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HAVANA, May 16 2011 (IPS) - While homosexuality is punishable by law in nine Caribbean island nations, gay activism is increasingly taking root in countries like Cuba.
“The situation in the Caribbean today is one of contrasts,” Gloria Careaga, co-secretary general of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), founded in 1978 and with close to 700 member groups in over 110 countries, told IPS.
Differences are greatest between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking areas of the Caribbean, Careaga, a Mexican psychologist who is also in charge of the Latin American and Caribbean region (ILGA-LAC), said by email on the occasion of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Tuesday May 17.
Careaga said “clear” signs of progress were the work of Cuban institutions in favour of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people and of strengthening their groups, the growing presence of studies on sexual diversity in Puerto Rican universities, and the emergence of lesbian organisations in the Dominican Republic.
However, “the English-speaking Caribbean seems to be unable to shake off the influence of Victorian morality, and not only maintains laws that criminalise gays and lesbians, but also argues the case for homophobia, for instance in Jamaica,” she said.
A national survey carried out in Jamaica by the University of the West Indies in 2010 found that 89 percent of respondents were homophobic. The study polled 1,007 adults from 231 communities in the island nation.
Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago ban relations between same-sex couples, especially men. Penalties for this crime vary between 10 and 50 years, depending on the laws of each country.
Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica and Saint Lucia only punish male homosexuality while allowing, or simply making no pronouncement on, lesbianism. Since 1976, Trinidad and Tobago has even forbidden homosexual persons from entering its territory.
Institutionalised homophobia is also a health problem. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) indicates that penalisation of homosexuality in the Caribbean is one of the main obstacles to controlling the epidemic that affects some 240,000 people in the Greater and Lesser Antilles.
Against that backdrop, the few groups and individuals fighting for social acceptance of sexual diversity come up against a high degree of homophobia and the risk of hate crimes. They can even be accused of illegality, even though the constitution defends the universal right to free association.
Wilfred Labiosa, a Puerto Rican activist who lives in the United States and is visiting Cuba to take part in the Fourth Cuban Day Against Homophobia, told IPS that the region’s major challenge is to consolidate unity among people struggling for respect for freely chosen sexual orientation and gender identity.
In socialist Cuba, which lived through several decades of institutionalised homophobia, outstanding efforts have been made by institutions and civil society sectors to raise public awareness in favour of the rights of all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We want a new society,” said Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro and head of the state National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), during a May 10 conference on “Why a Cuban campaign against homophobia?” Fighting this problem is part of the struggle against all kinds of discrimination, she emphasised.
The experiences of Cuba and Puerto Rico, which hold around four Gay Pride parades, including educational activities, every year, should be disseminated throughout the Caribbean LGBTI community, Labiosa, a leader of Unid@s, the National Latino/a LGBT Human Rights Organisation in the United States, suggested.
But factors like the criminalisation of homosexuality in nine English-speaking Caribbean island nations, and Belize and Guyana, and the lack of historical links between the region’s peoples mean that sexual rights activists remain dispersed in the region, he said.
Labiosa, a psychologist, said that so far, exchanges between civil society organisations in the island nations of the Caribbean and other countries have been “informal and personal.” In his view, this form of contact is more effective than institutional links in terms of building concrete action in favour of the LGBT community.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) bloc hosts the Regional Meeting of LGBT activists from member countries, a space where proposals for sexual rights and HIV prevention can be made.
The United Gays and Lesbians Against AIDS Barbados (UGLAAB), the Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) and the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) of Trinidad and Tobago all converge there with other activist groups.
In 2010, ILGA-LAC was able to bring together eight activists from eight different countries where homosexuality is still a crime, at its biennial conference held in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba.
“We have established increasingly close ties with LGBT organisations in the Caribbean,” said Careaga, praising the work of activists who, “with our support and recognition, maintain an active and courageous presence, organising themselves and carrying out public demonstrations, in spite of the risks.”
The achievements of the activist community, according to Careaga, include blocking performances by musical groups who foment homophobia through their song lyrics.
“In spite of the blinkered attitudes, we are closely monitoring the actions of governments and we seek dialogue with their representatives at intergovernment forums. We hope one day these efforts will lead to the repeal of those laws that penalise LGBT persons,” she said.
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