This Sunday, a coalition called Jamaica CAUSE (“Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation”) will host an anti-same-sex-marriage rally in Kingston. “We will not accept new definitions of marriage and family that defy nature and design and will lead the country towards predictable negative outcomes,” its lead organizer said.
The only trouble is, no one in Jamaica is advocating same-sex marriage. In fact, Jamaica still has a “Buggery Law” on the books that dates back to British colonialism. Homosexual behavior is still against the law in Jamaica.
What is going on? Why are opponents of LGBT equality fighting a battle that doesn’t exist?
The answer is obvious: America. While eleven Anglophone Caribbean states still have laws banning consensual same-gender intimacy, because of events in the USA and elsewhere, the public discourse on LGBTI human rights in the region has leapfrogged over decriminalizing sodomy and is now about questions of relationship equality.
Many local LGBTI activists are shying away from this conversation. They feel that such a discussion is not strategic in our very conservative societies and would ultimately undermine the push for decriminalization.
This, however, is a mistake.
As the September 27 rally makes clear, the horse has long bolted and the dialogue about full relationship equality is raging. (In the region, the broader term “relationship equality” is more appropriate than “marriage equality” as common law unions far outstrip marriages in popularity.) My fellow Caribbean activists must accept this new rhetorical reality—which may hold more promise or LGBTI equality than they realize.
Activists’ reluctance to embrace the issue of relationship equality is understandable, since the issue has already derailed efforts to decriminalize consensual sodomy.
For example, a few years ago, the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean had promised that regional governments would have repealed all anti-sodomy laws by 2014. His promise was upended by the advance of marriage-equality, which saw a doubling down on these laws as essential to preserve local culture from “foreign” invasion, i.e., marriage-equality.
And in Jamaica, the issue of relationship equality appears to have soured efforts to finally repeal Jamaica’s 1864, British-colonially-imposed anti-sodomy law. Despite promising to review the 1864 law during her election campaign in 2011, Jamaica’s Prime Minister reneged on her promise during the 2014 state opening of Parliament, claiming that the matter did not concern the majority of Jamaicans who are poor. More likely is the fact that the issue of decriminalization had become so conflated with the explosive topic of relationship equality that she was not prepared to touch it.
So it is understandable that activists do not want to leap-frog over decriminalization straight to relationship recognition.
But it is already too late. Whether we like it or not, relationship equality has become conflated with LGBTI equality more generally. Jamaican “family” activists are well aware of the U.S. Supreme Court, and even of Kim Davis. They have also parroted American anti-gay rhetoric—not surprising since they often work with U.S. conservative organizations.
For example, Helene Coley Nicholson, a conservative lawyer, said in regards to the rally that “The case of Kim Davis puts into sharp focus some of the consequences of the unfolding LGBT agenda. Her imprisonment is the direct consequence of the overthrowing of laws by the US Supreme Court which legalised same-sex marriage in all 50 states in June this year. That ruling has unleashed political and legal battles over concepts of family, religious liberty and freedom of conscience as well as the Jamaican Constitution.”
That misleading rhetoric is straight out of the U.S. “religious liberty” playbook.
One major difference between Jamaica and the U.S. is that in the U.S., LGBT activists had the luxury of progressing gradually, from decriminalization to destigmatization (such as lifting the ban on LGBT persons in the military) to relationship recognition. But in the Caribbean, we have no such luxury. Our opponents are already conflating the issues, and at this point it is fruitless to resist.
There are also at least four positive reasons to embrace the relationship equality issue.
First, where the topic has been engaged, the results have often been inspiring to watch. For example, in St. Lucia (which is sandwiched by the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, both of which already have marriage-equality and are the source of many tourists to St. Lucia) the discussion is proceeding at a national level. In 2013, after my husband Tom and I delivered LGBTI sensitization training to members of the security forces with the support of AIDS Free World, the police held their “Police Week” celebrations. One of the events put on to mark the week was a public debate on the topic: “As consenting adults, gays have the right to marry.” Officers who debated the question referenced Tom and my marriage.
Also, in the small nation of Dominica, the head of the national LGBTI anti-discrimination group, Minority Rights Dominica (MiriDom) has publicly applauded relationship equality and resisted the inevitable pushback from local and regional activists. Like St. Lucia, Dominica is also very Catholic, but the most senior church official, Bishop Gabriel Malzaire, made a public statement in support of decriminalization anyway, notwithstanding the debate on relationship equality.
While it is clear that such fora will not result in any sudden changes, it is commendable that these public debates are happening.
Second, the argument that relationship equality is not a priority for some does not mean that it is not an urgent need for others. I am a Caribbean national in a same-sex marriage myself. As in other jurisdictions where marriage equality has been pursued, there are real issue of health insurance, property and family rights, immigration, employment and other benefits that are being denied to vulnerable gays and lesbians in the Caribbean simply because our unions have no state recognition.
Third, we need to start exploding the myths being spun by Global-North-backed evangelicals in our region that relationship equality will spell imminent national doom. There is certainly enough precedent to counter this rhetoric from the countries that have legalized same-gender partnerships. We can defang this monster before it bites us.
Fourth and most importantly, we should start trumpeting the stories and images of same-gender love in and from the Caribbean couples. Simply focusing on the repeal of archaic anti-sodomy laws, we run the real risk of reducing homosexuality to nothing more than a sex act, which most conservative Caribbean folk find “icky” (even if, as evidence shows, they secretly engage in anal intercourse as a form of birth control and/or to vary their sexual pleasure).
What worked so well in the United States was to emphasize that sexual orientation involves emotional, romantic, psychological, and yes physical attraction as well. While not everyone will understand or can relate to gay intimacy, we all can agree on love (#loveislove being the successful hashtag in America). The repeal of anti-sodomy laws will follow naturally from a recognition of same-gender love, while the reverse is not necessarily true.
True, in the United States, marriage equality has been a mixed blessing. It has led to a backlash that has harmed trans populations (who never had much to do with marriage equality in the first place) and other vulnerable groups. It has left anti-discrimination law behind. And it has led to a phony “religious freedom” movement that has made heroes out of government employees putting their beliefs over their duties.
But these arguments essentially say that relationship recognition does not go far enough, and that is true. In the Caribbean context, the complaint is that it goes too far. That is not true. By appealing to shared values of family, love, and respect, we can change the narrative regarding LGBTI persons from one of sex to one of love. Instead of shying away from this issue, we should be speaking the equality of love louder, all across the Caribbean.