reported to be lovers, were shot dead in their home by armed thugs, with members of the community telling reporters that two “fish” had been fried. Within days of the UN panel discussion, the Massimadi festival, an LGBTQ arts and culture celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was canceled after the hosts and the venue received violent threats, and a government official blocked it, citing it as an affront to Haitian family values. In 2013, Haiti’s LGBT community made international headlines when a march organized by religious groups opposed to LGBT rights descended into a mob that killed two gay men.
These are the kinds of occurrences that made the Belizean verdict grab international attention, good news about LGBT issues coming out of the Caribbean is uncommon. Yet, prohibitive laws and horrific violence don’t fully define the LGBTQ Caribbean experience. Beyond penal codes, there are the complex intersections of social and economic class, location, performance of masculinity, and the ability to travel out of the country. There is no one collective LGBTQ Caribbean reality, even within one island or country.
Jamaican novelist Marlon James captured this complexity when he said there are 10 Jamaica’s, and not every Jamaican lives in the same one. James was clarifying a piece he had written in 2015 for the New York Times in which he said, as a gay man, he knew he would leave Jamaica in a plane or a coffin. That same year, James became the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the English-speaking world, vaulting him into the pantheon of his most illustrious countrymen. His coffin was a reference to spiritual death and suicide; as he clarified, in his version of Jamaica, the kind of mob violence that has claimed the lives of other gay men is a bit less likely.
James’s Jamaica has known its share of all kinds of anti-gay violence in the last two decades. Several of its most prominent gay activists have been murdered or forced to leave the country out of fear. Gruesome reports have chronicled gay men being chased and beaten by mobs, set afire, murdered in prisons, shantytowns, and schools alike, and lesbians being targeted for corrective rape. Documentaries and photo exhibits have chronicled the lives of Gully Queens, destitute queer and transgender Jamaicans who live on the fringes of society, figuratively and literally. Jamaicans routinely account for the largest number of gay people granted asylum in the US. Reggae, perhaps Jamaica’s biggest cultural export, has been used as a vehicle by some artists to call for the bashing and killing of gays. A decade ago, TIME Magazine called Jamaica the most homophobic place in the world.
Jamaica may often be singled out because of the ferocity of anti-gay violence, but it is by no means singular in experiencing it, and going to lengths to downplay it. This is part of the reality of LGBTQ life in the Caribbean, but so too is the resistance to it. Even in countries where their presence can land them in jail, LGBTQ activists, scholars, and artists are doing the difficult work of changing laws and societal mores.
In the last decade, activists have filed a raft of challenges to archaic anti-gay laws, trying to both chip away at legal discrimination and build precedent that can bolster challenges down the road. Maurice Tomlinson, who fled Jamaica but has been intensely involved from his home in Canada, alone has spearheaded half a dozen such challenges. Last year two of those were resolved by the Caribbean Court of Justice, the high court for most of the former British colonies. Tomlinson challenged laws in Trinidad and Tobago and Belize which bar entry to homosexuals. The Court recommended that both countries overturn their laws, but did not do so, accepting the argument that the prohibitions, while in place, are not enforced. In Guyana, the third largest English-speaking Caribbean country, the Supreme Court is mulling an anti-cross-dressing case that is likely to be decided in the next month.
On the ground, many LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations have either sprung up or been revitalized, with larger Caribbean countries being home to multiple organizations. Some organizations, like the regional umbrella group CAISO, Guyana’s SASOD, and Jamaica’s J-FLAG have been around for a generation; Pride festivals have been held in Jamaica for several years without major incident and Guyana has hosted a gay film festival throughout this decade. Marlon James is perhaps now the best known of a cadre of LGBTQ Caribbean creatives that also includes novelists Nicole Dennis-Benn and Shani Mootoo, poets Rajiv Mohabir and Colin Robinson, artists Ebony Patterson and Andil Gosine, filmmakers Kareem Mortimer and Gavin Ramoutar, and a bevy of others who are not only challenging narrow impressions of Caribbean culture internationally, but engaging Caribbean people in rich, often uncomfortable conversations about themselves.
For Caribbean communities, whether in the Caribbean or in the diaspora, progress has not, and will not be linear. Fledging Pride festivals will continue to grow even amid the specter of legal setbacks and mob violence. An American president like Barack Obama made a point of praising LGBTQ activists during his 2015 trip to Jamaica, while American evangelicals, receding from the US culture wars, descend upon the Caribbean with their anti-gay crusade. And once in a while there will be cause for celebration, like when, after years of work, a court comes down on the right side of justice.