Does the Anglo Caribbean need Bahamas Pride?

Pride march in Suriname. (Photo courtesy of by  LGBT Platform Suriname via Gay Star News)
Pride march in Suriname. (Photo courtesy of by LGBT Platform Suriname via Gay Star News)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex (LGBTI) Pride has a very political history.
These events are often held to mark major milestones in the gay liberation struggle. For example, the world’s first Pride parade took place in New York on June 28, 1970 and commemorated the brutal police raids on the infamous gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Forty-one years later, Suriname hosted the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) first Pride in 2011.
This was in response to a parliamentarian declaring in the legislature that homosexuality is abnormal and urging the passage of anti-gay laws. Those words were troubling as Suriname is one of only 3 CARICOM countries that no longer criminalizes same-gender intimacy. Suriname Pride was therefore both reactive and proactive and sought to ensure that LGBTI rights were not rolled back.
So far, however, there hasn’t been an official Pride celebration in the Anglophone Caribbean. This is the only sub-group in the western hemisphere that still maintains anti-gay laws. The Bahamas is the rare exception and that country abolished its British colonially imposed anti-sodomy law in 1991. This was done at the height of the HIV and AIDS crisis as the government responded to stigma and discrimination that were driving gay men underground away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions. The Bahamas was particularly hard-hit by this disease, which has ravaged the region and resulted in the second highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa.
Alicia Dupree, the Bahamian entry in the Miss Gay Caribbean Pagean of 2011 -- held in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo by Blooming Lotus Life via Bahamas Weekly)
Alicia Dupree, the Bahamian entry in the Miss Gay Caribbean Pageant of 2011 — held in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo by Blooming Lotus Life via Bahamas Weekly)

Since the repeal of the intrusive anti-sodomy law, LGBTI Bahamians have been the envy of their English-speaking colleagues in the Caribbean. However, it would be simplistic to claim that gay Bahamians have “arrived.” Far from it. There is still a high degree of social stigma associated with homosexuality in the conservative country. The Bahamas boasts a significant number of evangelical Christians who are heavily influenced by homophobic fundamentalist American churches, a mere 45 minutes away by plane. In addition, many legal impediments still stand in the way of full-equality for LGBTI Bahamians. These include a disproportionate age of consent and the complete absence of relationship recognition.
In the midst of these developments, the group Society Against HIV & STDs (SASH) Bahamas, the largest NGO working on LGBTI and HIV issues, has decided to host the first public Pride event in Bahamian history. The celebrations are scheduled for the period August 28-Sept. 2 and, in true Bahamian style, they are billed as a getaway under the theme “Freedom Weekend 2014.”
There are some obvious questions about this Pride, such as, is it really necessary? Also, what good will it serve, especially in the absence of any overt political objective? And, more troubling, will this stir up a backlash from fundamentalists who have, for the most part, ignored the Bahamian LGBTI community?
This last question is not trivial, as we have witnessed an upsurge in homophobic rhetoric and attacks across the Caribbean, and there have been massive anti-gay protests in Jamaica and Belize. Traditionally more tolerant societies, like Grenada, Trinidad, and St. Lucia, have also seen a spike in gay baiting and animus.
Despite these concerns, I still believe that Bahamas Pride is a necessary development, and a very positive political initiative.
First, as I have indicated, the rights of LGBTI Bahamians are still less than those enjoyed by other citizens. For example, there is the absolute ban on freedom of expression in public. These legal impediments to the full dignity of Bahamian LGBTI people must be publicly confronted and condemned.
Second, the Bahamas is a significant member of CARICOM and the region lags far behind the rest of the western hemisphere in human rights recognition and protections for LGBTI people. Any attempt to highlight the glaring discrepancy, and to discredit our regressive and repressive approach to equality must be welcomed. One can only hope that this issue will continue to receive appropriate attention by regional leaders. Across the world, the visibility of Pride celebrations has been very effective at keeping gay rights on the political agenda.
CARICOM also tends to vote and act as a bloc when it comes to the issue of expanding human rights protections for gays. They did so quite recently by rejecting the very inclusive “Justice For All Programme,” which was proposed by the region’s HIV response mechanism, PANCAP. This stupefying decision was taken despite overwhelming evidence that lack of access to justice and debilitating stigma and discrimination were driving the HIV epidemic among key populations, such as men who have sex with men (MSM).
CARICOM’s approach has been to appease the lowest common denominator (including the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines whose blatantly homophobic remarks are legendary). Cultural relativist arguments are regularly deployed to deny the recognition of human rights for regional LGBTI people.
Quite simply, this bloc of archaic thinking MUST be broken. Bahamas Pride will show clearly that elsewhere in the English-speaking Caribbean, respect for sexual diversity and expression can co-exist harmoniously with very conservative religious values. The HIV prevalence rate among Bahamian MSM is also significantly lower than among MSM in neighboring states.
Further, it is sometimes easier to convince groups to support LGBTI rights through “non-nuclear” options. Demonstrating the commonality of fun, as witnessed in Pride parades, is an effective way for a society to understand our shared humanity, and thus our right to equal treatment.
Maurice Tomlinson (top center) and Tom Decker (top left) lead LGBT sensitisation program for St. Lucia police. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)
Maurice Tomlinson (top center) and Tom Decker (top left) lead LGBT sensitisation program for St. Lucia police. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

It may seem hard to reconcile, but the Caribbean has also recorded some modest successes in the area of human rights for LGBTI citizens. For example, we are witnessing a very robust discussion on gay rights in traditionally very conservative states, such as Jamaica. LGBTI sensitization training has also been successfully initiated in St. Lucia, Barbados and Suriname and police officers in other jurisdictions are being exposed to more inclusive human rights programmes.
Some Caribbean politicians, an increasing number of religious leaders, as well as popular musicians are also calling for tolerance. Impressively, the chief protector of LGBTI rights in the 35-nation Organization of the American States (OAS) is a CARICOM national. Certainly much work remains to be done, but the path is clear and there is no turning back! We should celebrate these achievements, which in “gay-years” have been relatively rapid!
Economics is also a very political issue, and this Pride event presents the opportunity for the Bahamas to cash in on the nearly US$200 Billion annual gay tourism market. For a region that is heavily dependent on tourism, these are not insignificant numbers. Even more importantly, Bahamas Pride will allow the region to appreciate that after two decades of decriminalizing homosexuals, the country has not gone to hell in a hand-basket!
The threat of a “gay Armageddon” has been a substantial argument in the fear-mongering campaign mounted by powerful and influential regional groups. The Bahamian reality has been that the society’s open and inclusive reputation contributes to one of the strongest economies, and certainly the most valuable local currency, in CARICOM.
Finally, Pride is just plain fun! As a full-time activist, I can testify to the draining nature of this work. We therefore need opportunities to refresh and recharge in order to effectively continue the struggle. We shouldn’t always need a crisis to “force” a celebration.
So, at the end of August, join me for Bahamas Pride and “Let yuh Bungi roll!”

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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