Caribbean LGBT+ campaigners have branded Barbados’ attempts to introduce civil unions as a ‘recipe for disaster’ that could cost lives.
On Tuesday Barbados hinted it will finally make homosexuality legal. And the government proposed a referendum on civil unions. This, they said, was to ensure no citizen faces discrimination because of who they love.
However, campaigners who have fought for equal rights on the island, say Prime Minister Mia Mottley is playing politics with LGBT+ lives.
They argue she should use her overwhelming majority in the Barbadian parliament to push forward LGBT + rights, rather than put them to a referendum.
Jamaican LGBT+ lawyer, Maurice Tomlinson, is a leading campaigner for equality across the Caribbean.
He told GSN: ‘[The referendum on civil unions] is a recipe for disaster as LGBT people could face verbal and physical attacks and even death.’
Meanwhile Barbadian trans campaigner Alexa Hoffmann also condemned her government’s approach. She told GSN:
‘What makes the issue most exasperating to me is the indiscriminate flinging around of the word “referendum”. It conveniently only pops up for LGBTI issues.
‘The issue of decriminalising sexual intimacy between same-sex couples was once said to have to go before a referendum before any change to the law.
‘An attempt was made in discussions to steer the conversation towards referenda when employment protections for LGBTI people came about.’
Promise to ‘end discrimination in all forms’
The announcements this week came in a formal speech for the State Opening of Parliament in Barbados. The speech is the mechanism by which the government sets out its agenda.
The Queen’s representative, Governor General Dame Sandra Mason gave the speech. However, it is the government that writes it.
In it, Prime Minister Mia Mottley promised wide-ranging changes in Barbados. And she made headlines around the world by announcing the country will drop Queen Elizabeth as its head of state.
But hidden in it was an indication Barbados will drop another vestige of its colonial legacy – its ‘sodomy’ law.
The country rarely enforces the law against gay sex. But it is technically one of the most punitive in the world with a maximum sentence of life in imprisonment. Scrapping it will almost certainly be a pre-requisite for recognizing same-sex relationships.
Meanwhile, on same-sex partnership recognition, Mason said:
‘My government is prepared to recognise a form of civil unions for couples of the same gender so as to ensure that no human being in Barbados will be discriminated against, in exercise of civil rights that ought to be theirs.
‘The settlement of Barbados was birthed and fostered in discrimination, but the time has come for us to end discrimination in all forms.
‘I wish to emphasise that my government is not allowing any form of same sex marriage, and will put this matter to a public referendum. My government will accept and be guided by the vote of the public as promised in the manifesto.’
‘Recipe for disaster’
Tomlinson told GSN he wouldn’t expect same-sex civil unions to pass a referendum in Barbados:
‘In a word, no, because of the hysteria whipped up by churches against these unions.
‘And as happened in other countries that held referenda on this issue – eg, Australia and Northern Ireland – the anti-LGBT rhetoric will increase and become more insulting and dehumanizing of LGBT Barbadians as the vote draws near.
‘This is a recipe for disaster as LGBT people could face verbal and physical attacks and even death. Further, for a cash-strapped country this is a colossal waste of money.’
‘No, don’t pay it. Just go’
In fact, Barbados is legally duty-bound by its international obligations to allow same-sex marriage.
Barbados is one of 20 countries that a decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights covers. It ruled in 2017 that all its member states should legalize same-sex marriage. So far, six have, including Ecuador last year and Costa Rica this May.
As Tomlinson points out, civil partnerships would not bring Barbados in line with its responsibilities under international law, therefore.
Likewise, Hoffmann derided the way Barbados has treated its responsibilities. She said the country had signed up to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) while her mother was a teenager.
But when the IACHR ruled LGBT+ people must be able to have sex and wed, it failed to act. Hoffmann said:
‘Giving a curt nod to civil unions, but locking up on the issue of marriage is a defiant effort to violate an arrangement which the government willingly entered into.
‘It is no better than going to a restaurant, ordering the steak, eating it and flatly refusing to pay the bill when it arrives because you didn’t like how it tasted.
‘Furthermore, proposing to put the issue to a public referendum vote is tantamount to insisting that the decision on whether to pay the restaurant bill should be left to a group of people on the sidewalk who have never eaten at the place.
‘They will invariably say, “No, don’t pay it. Just go,” if not argue that the bill should be significantly less than what the meal was worth.’
Moreover, she argues religious extremists have ‘whipped the Barbadian public into a frenzy’ over LGBT+ people. As a result, they won’t act fairly.
‘Proud’ of sodomy law
Indeed, Tomlinson doesn’t expect Barbadians to accept the government’s efforts to decriminalize gay sex either.
He is supporting a case by three Barbadians at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to scrap the law:
‘From my years of experience working to decriminalize sodomy in Barbados it is my belief that most citizens support keeping this British colonial law.
‘This is ironic as the country plans to scrap the Queen as Head of State as a show of independence.
‘Nevertheless, most Barbadians are proud of this law, which is the worst in the western hemisphere – life imprisonment. They think that keeping it makes their nation “moral” and will prevent the “horrors” of same-sex marriage.’
Some gay campaigners accepted trans exclusion from employment law
Hoffmann’s faith in Barbados’ willingness to change has already taken a hit this year.
Earlier this year, the country recognized many rich westerners can now work from home and saw an opportunity.
Barbados proposed 12 month visas for remote workers from other countries. The idea is they would choose to work on the ‘paradise’ island using this ‘Welcome Stamp’.
Because the scheme is for those earning $50,000 a year or more, their presence will significantly boost the tourist-reliant economy.
When Barbados Tourism Marketing published details of the scheme on 20 July it excluded same-sex couples. It described spouses as ‘a man and a woman’.
LGBT+ campaigners quickly complained, and officials updated the language to include any ‘partner’.
This renewed pressure on Barbados to protect LGBT+ workers from discrimination.
Indeed, shortly after, on 28 July, the Barbadian House of Assembly debated and passed the Employment (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill (EPD). However it didn’t mention transgender protection or include gender identity.
Hoffmann describes the government’s approach to LGBT+ issues as ‘double-talking, brake-checking’. She argues they are ‘dancing around’ granting LGBT+ rights, rather than tackling their discrimination problem head-on. She said:
‘My human rights and those of every other LGBTI person who has ever set foot in this jurisdiction are not accessories to be picked and chosen at will to create an ensemble that looks good.’
Meanwhile Tomlinson argues that LGB campaigners let trans and non-binary people down over the new employment laws:
‘Sadly, many LGB activists in Barbados seemed willing to support this deliberate exclusion of Trans people as long as they can register a “win” for themselves.’
‘Dangerous and frankly illegal political game’
Both Hoffmann and Tomlinson accuse Mottley and her government of playing politics. Hoffmann said:
‘From the government’s recent behaviour, it is clear that they are engaging in performative activity for the sake of looking progressive.
‘But really it is all a veneer to cover the attitude that not all of its citizens and residents deserve to live their life to the fullest.’
Moreover, Tomlinson warned:
‘I think that we must make it clear that what the Prime Minister is proposing is a dangerous and frankly illegal political game with the human rights and lives of her citizens.
‘If she is so committed to LGBT inclusion as she claims then she can use her supermajority in parliament to enact marriage equality and full anti-discrimination legislation.
‘Instead she is leaving vulnerable LGBT Barbadians to the vagaries and possible violence of a referendum on their right to love.’