Progress in Barbados despite harsh anti-gay laws

LGBT 101 session in Barbados, presented by the Rev. Tom Decker of Rochester, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)
LGBT 101 session in Barbados, presented by the Rev. Tom Decker of Rochester, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

Barbados has the harshest penalty for homosexual activity in the Western hemisphere on its books, but overall enjoys a culture of tolerance.

Section 9 of the country’s Sexual Offences Act of 2002 provides a sentence of up to life imprisonment for anal intercourse (termed buggery).  Section 12 of the Act also includes a law against “serious indecency,” which appears to criminalize all forms of same-gender intimacy including lesbian love.

These laws were originally imposed during the period of British colonial rule.  Even though Barbados gained independence in 1966, like many Anglo-phone Caribbean territories, these colonial-era laws appear to be constitutionally entrenched and cannot be challenged in any local court in Barbados, despite their clear violation of the right to privacy.

It is important to note that Barbados is the only Commonwealth Caribbean country that recognizes the binding jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  In 2010, the Court ruled in the Karen Atala case that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was a violation of the American Convention on Human Rights.  By retaining the anti-sodomy and “serious indecency law” which disproportionately affect LGBT, Barbados is effectively in violation of its obligations under the American Convention.

The country is also party to a host of human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), whose treaty bodies have condemned discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Perhaps most ironically, it was Barbados’ ambassador to the Organization of American States who chaired the committee which approved the first OAS General Assembly Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2008. The Ambassador effectively interjected when Caribbean countries tried to block the resolution using cultural relativist arguments.

Even with these draconian anti-gay laws, Barbados has recorded very few of the savage homophobic attacks of its fellow Caribbean Community country, Jamaica. This is perhaps a function of a tolerant culture where people in this small densely packed territory are quite likely to know at least one gay individual. With a population of about 288,000 living on a land mass of only 430 sq km (166 sq mi), the population density is estimated at 670 persons/sq km (1735 persons/sq mi) making the country one of the most densely populated in the world.

Barbados has also been very vigilant in keeping out the more homophobic performers of anti-gay “murder music.” A popular trans, Didi, worked openly for many years as a jewelry retailer in one of the most prominent shopping districts on the island. Barbados has hosted an annual regional trans show the “Queen of Queens” at one of the island’s most famous show venues. The government has also provided a major LGBT group on the island, United Gay and Lesbian Society of Barbados (UGALAB) with office space for its HIV outreach.

Esther Byer-Suckoo
Esther Byer-Suckoo

In addition, Barbadian politicians have made very supportive statements with regard to LGBT rights. On the occasion of the International Day For The Elimination Of Violence Against Women in 2009, Esther Byer-Suckoo, the Honourable Minister of Family, Youth and Sports of Barbados, condemned homophobic violence in the country and also announced her government’s intention to craft domestic violence legislation that took into account the realities of sexual minorities.

Speaking at a public outreach activity at Cave Shepherd’s, Broad Street, in the capital city, Bridgetown, on Nov. 25, 2009, the Minister said:

We realize there’s not only violence against women but also violence against men and then also those persons who are transgender are also subjected to serious violence.

Regardless of our personal views towards transgenders, it’s about respect for a person’s life. In preparing the legislation one thing we are aware of is that legislation cannot be gender-biased; that is a case for all the legislation the Ministry of Family is addressing.

It can no longer be gender-biased… The law has to protect all its citizens. If we’re amending legislation or drafting new legislation we have to take into consideration the nuances of the environment in which we live today.

Most importantly, in 2010 the Hon. Freundel Stuart, former Attorney General, then acting Prime Minister of Barbados and currently Prime Minister of that island after the Feb. 21 elections, questioned the continued discrimination against homosexuals.

Speaking at a conference on HIV and Human Rights and HIV held at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies on September 13, 2010, Mr. Stuart said:

Freundel Stuart (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Freundel Stuart (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

[V]ery little attempt is made now, to consider that it might just be that practitioners of this lifestyle [homosexuality] were responding to the irresistible promptings of nature with the result that imputing fault to them satisfied no known definition of fairness.Further, that even if rather than responding to nature’s promptings, these practitioners were pursuing this lifestyle as a result of nurture, in which case they may have been exercising some measure of choice, the right to choose in these circumstances was protected by the Constitution as long as its exercise did not interfere with the rights of others.

It must be noted that in February this year, Prime Minister Stuart was reported in a major daily as saying that same-sex unions will not be recognized in Barbados. This may well have been political posturing in advance of general elections held on February 21, 2013.

Despite these positive statements, Barbados rejected the 2008 Universal Periodic Review recommendation to repeal its anti-gay laws. The delegation claimed, among other things, that there was no political mandate to repeal these laws. The country also underwent a UPR review on January 25, 2013, where a similar recommendation was made. A reply to the recommendation is due in June 2013.

Local LGBT groups in Barbados have been working to raise the profile of LGBT individuals in Barbados in light of an attempt by American evangelicals to export their culture war to the island. In one noted incident, a “gay cure” North American Christian group visited Barbados and had a massive banner across the main street in the central business district to promote their event.

In session led by Maurice Tomlinson (right), Donovan Emmanuel talks about being gender non-conforming in Barbados. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)
In a session led by Maurice Tomlinson (right), Donovan Emmanuel talks about being gender non-conforming in Barbados. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

AIDS-Free World recently partnered with a coalition of LGBT groups in Barbados, led by Patsy Grannum of the Movement Against Discrimination Action Coalition (MOVADAC), to offer documentation and advocacy training for groups working with LGBT individuals.

We also supported a one-day LGBT sensitization session led by Rev. Tom Decker of Open Arms Metropolitan Community Church in Rochester, N.Y. Rev. Tom used to be the LGBT liaison officer for the Toronto Police Service and along with Egale Canada he developed the award-winning and highly successful Report Homophobic Violence, Period (RHVP) programme which has been used to train police in Canada, Europe and Australia. Tom has extensively adapted the programme to suit the Caribbean context and it has so far been used to train police in St. Lucia and Suriname.

At the session in Barbados, sensitization was provided not only to police, but also to members of the prison service, the defense force, Ministries of Labour and Health as well as the National HIV Commission.

Written by Maurice Tomlinson

Maurice Tomlinson of Jamaica and Canada has been involved in HIV and AIDS and LGBTI rights activism in the Caribbean for over 15 years. An attorney-at-law, he leads and supports legal challenges seeking the repeal of the region's homophobic laws. Contact him by email via 76crimes (at)


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