Christian and LGBT Groups Have Brought the Battle for Gay Rights to the Caribbean

Controversy over the region's colonial-era "buggery" laws is exposing a new form of advocacy -- and anti-colonialism.
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Opponents of a gay rights bill gather in Guyana in 2003. (AP)

After two young men were seen having sexual intercourse in a university bathroom in Jamaica last year, they were set upon by a mob, who cheered as security guards kicked, punched, and slapped one of the boys. The attack was yet another sign that homophobia is alive and well in many Caribbean nations.

The West is known for exporting its culture, but also its culture wars. The fight for gay rights abroad is the latest example. Powerful, U.S.-based Christian-conservative groups and a network of pro-LGBT transnational actors have each become deeply involved in debates about homosexuality in many countries of the Global South.

Today, criminal bans on sodomy still exist in a whopping 78 countries, many holdovers from British colonialism.

These gay "proxy wars" are especially intense in former English colonies. These territories are inheritors of an acute obsession with sexual puritanism, which is evident in how their laws treat homosexuality. Convinced that native societies were morally corrupt and licentious, colonial governments and pastors prescribed harsh laws against same-sex relations in British territories. These "buggery" statues became a colonial mainstay in the 19th century. Originally, these laws banned any form of "unnatural connection," including bestiality, but their lasting impact has been the criminalization of male homosexuality. Today, criminal bans on sodomy still exist in a whopping 78 countries, many holdovers from British colonialism.

But 200 years later, change is starting to take root. Even in the most intolerant places, local actors have emerged to revoke these laws. Needless to say, they face formidable opponents.

International actors have passionately joined these foreign battles. For supporters of LGBT rights in the Global North, the myriad injustices that the world's sexual minorities suffer equate to grave human rights violations. Some European nations, and now even the U.S. State Department, have made LGBT-protection an important part of their objectives abroad.

For conservative religious organizations, mostly in the United States, foreign countries represent not just a fresh opportunity to influence the debate over homosexuality, but also a source of fundraising and followers. Even before the June 26 Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage in the United States, these groups recognized that they were losing the gay-rights debate at home, but they figure that their chances are better abroad.

The Anglophone Caribbean is a prominent example of this exported culture war -- sodomy bans exist in 11 Caribbean nations. Although though these buggery laws are hardly ever enforced, they give credence to actors who promote intolerance. From openly homophobic artists to tourist officials resistant to gay visitors, the English-speaking Caribbean is no gay paradise.

The good news is that these laws are no longer taken for granted. In 2011, the current prime minister of Jamaica campaigned promising to end buggery laws. On June 25 this year, the Jamaican Supreme Court heard a complaint against the nation's buggery laws. That case paralleled another petition to repeal Jamaica's law before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In May, the Belizean Supreme Court tried a challenge to Section 53 of its criminal code, which condemns "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" with 10 years in prison. Later that month, the prime minister of Dominica was compelled to weigh in on the debate in his own country, asserting that repeal of the sodomy ban was out of the question for the "foreseeable future." A few days later, newspapers in Grenada published a letter from the president of the senate urging a review of the island's buggery law. Similar legal challenges to sodomy bans have occurred this year in several other former British colonies - Singapore, India, and Northern Cyprus.

The bad news is that these folks are fighting not just local mores, but also a large battalion of U.S. churches and church-related groups siding with the defenders of the status quo.

Many of these small Caribbean nations frequently host Phillip Lee, director of the California-based religious organization His Way Out Ministries, which has ties to Focus on the Family. Lee, a man who says he's formerly gay and has renounced "the lifestyle," preaches that prayer can reverse same-sex attractions. He has met with high-level officials such as the governor general of Jamaica and the mayor of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. In his words, "the Caribbean is ripe for ex-gay ministry planting and development." In March of this year, Lee traveled to Guyana (which he claims to have visited some 20 times) as well as to Trinidad and Tobago. In both counties, he made several radio and television appearances, hosted well-attended workshops, and publically expressed support for keeping sodomy bans on the books. In Belize, the most prominent advocate of maintaining the country's buggery law is Scott Stirm, a Texan emigre and the founder of Belize Action, the main organization opposing the effort to decriminalize sodomy. As The Economist recently reported, Stirm's efforts are buoyed by support from the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based religious advocacy organization.

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Presented by

Javier Corrales and Cameron Combs

Javier Corrales is a professor of political science at Amherst College. Cameron Combs is a program assistant at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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