Americas / Commentary

Working toward a Caribbean that’s no longer anti-gay

The Caribbean (courtesy Wikipedia)

The Caribbean (courtesy Wikipedia)

The Caribbean is the only region in the Western Hemisphere that still criminalizes same-gender intimacy.  Recently, fundamentalist religious groups across the region have mounted large demonstrations condemning homosexuality, and appear to have successfully lobbied local governments to keep these British colonially imposed anti-gay laws. Not coincidentally, attacks often occur against LGBTI people, most recently a mob that threatened a young man in Jamaica on June 14 for allegedly wearing lipstick in public.

In response to this heightened homophobia, a new project called LGBTI Aware Caribbean has been launched to continue providing critical LGBTI awareness training for key sectors across the Caribbean.   The work extends a similar programme developed for the Caribbean by AIDS-Free World, which also provided the financial, logistical and other support.

Tom Decker and Maurice Tomlinson

Tom Decker (left) and Maurice Tomlinson

76 Crimes interviewed the program’s training facilitators, the Rev. Tom Decker of Canada and  LGBTI rights activist Maurice Tomlinson of Jamaica and Canada.  Tomlinson is a regular contributor to 76 Crimes; he and Tom are married.

76 Crimes: Why did you decide to launch this project now?

MT: In my previous position with AIDS-Free World, I traveled across the Caribbean a fair bit challenging homophobic laws, practices, and attitudes that contribute to the region having the 2nd highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa.  During my travels I noticed that local attitudes towards gays varied a great deal.

However, I also noticed that the homophobic rhetoric was ramping up in countries that were traditionally very tolerant towards same-gender intimacy.  For example, there have been unprecedented protests against gay rights in countries like St. Lucia and Grenada.  These demonstrations were organized by fundamentalist religious groups and mirrored what was happening in Jamaica and Belize.  The result has predictably been a spike in aggression towards persons who are gender non-conforming, such as the overwhelming public support for the murderers of an intersex person in St. Lucia recently.  Aggressive homophobia is spreading across the Caribbean because the majority of citizens lack basic knowledge about LGBTI people.  Persons are susceptible to the misinformation being pushed by fundamentalist groups.

Simply put, research has shown that people fear gays because they don’t know or understand us.  Through this training we hope to continue providing key leaders and opinion-shapers in Caribbean society with information to counter some of the myths and fear mongering of the evangelicals.  It is expected that these persons can then help to turn the tide of hate against LGBTI people.

76 Crimes: Can you provide a brief explanation about the programme and who it will target?

Tom and Maurice at St. Lucia Police LGBT Sensitivity Training

Tom Decker and Maurice Tomlinson at a Police LGBT Sensitivity Training session in St. Lucia

TD:  While I was the LGBT liaison officer for the Toronto Police Service, I helped to develop a similar programme, which was eventually used to sensitize police across the world.  This programme was modified by AIDS-Free World to address Caribbean realities — for example, the absence of hate speech legislation in the Caribbean.  It is delivered in modules, on a “train the trainer” basis, in order to allow for local ownership and sustainability of the training.

The programme takes participants through basic understanding of what it means to be an LGBTI individual, and how to uphold the human rights of LGBTI people, even in criminalized contexts.

We facilitate two days of training and then certify select persons to continue delivering the sessions. We also encourage and include local LGBTI persons in the trainings in order to ensure frank discussions with key stakeholders about the types of victimization LGBTI nationals may be experiencing.  Sometimes this is the first such direct dialogue between the groups we train and the LGBTI people they are supposed to serve.

Initially, we only targeted police for these sessions but, based on demand, we included other key groups, such as health care workers, judges, social workers, and the media.

A significant aim of the course is to provide an understanding of LGBTI people.   That is why Maurice and I deliver the sessions together.  We allow participants who may never have had the opportunity to openly interact with gays a safe place for them to ask their most probing questions of a gay couple.

St. Lucia Police LGBT Sensitivity Training

St. Lucia Police LGBT Sensitivity Training

76 Crimes:  What are some of the questions that participants ask about your relationship as a gay married couple, and how do you respond?

MT: They have asked: “Who is the wife and who is the husband?” “Why don’t you have the same last name?”

We recognize that the questions, though invasive, are not meant to be malicious.  The participants genuinely want to know.  And since Tom and I are both used to these kinds of questions — he was a cop and I am a lawyer, so we have pretty much heard it ALL — we simply answer as respectfully and honestly as we can.  The learning has been transformative.

76 Crimes: How so?

TD: Officers who came into the training sessions very hostile to any discussion on human rights for LGBTI people actually expressed at the end that they really had no idea just how “normal” LGBTI people are.

Many attendees previously viewed LGBTI people as perverse abominations, and un-apprehended criminals who are a threat to children.  We present the reality that many LGBTI people have families — for example, Maurice has a biological son and has fostered 2 others — and we feel we really are only different from heterosexuals in how we express our love for another consenting adult.  This usually leads to a reduction in the level of hostility.  Participants quickly realize that our relationship is not principally about sex, but rather our desire to share and build a life with someone we love. This is a desire to which they can all relate.

St. Lucia Police LGBT Sensitivity Training

St. Lucia Police LGBT Sensitivity Training

These trainings have had impacts in ways we did not imagine.  For example, at the end of the last sessions in St. Lucia, the officers held their annual police week celebrations, which included a public debate.  The moot topic was: “As consenting adults, gays have the right to marry.”  This was amazing, as the officers chose this subject themselves and had to research both sides of this argument.  While we do not expect marriage equality to arrive in St. Lucia anytime soon — it is a very conservative society and the Catholic church is very influential — the fact is that as a result of the training, the conversation is continuing about the rights of LGBTI people on the island.

76Crimes: Are you working with other groups or individuals on this training?

MT:  Certainly.  AIDS-Free World brought this training to the Caribbean two years ago, in partnership with local groups.  Through LGBTI Aware Caribbean, local groups are now responsible for the sustainability of these trainings.  These types of sessions require tremendous local coordination and negotiation with key stakeholders.  Sometimes, these discussions can be challenging, especially in light of the politics surrounding LGBTI rights in the region at this time.  We are therefore very pleased to continue working with organizations such as United and Strong of St. Lucia, MOVADAC of Barbados, and LGBT Platform Suriname.

The Global Justice Institute of Metropolitan Community Church has also agreed to act as fiscal sponsors so that private individuals can make online donations to support this project and receive tax deductible receipts for U.S. dollar contributions.

76 Crimes: Beside awareness-raising, what do you also hope to accomplish from the training?

TD:  The aims for the training are simple:

  • To empower participants to support the safety of LGBTI people;
  • To promote respect for the human rights of all citizens;
  • To engender an appreciation of the dignity of all human beings;
  • To allow for professional and competent service delivery for key service providers in society; and
  • To promote healthy Caribbean societies through improved access to critical healthcare for groups vulnerable to HIV.

76 Crimes:  Where has this programme previously been delivered in the Caribbean?

MT:  The training has so far been delivered in 3 Caribbean countries – Barbados, St. Lucia and Suriname. The police services of St. Lucia and Suriname have expressed an interest in having the material incorporated into the curriculum of their police academies.

We also facilitated sensitization for police trainers from member countries in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Regional Security System.  We now have invitations to take the programme across the region.

76 Crimes: Why did you decide to start with the police?

Maurice and Tom, listening to a comment, St. Lucia Police training.

Decker and Tomlinson (both behind the podium) listen to a comment during a training session in St. Lucia.

TD:  We felt police/LGBT sensitization was necessary because of the critical role police play in providing access to justice.  Also, once persons see that police are trained to interact positively with LGBTI people, this usually reduces the likelihood of vigilante attacks against gays.

MT: We in the Caribbean also need to leapfrog some of the issues police have had with LGBTI people in the Global North.  At the recent WorldPride parade in Toronto, there were numerous images of police interacting positively with parade attendees.  That took some time to achieve, as police were originally seen as the enemy of the LGBTI community. In fact, the LGBTI liberation movement really started — in many major cities — because of police raids of LGBTI establishments.

76Crimes: What has been one of the most surprising things to discover about this training?

TD: I was surprised to learn that a significant number of the persons we trained were lay preachers or leaders in their churches.  So, a portion of the training necessarily involved helping participants to understand the varied religious approaches to same-gender relationships.

We also spent some time clarifying that our role as facilitators was not to change deeply held religious beliefs, but rather to ensure that, regardless of those beliefs, participants were able to respond in a professional manner to LGBTI people.

76 Crimes:  How and why should persons support this initiative?

MT: I encourage persons in the Global North to support this initiative:

  1. Because much of the homophobia in the Caribbean is being whipped up by evangelical religious extremism imported from countries such as Canada, the US and the UK.  This programme presents an opportunity for citizens of those countries to help repair the harm done by their nationals.
  2. Homophobia in the Caribbean is finding its way back to the Global North in the form of migration.
  3. Visitors to the Caribbean may be exposed to the rising tide of homophobic rhetoric and violence.  Anyone who does not fit the very rigid definitions of masculine or feminine would be vulnerable to attack.   This includes some heterosexuals who are gender non-conforming.

I therefore urge persons to donate to this project by visiting our website.

No donation is too small and we have a budget of US$150,900 to train key sectors in six countries.   The Global Justice Institute of the MCC will provide tax receipts for donations from the U.S.  Persons from the Global North may also support us by encouraging their governments to assist this initiative.  The last training in St. Lucia was kindly co-sponsored by the UK High Commission in that country.

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