Tourist nightmare: A Barbados bus driver and fellow passengers verbally abused a female passenger last week because she was a lesbian. The bus conductor proposed that her throat should be cut, and none of the passengers objected.
By Maurice Tomlinson
I am a great fan of Barbados, where I lived and studied law over a decade ago. I have always considered the country to be one of the most progressive states in the region, as seen in the fact that, for a small resource-poor country, government investment in education traditionally put many other territories of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to shame.
Barbados is also the Anglophone Caribbean state with the most robust international human rights obligations, and is the only CARICOM country that recognizes the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This Court has repeatedly issued decisions condemning discrimination against LGBTI people.
At the same time, Barbados has the harshest anti-gay law in the western hemisphere, life imprisonment at hard labour, for even private acts of anal intercourse between consenting adults. This British colonially-imposed statute is rarely enforced and theoretically it poses an equal threat to heterosexual private intimacy. However there is overwhelming evidence that to the general public, politicians, and powerful preachers, the aim is to criminalize gays. The law also appears to be constitutionally entrenched and at least one government Minister has recently spoken out publicly against LGBTI human rights.
I was therefore thrilled that the country’s Ministry of Industry, International Business, Commerce and Small Business Development partnered with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Movement Against Dissemination Action Coalition (MOVADAC) to deliver an LGBTI sensitization training of trainers workshop from May 5-8. I co-facilitated this training along with my husband, Tom, and there were participants from the Barbados Defense Force, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Prisons, the National HIV/AIDS Commission, the Ministry of Labour, as well as representatives from civil society groups working with sexual and gender minorities.
At the end of an intense and transformative week I was privileged to participate in a public panel discussion on LGBTI human rights at the Law Faculty of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus. There was standing room only in the moot court and the event brought home forcibly to me that Barbados is at a critical juncture in its development. How the island chooses will determine if it retains the coveted position as one of the most prosperous countries within CARICOM, or slips into a serious depression.
During the question and answer period that followed the panel discussion, Christian fundamentalist and UWI lecturer in sociology, Dr. Veronica Evelyn, claimed that Barbados faced the choice of supporting human rights for gays (which she termed “sexual fluidity”) or preserving the distinctive Christian conservative “culture” that had come to define (and perhaps, in her mind, enrich) the state. As with most Caribbean fundamentalists that I have encountered, Dr. Evelyn displays a case of cognitive dissonance as she does not seem to appreciate the irony of using a Western imposed religion to define her country’s culture, while at the same time rejecting other global trends as impositions.
Dr. Evelyn and her equally vociferous husband claimed that if Barbadian businesses were “forced” to cater to LGBTI people that would constitute an adoption of homosexuality by the business owners. This argument is about as sensible as saying that if a bakery sells a cake to a Rastafarian, the bakery thereby endorses Rastafarianism.
There was also an equally misguided evangelical supporter of Dr. Evelyn’s in the audience who prefaced his submission with the statement “God is sovereign” with arms outstretched like Christ the crucified, thus signalling the end of any discussion, but then proceeded to pose questions. This gentleman asked me if I would take the case of the U.S. bakers fined for discriminating against a gay couple. I told him that I am not fond of taking losing briefs. This is quite unlike some of the lawyers being paid millions of dollars to defend un-winnable marriage-equality bans in the U.S. So, if the business had been a church (not a stretched analogy, by any means) that existed to serve persons of a particular faith, and they were being forced to cater to non-believers, then I would support a claim that their religious freedoms were being infringed. But a secular business set up to serve the public must do just that — serve the public.
Clarifying this issue of supposed “persecution” of Christian business owners is very urgent for Barbados. This is because the country is overwhelmingly religious and depends heavily on high-end tourism from countries with strong protections for LGBTI people. At the same time, the World Bank recently stated that the island’s economy is struggling, with a lower growth projection than Haiti. Let that sink in. Furthermore, stringent IMF conditions are beginning to bite and workers are being laid off, social services are being cut, and I have been advised that some suppliers are even denying credit to the government.
This economic crisis is not surprising, as high-end tourism took a significant hit during and after the global financial meltdown. Many travellers are now demanding cheaper options and I suspect that the opening up of Cuba will be particularly difficult for Barbados. This is because Cuba will be much less expensive but equally exotic. Even more impressive is the fact that the communist state is becoming very LGBTI friendly. For example, the daughter of the Cuban President held a symbolic mass gay wedding last weekend, as a hopeful precursor to full marriage-equality on the island. This is happening at a time when gay tourism is estimated to be worth US$2 billion annually. Other islands in the Caribbean, such as Curacao, are therefore making a play for gay tourists and our allies, by marketing themselves as inclusive.
Therefore, Barbados can either a) try to become more tolerant of LGBTI people and thereby remain a viable player in a lucrative tourism market, or b) reject human rights for gays in order to pacify people like Dr. Evelyn, and suffer the economic consequences.
These stark choices were forcibly brought home during last Friday’s panel discussion. For example, a mother visiting from Toronto pointed out that her lesbian daughter had taken one of the island’s public buses that week and she was verbally abused by the driver and passengers. The bus conductor also stated that the young lady’s throat should be cut, and none of the passengers objected. I hasten to point out that this is NOT a common occurrence in Barbados and research shows that the island is the least homophobic in the Anglophone Caribbean. However, the fact that the conductor felt at liberty to make this outrageous threat, and he was not challenged by ordinary Barbadians, is a worrying development.
It also shows the fragility of the country’s tourism product and the real potential for the goodwill enjoyed by Barbados in the eyes of many visitors to be easily destroyed by random attacks against LGBTI people. I rather doubt that this mother will be keen to recommend the island to her gay and lesbian family members or friends.
So, to ensure that Barbados does not miss out on a resurgent global tourism market, I would like to suggest that the country adopt the perspective of a St. Lucian bus driver who I met some time ago. This Christian man stated that when gay cruises come to his island, he ignores his fellow bus drivers who refuse to take the passengers on island tours. Instead, he welcomes the visitors into his transport, but as a “precaution,” he turns up his rear view mirror so that he does not see what is going on the back seat. At the end of the day, he collects his fare (as well as a big tip, so he said) while not having to change his views on homosexuality. His satisfied passengers also give glowing reviews of the island and encourage valuable repeat business.
Recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people is a pressing human rights issue for Barbados, particularly because of the country’s domestic and international obligations. The public health argument for LGBTI human rights is also impatient of debate. For example, UNAIDS and the regional HIV and AIDS coordinating mechanism, PANCAP, have identified that homophobia is driving men who have sex with men (MSM) underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support interventions. Anti-gay stigma and discrimination also forces many MSM to form relationships with women as “masks” or “cures” for their homosexuality. Apart from the psychological trauma to men, women and sometimes children when these pairings collapse, there is also the risk for HIV to bridge between the straight and gay populations. This is one reason that the Caribbean continues to have the second-highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, and as described above, there is a significant economic incentive for Barbados to become more inclusive with regards to its LGBTI citizens and visitors. The question is, will the country “turn up its mirror and drive” or will it put on blinkers AND dark glasses for fear that it may actually get somewhere?
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