Gay Rights Slowly Coming Out of the Closet

Georgetown (IPS) – Over the past six months, governments in two influential Caribbean trade bloc member states – Jamaica and Guyana – have floated political test balloons on the question of whether colonial-era laws criminalising homosexuality should be amended in keeping with trends in most Western states.

The climate for gay people in the two nations is very different.

In Guyana, where many gays and lesbians live openly, the move has not made headlines, although some Christian churches have vowed to fight the governing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to the very end on this issue.

The administration of President Donald Ramotar says that it is preparing to take a motion to the 65-member parliament as early as this week to begin debate on the abolition of buggery and cross- dressing laws, corporal punishment in schools, and capital punishment by hanging.

“The idea is to have the special select committees of parliament convene and begin public hearings on all three of these issues as we have indicated to the United Nations Human Rights Council,” said government legislator and presidential adviser on governance Gail Teixeira. “These should dealt with shortly.”
Government has already sounded out the Christian church, and is aware of its continued and obvious opposition to the move. Crunch time will come when the public is invited to have its say, as opposition remains fairly strong to legalised homosexuality and cross-dressing, even though gays and lesbians are not usually attacked or shunned for who they are.

Joel Simpson, an executive member of Guyana’s umbrella Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), says it is appalling that the colonial-era laws are still on the books and can be enforced at the behest of any policemen.

“We can be jailed from between two years to 25 years for buggery even if it is consensual sex between two adult men, and cross dressers can be fined and jailed for up to six months. We want these laws changed,” he said.

More than 1,000 miles away in Jamaica, widely considered one of the world’s most homophobic societies, the government of Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller says there could be a parliamentary conscience vote in the near future as to whether or not the so-called buggery laws should be amended.
In contrast to the open hostility toward gay people of her predecessor, Simpson-Miller has also said that ability rather than sexual orientation should be the main criteria for political appointments.

In the land of Bob Marley and reggae, this is music to the ears of a gay community that has largely existed underground because of Jamaica’s culture of often violent homophobia.

Many officials in key governmental positions across the Caribbean might be reluctant to admit it, but Western governments have been upping the pressure on them to initiate change, even linking aid to the laws being removed from the statutes.

Going even further on the issue, the Simpson-Miller administration said recently that “the People’s National Party (PNP) president remains committed to her pledge to make appointments to a cabinet led by her on the basis of competence” and that legislators will be allowed to vote their conscience when the issue hits parliament in the coming months.

A recent poll in Jamaica suggested that 61 percent of the population would have a negative opinion of government should it repeal the law, down from 82 percent last year, but some Christian fellowship groups are leading a so far relatively successful fight against any amendment to the laws.

Last year, Guyana’s then health minister Leslie Ramsammy said it was high time governments face the issue head-on.

“The laws and policies that we want to legislate need to address stigma and the social risks of (HIV) testing, anonymity, confidential testing and recognising that there are vulnerable groups such as women, children, indigenous populations, prisoners, commercial sex workers and MSM (men who have sex with men).”

Clearly emboldened by the recent signals from officials, a regional LGBT advocacy group this week demanded that some of the four million euros the region will get from the European Development Fund (EDF) for vulnerable groups in the Caribbean be set aside for protection of gay rights.

The funding, intended to boost the capacity of civil society groups, covers 15 Caribbean Forum countries, including the Dominican Republic.

Ian McKnight and John Waters of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition say they are unhappy with the rather narrow definition of which groups are considered “vulnerable”, and believe that sex workers, prisoners, at-risk youth and others should included as well.

We are asking the press to partner with us on this,” said McKnight. “There is an emerging threat to civil society that might have the strong possibility of excluding those who we call vulnerable population from a very large grant that will benefit the Caribbean region.”

by Bert Wilkinson, Inter Press Service
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