Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Towards a more open, more tolerant Caribbean

Steering Committee: M Kleinmoedig, C Mc Ewan, C Orozco, C Robinson, J Simpson et al.
PO Box 1750, 92A Wrightson Rd., Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
+1-868-463-5599; +1-868-752-8517 •

December 11, 2007

To the Editor:

Towards a more open, more tolerant Caribbean

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons have been among the most productive citizens of the Caribbean. Although our place has often gone unrecognised and our status as moral citizens denied, we continue to contribute to the project of building a Caribbean where the equal and inalienable rights of all persons, whatever their social or economic status, are recognised and protected. As the world pauses this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the many individuals and organisations across the region who belong to the Caribbean Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (C-FLAG) are urging Caribbean citizens to reflect on the need to foster a culture of rights in the region that values diversity. There have been clear signs of progress in this regard during 2007.

A sign of hope that our culture of openness, tolerance and hospitality is alive and well is the recent declaration by the Grenadian government, in the context of a controversy over whether it would welcome gay visitors to the country, that “Grenada is a member of the United Nations community and is party to the various Conventions on the respect for and preservation of human rights and non-discrimination” and as such “respects the rights of all persons of all persuasions and lifestyles.” The government added that it would enforce indecency laws in ways “directed at all persons” that would not “target any specific group.” Similarly, by pulling the plug on a concert planned for the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in September featuring artiste ‘Dr. Evil’ who sings about shooting gay men, the institution’s administration showed its commitment to protecting sexual minorities from the threat of violence. As the Guyanese Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination stated, the response of the university debunked “the prevailing idea that homophobia is an acceptable cultural norm in the Caribbean.”
Nevertheless, if signs that the Caribbean is not defined by homophobia could be seen throughout the year, 2007 was also marked by significant events that indicate that the region has a long way to go in ridding itself of tendencies that violate the rights of all who reside at its margins. A series of public beatings across Jamaica of men perceived to be gay demonstrated the depth of the crisis that socially sanctioned homophobia creates. It took much hand-wringing and soul-searching to bring even church leaders to publicly admit that socially-sanctioned violence against any group, including lesbians and gays, should be anathema to right-thinking citizens.

The profound challenge of how we deal with issues of same sex relationships and their place within Caribbean society was demonstrated by the ban by the Jamaican Minister of Education of a secondary school textbook that mentioned same sex couples as possibly constituting a family and another that mentioned the debate about the social legitimacy of same sex desire. Justified on the grounds that same sex desire was against the cultural values of the country and supposedly illegal, the move suggested that the educational system was not permitted to engage students in reflection on the justification of legal or social sanction of particular questions. This startling censorship of thought and debate signals how much democracy we are willing to risk to ensure that even the concept of discourse around changing laws criminalising homosexuality is not countenanced.

Our vision of equality and a culture of rights cannot be achieved in a context where the purveyors of our popular music celebrate, with impunity, the killing and maiming of citizens and defend such articulations of hate by pointing to ‘Caribbean’ religious and cultural values. Reneging on pledges by his management that he had moved on from his 1992 hit, ‘Boom Bye-Bye’, Buju Banton in October belted out lines from the graphically violent anti-gay song at the Guyana Music Festival. An editorial in the Guyana Chronicle the day following the performance declared that while the violence in the song was to be condemned, Buju’s last minute performance of the piece might have been “understandable within the context of attempts made to have him banned from performing” in Guyana and those fighting homophobia failed to recognise that their actions constituted “an assault on the majority’s most sacred values.” Journalist Ian Boyne, himself no defender of the rights of lesbians and gays, points to the inherent dangers of promoting the killing of citizens as a cultural value. He urges Christians to “disassociate themselves from the deejays who promote violence in the name of defending the Bible … a gross perversion of the Bible, of the sort used by slave owners and assorted oppressors.”

Another challenge to realising our vision is the continued view that the discourse on gay rights is an import into the region and that protests against homophobic violence constitute attempts from the Global North to silence authentic Caribbean voices denouncing practices alien to the region. In fact the entry of voices from the Global North into the debate is, ironically, the result of a failure on the part of local media, faith-based and cultural organisations to engage various local gay rights groups in a true spirit of dialogue. The irony of the situation is doubled when groups that seek to preserve the so-called right of Caribbean peoples to their moral and cultural values are supported and coached by conservative North American Evangelical organisations such as Canada’s Christian Legal Fellowship.
C-FLAG partners across the region call for a new commitment from all sectors of society, including faith-based organisations and the media, to further the vision of a Caribbean where freedom, justice and peace prevail. Without this commitment, the region will remain a place where, to quote Buju, “those who can run, will run.” As he recognises, some of us can’t; others of us are determined not to.

Signed by,
Caribbean Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays.

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