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PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, May 15 2012 (IPS) - It is a widely recognised cliché that when the United States sneezes, the Caribbean catches cold.
So it was not unexpected that public debate has followed President Barack Obama’s recently declared support for same-sex marriage in a region where homosexuality is outlawed and punishable in some countries by up to 25 years in prison.
From Trinidad and Tobago in the south to Jamaica up north, religious leaders and government, political and social commentators have not shied away from jumping into the debate.
Even the British Labour Party spokeswoman on public health, Diane Abbott, in a newspaper column published in a leading Jamaican newspaper over the weekend, noted that while Jamaica “is entitled to its own laws and customs…in the 21st century, outright hostility to gay equality is going to be ever more difficult to maintain”.
Jamaica, which Human Rights Watch has described as “the most homophobic place on earth”, has had a long history of intolerance towards gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people.
During the campaign for last December’s general election, candidate Portia Simpson Miller (now prime minister) suggested that “the buggery laws should be reviewed”, but commentators have noted that no other politician has been brave enough to even entertain a dispassionate discussion on the subject, “let alone to speak on comprehensive citizens’ rights and freedoms”.
A few years ago, then prime minister Bruce Golding said he was making “no apology in saying decisively and emphatically that the government of Jamaica remains irrevocably opposed to the recognition, legitimisation or acceptance of same-sex marriages or same-sex unions”.
Golding, who was at the time debating an amendment to the constitution that laid out the scope of rights and freedoms for Jamaicans, said he would not accept “that homosexuality must be accepted as a legitimate form of behaviour or the equivalent of marriage”.
Last year, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (JFLAG) said that the United Nations Human Rights Committee had requested Jamaica to take specific actions to protect and promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jamaicans and to report on the steps taken by this year.
“The committee has requested that the Government take steps to amend the buggery law and provide protection for LGBT persons and human- rights defenders. Specifically, they recommended that the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms be reviewed to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, and provide an update in one year,” JFLAG said in a statement.
The archbishop of Kingston, Donald Reece, and the bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, Reverend Howard Gregory, say that Obama’s position would have been more widely accepted had he endorsed civil unions as opposed to marriage.
“It’s not a matter of marriage as contrary to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it’s a matter of a civil arrangement whereby persons with shared property when they die, then the other one would get the benefit,” said Bishop Reece.
Reverend Gregory said that while Obama’s statement might have been applauded by gay rights groups, the U.S. president could only speak as a world leader and did not have any moral or religious authority to speak for the church.
“As far as his pronouncement goes with regards to equating same-sex gender with marriage, that is off the table for me and certainly for most Christians because that is an untenable position,” he said.
The Trinidad and Tobago government says it has not yet adopted a position on the issue and according to the country’s Foreign Affairs Minister Suruj Rambachan, who spoke to reporters after a Cabinet meeting, “it is a matter being discussed by the government at the moment and I’m sure that sooner or later you will be provided by a policy decision on such matters”.
But the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), which has been fighting an uphill battle to get the authorities to recognise the gay and lesbian community under the Equal Opportunity Act, welcomed Obama’s statement.
“I applaud President Obama for what he said because he framed it in a context of equality and what’s fascinating to me even though marriage is not on CAISO’s advocacy agenda, it appears that the leaders in our hemisphere and especially Jamaican prime minister, Portia Simpson- Miller, are taking locally appropriate leadership steps on equality and citizenship and for gay and lesbian people,” said CAISO’s executive director Colin Robinson.
“We are hoping that our prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, takes locally appropriate steps as well,” he added.
Religious officials in Barbados have publicly opposed Obama’s position, with the Baptist minister Rev. Vincent Wood saying he was “totally shocked and surprised” and some commentators noting that since 1866 the law has defined marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”.
But the political consultant and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES), Peter Wickham, said that over the years Barbadians have been led by clerics, including Wood, to believe that the church owns the institution of marriage, “which is a proposition that will find no comfort within the four corners of our Constitution nor the realms of common sense.
“Barbados is a secular country and our constitution guarantees religious freedom. No person seeking to marry needs to convince any church that he or she ‘believes’ and, worse yet, our Family Law Act explicitly recognises unions other than marriages and accords equal status to these, which is a most profound statement of the extent to which we believe that unions between persons can and should exist outside of that which is defined by the church,” he wrote in a newspaper column.
Wickham argues that the issue has been hijacked by the church, which seeks to move it out of the realm of human rights and civil liberties into a vaguely and conveniently defined Christian context.
“Ironically, we in the Caribbean should have been ahead of the curve by virtue of our comfort with common law marriage, but we continue to allow clerics who should know better to advance arguments suggesting that marriage belongs to and is defined by them, which is a most unfortunate position,” he added.
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