Photo above: Left to right: Vidyaratha Kissoon, Erin Greene and Maurice Tomlinson, panelists at “Pride and Prejudice: Human Rights in the Pan Am Region” — the 2nd annual Pride Toronto human rights conference held on June 20 at the University of Toronto’s University College.
By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario — As the city gets set to host the TORONTO 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, the 35th Pride Toronto festival recently held a human rights conference examining the issues affecting the gay and lesbian community in the Pan Am region.
The “Pride and Prejudice: Our Human Rights Conference,” held at University College, University of Toronto on June 20, kicked off its morning session with a discussion about the Caribbean entitled “Challenging Criminalization in the Caribbean.”
The topics of the other sessions were: “Trans rights in Brazil,” “LGBT rights in Latin America,” “From Pan Am to Canada: The Challenges of LGBT Migration and Support,” and “Strategies and Solidarity: Moving Forward.”
In 2014, over 500 activists from over 50 countries participated in Pride Toronto’s first-ever global dialogue on LGBTQ+ human rights.
Organizers say “Pride and Prejudice” began a critical dialogue focused on life in the Pan American region through a diverse range of case studies, panels and testimonials.
Vidyaratha Kissoon, Guyanese LGBT activist and educator; Erin Greene, LGBT activist and educator from The Bahamas; and Maurice Tomlinson, Jamaican lawyer, LGBT activist and educator participated in the discussion about the Caribbean, which was moderated by Alica Hall, co-chair, Pride Toronto.
Kissoon’s presentation was named “Wearing Chantilly Lace and Resisting Criminalization in Guyana and the Caribbean,” a title he got from a news story about a gay wedding in the Guyana Graphic of July 12, 1959.
He noted that this was ten years before Stonewall so it could have been one of the first Latin American Pride events.
Showing a map of the Caribbean, he said it is not just about islands but includes three continental territories involved in it: Guyana, Suriname and Belize.
“And there is a mix of independent nations, dependent territories, a mix of places where some places gay marriage happens like in Saba, Martinique, Puerto Rico and then largely where discriminatory laws exist.”
He mentioned well-known transgender, Quincy McEwan, of Guyana and Jowelle de Sousa from Trinidad who is trans and running for her constituency as an independent candidate.
Kissoon said “trans” is a fairly new term in the Caribbean and that “trans” and “gay” are often interchanged. He said the sodomy laws are mostly against male same-sex intimacy.
Tracing the history of LGBT life and resistance, in the case of Guyana from media reports, Kissoon, who is coordinator of Caribbean IRN, said in 1898 on the ship, Mersey, coming from India with Indian indentured immigrants, Nabi Baksh and Mohangoo were punished for sodomy.
In 2001, there was a constitutional amendment to add sexual orientations to grounds for discrimination, however, it was thrown out by Guyana’s president after prayers for him to do so. Two years later, the constitutional amendment “disappears in democracy black hole,” said Kissoon.
“We have this interesting thing where it seems as though we’re going to have no discrimination… but continued criminalization of male same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing for ‘illicit purposes.’”
He noted that in 2013, a survey found that 75% of Guyanese are largely tolerant or accepting of LGBT.
In the 2015 general election, all the political parties had language about non-discrimination based on sexual orientation in their platform.
Kissoon said the activists are going to keep challenging discriminatory policies and practices in employment, education, security and other sectors.
There is also the call to support anti-violence work and issues around general wellness for LGBT and mental health.
“We have big problems with mental health in Guyana, and generally, in the Caribbean so a lot of support is needed for that mental health work. Also, activists have learned to connect with other social justice and nation-building campaigns that deal with governance and accountability, etc.”
Erin Greene’s presentation was entitled: “The Politics of Visibility and Invisibility 2.0” – Repeal the Provisions related to Buggery in the Penal Code by the Enactment of the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act 1991.
The Act, in effect, decriminalized homosexuality. It was argued on the grounds that individuals in The Bahamas have a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.
The new law defined penalties for individuals who engaged in same-sex intercourse in public only. This legislative progress has not necessarily resulted in social progress or increased access to justice, equity or state and social services.
“Many Bahamians, including members of the LGBT community still believe that homosexuality is illegal. State actors, particularly the police, frequently deny or frustrate access to state services and numbers of LGBT Bahamians seeking asylum in countries like the US, UK and Canada continue to rise with individuals citing physical and sexual assault, rape, threats of violence and the lack of police assistance as factors leading to their decision to leave.
“But perhaps the biggest factor is really the experience of familial, social, spiritual and professional ostracization and marginalization,” she said.
Greene said The Bahamas is defined constitutionally as a monarchical democracy but Bahamians, generally, self-identify as a Christian nation and a lot of people still live under the assumption that the nation is a theocracy. And so, despite having all of this legal progress, many Bahamians still sort of live in a state of criminalization.
Discussing barriers to decriminalization, Greene said the majority of Bahamians are fundamentalist Christians and for them there is nothing as human rights.
“You only have the rights that God gave you which is the right to be on the planet – to be alive – and the right to die in his favour.”
She said many Bahamians don’t want to engage a movement that creates a separation between them and their church or them and their family.
“What we find on a one-to-one engagement Bahamians are generally LGBT neutral. We don’t engage it. I know you gay, you know you gay; we cool, right. As soon as you say something, as soon as you appear to be or obviously being visible then there is an issue. In terms of families, people sometimes have great spaces within their families to hang out and they perceive any advocacy movement as a potential risk to creating the schism and they don’t want that at all.”
Regarding the political climate, she said any politician in the region who would suggest or is perceived to be pushing an LGBT rights agenda is committing political suicide.
Greene said in the Bahamian context what they found is that “our governments are actually LGBT neutral and that would be the perspective from the global north and LGBT positive would be the perspective from the region and the global south.
“The party that has been in power the longest, for some other reasons, the leader has been labeled as a closet homosexual and as the LGBT conversation became more vocal the presumption was that this happened under our noses, we didn’t know what was going on so it must be the politicians who did it or homosexuals with a homosexual agenda.”
Today, Bahamians are engaged in a referendum about gender equality that has devolved because of that premise that this party that advanced it is perceived as a gay party with gay politicians, said Greene.
She said that another barrier is geography – the region is archipelagic, flights cost a lot and just organizing in the region is difficult. Communication is problematic and there are language barriers in a region where there are speakers of Dutch, French, Papiamento, French Creole, English and Spanish speakers.
Greene encouraged building relationships with organizations committed to inter-sectional advocacy and human rights principles, and developing indigenous strategies with regional and international partners committed to building sustainable dialogue with citizens and local actors.
“And what I mean is, yeah, we got to talk to the religious fundamentalists, we have to understand why they’re afraid and when you get into the sovereign question and then you think about the history of the region then you understand why they’re afraid of agendas being pushed on us by countries who less than 50 years ago were practicing the same policies that they’re now not condoning.”
She thinks the most important strategy is growing pink economies by creating and supporting businesses owned by and/or offering services to members of the LGBT community.
“The only way that we’re going to make advancements is if we can fund our movement, particularly the legislative work. The lack of local technical expertise, in terms of constitutional law, and so not just knowing your country’s law but knowing the body of laws and the finances to pay for it. To fly people down from London, to fly people in from Jamaica to Guyana; we need a Pink Fund,” she said.
Explaining the colours of the Jamaican flag, Tomlinson said when he was growing up the black symbolized hardship; gold, the sunshine; and the green, the land.
“So it’s a hopeful flag. Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shines and that’s pretty much what the LGBT movement looks like for us in the Caribbean. We have challenges but there is a lot of hope,” said Tomlinson whose presentation was entitled: “Pride, Prejudice & Pushback: Responding to Homophobia in Jamaica.”
He said Larry Chang, a Jamaican LGBT activist who lives in Washington DC and has an extensive history of the movement, told him that Jamaica was at the same place where Canada and the US were in 1971 and then things went off the rails.
Tomlinson also mentioned Brian Williamson, a Jamaican LGBT activist, one of the founders of J-FLAG, who was killed in Jamaica.
He referenced a 2011 study that showed that 82% Jamaicans self-identified as homophobic, which correlated with a high HIV prevalence rate because LGBT people are driven underground and there is no prevention treatment care.
“Jamaica has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the Western Hemisphere among men who have sex with men (MSM), 33%, one in three,” he said.
Tomlinson said since that study, one was done last year showing that the level of homophobia had increased to 91%.
However, in that same study 82% of Jamaicans believed that homosexual men were not treated fairly by either the legal system or the police but 68% said gays should not have the same rights as others.
He said fundamentalist religion plays a tremendous role in the reason for Jamaica’s homophobia.
“We’re a very religious society, not necessarily Christian, and moralistic, 91% of Jamaicans again think that homosexuality is morally wrong.”
The activist and educator said when he was growing up there was a neutrality related to LGBT rights, nobody talked about it, where people knew but they didn’t say.
“In the late 80s/early 90s we saw an influx of the tele-evangelists, the fundamentalists, and because every Jamaican has to go to church the musicians imbibe this hate sitting in the pews and when they became of age they produce songs based on what they knew. And so we have the record of the most homophobic songs, per capita, over 200+ anti-gay songs which call for murder of gays, rape of lesbians, etc.”
He said that because the performers are being sanctioned for performing murder music internationally at concerts where they get paid big bucks, they have stopped performing those songs.
The lawyer said three sections of the anti-sodomy law of 1864 — sections, 76, 77 and 79 — criminalize any form of same-gender intimacy between men. The law does not deal with lesbian sex.
In 2009, Jamaica passed a Sexual Offences Act which said: “all persons who were convicted under the Offence Against the Persons Act would now be registered as sex offenders.”
They would have to carry a pass and if they were not in possession of this pass they would face 12 months imprisonment and a $1M fine, he said.
Tomlinson said the irony of the situation is that before the Sexual Offences Act was passed, in 2004 the Civil Service Staff Order, which governs employees of the civil service, granted equality on the grounds of sexual orientation.
But in 2011, when Jamaica passed the Charter “we deliberately excluded any mention of sex because we were advised that if we included sex it would lead to things like marriage equality so we don’t have sex as a ground for non-discrimination in our Charter. We have non-discrimination on the ground of being male or female so in Jamaica intersex persons have literally fallen through the cracks,” he said.
He noted that there is an entrenched ban on same-gender relationships, not just marriage, and that it was passed in 2011.
Tomlinson said a Canadian lawyer, Dr. Janet Epp-Buckingham from Trinity Western University, played a major role in the exclusion of the word ‘sex’ because she came to Jamaica to advise the Jamaican government, at the request of the fundamentalists, on how to craft the Charter. She advised that if sex were included it would lead to things like marriage equality.
He, however, remains hopeful with the work of initiatives such as police-LGBT sensitization training, which he is doing in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean.
There is also human rights documentation and advocacy training that is ongoing and public advocacy is also taking place through stands and visibility campaigns.
In terms of legal challenges, Tomlinson said they have filed an Inter-American Commission petition, which is still pending challenging the anti-sodomy law.
“We challenged the TV stations for refusing to air the tolerance ad. We lost that at first instance. It’s going on appeal July 20-24.”
He also filed a case challenging Belize and Trinidad which ban the entry of homosexuals and a decision on that should come down soon.
He said they have seen positive editorials, some politicians have come out in support of gay rights, and there was a marginal decrease in homophobia which then went back up.
Tomlinson wants governments in the global north to acknowledge that much of the homophobia is imported from the global north to global south, and the global north is still dealing with these issues.
He wants them to respect the democratically elected leaders of the global south, many of whom want to decriminalize but are afraid, and to respect the work on the ground.
The activist also wants them to engage the south as equals selling the positives of inclusion such as lower HIV burden, economic prosperity and social inclusion backed up with resources.
He wants individuals in the global north to educate themselves and their network, make informed purchasing decisions, help amplify the voices of supportive theologians and provide tangible support to work on the ground.
This year’s conference was organized by Pride Toronto, in partnership with The Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, and PrideHouse Toronto, with the support of Rainbow Railroad, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.
The PrideHouseTO Initiative is a comprehensive, province-wide engagement and activation strategy for the lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer (LGBTQ) communities in Ontario during and leading up to the TORONTO 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games.
It is a collaboration of over 12 organizations representing social services, education, government, labour, business and sport and recreation sectors and builds upon the tradition and success of Pride Houses during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games and London’s 2012 Summer Olympic Games.