Battleground Barbados: LGBT activists face off against North American homophobes in the Caribbean

LGBT Bajans face regular harassment and discrimination on the island. And some fear that it’s about to get worse

On a sunny day in April last year, at an ocean-side resort just steps from one of Barbados’ famous white-sand beaches, a hate group was hosting a conference.

Dozens of neatly-dressed church and community leaders, including a Barbadian senator, packed into meeting rooms and diligently took notes as speakers opined on the evils of abortion, contraception, sex education and LGBT rights.

The World Congress of Families, one of the largest and most influential anti-LGBT networks in the world, had invited a murderers’ row of homophobic speakers.

Scott Stirm was there. He’s an evangelical missionary from Texas who was one of the most virulent critics of the effort to decriminalize homosexuality in Belize, arguing gay tourists come to the country to corrupt children. He also believes that Haiti made a pact with the devil 200 years ago when it broke the bonds of slavery.

So were Phil Lees, a Canadian who travels the world condemning the evils of Ontario’s comprehensive sex education curriculum, and Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian LGBT opponent, who claims queer and trans advocates are conspiring with Boko Haram.

Philippa Davies, who perpetuates the false belief that homosexuality and peodophilia are linked, provided lessons learned from the fight to maintain homophobic laws in Jamaica.

And Don Feder, who inveighed against Harriet Tubman going on the US $20 bill because “American history was made by white males,” gave a lecture to the mostly black audience about the fast-approaching “demographic winter.”

The World Congress of Families was using the playbook it had perfected in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, where it is credited with helping pass some of the world’s most vicious anti-gay laws.

The message was clear: unless Christians in the Caribbean draw a line in the sand, their countries would become havens for feminism and gay rights, just like the United States and Canada.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of company Ro-Ann Mohammed, a queer woman, is used to keeping.


Mohammed, a co-founder of Barbados Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexuals Against Discrimination (B-GLAD), one of Barbados’s few LGBT advocacy groups, had snuck into the conference with a handful of other activists.

“It was the worst thing I have ever been to, honestly,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it was happening in this day and age.”

And Mohammed couldn’t shake the sense that history was repeating itself.

“It was mostly the white American men speaking to a crowd of predominantly black Barbadian people and telling them what to do,” she says.

“We have these attitudes that were brought to us through imperialism and colonization. And then there are these people coming from North America telling us that we’re too progressive.”

Mohammed grew up in Trinidad, but moved to Barbados to attend university. There, she and Donnya Piggott co-founded B-GLAD in 2011 as a queer students’ organization. When people from outside the university began to join, Mohammed and Piggott realized they could do more good if they expanded to the rest of the island.

Before B-GLAD, the LGBT movement in Barbados was centred around HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, catering mainly to gay men. Queer women, homeless LGBT people and trans youth had especially few options.

“We realized that these people don’t have anywhere to go,” she says. “And people wanted help.”

B-GLAD became a country-wide LGBT advocacy organization and Mohammed decided not to return to Trinidad.

“I found that if nobody else wanted to pick up the mantle in this space, I didn’t see why I wouldn’t be able to do so,” she says.

And now, five years later, she was sitting in a room at a seaside resort, watching influential Bajans lap up homophobic and misogynistic propaganda from wealthy North Americans.

“It was fear-mongering at its best,” she says.

An intersection in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. Credit: westend61/Getty ImagesBarbados, a small, windswept island-nation on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, has had a history of outsiders coming in and causing trouble. First, it was Spanish slavers, who decimated the indigenous Taino and Kalinago inhabitants in the 16th century. Then came waves of British settlers, who brought with them sugarcane, West African slaves and the racial hierarchies and puritanical Christianity of imperial Britain.But throughout the colonial years, Barbados was much more permissive of homosexuality than the mother country, owing to the fact that it was overwhelmingly single men who came to settle. And the West African slaves came from cultures where there was spiritual and social room for relationships between men.This all changed in the Victorian era, when panic around moral decline led to the British Parliament passing harsh laws against gay intimacy. But despite the statutes, which remained on the books when Barbados became independent in 1966, people who didn’t fit into the restrictive sexual or gender norms still found a country where they were often tolerated, and even occasionally celebrated.Visibly queer and gender nonconforming people carved spaces for themselves, as rum shop owners, jewellers and dressmakers. Gay men would socialize together in semi-private events in rented rooms or backyards.And the Queen of the Bees pageant, an annual drag show where all segments of society would dress up in their finest, was a social highlight and was even held at the National Stadium at the height of its popularity.

Barbados is an island nation in the Caribbean. Credit: TUBS/Wiki CommonsBut the 1980s brought with it drugs and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and with them an increased interest in fundamentalist forms of Christianity, such as Pentecostalism and Seventh Day Adventism. The tolerance that LGBT Bajans had enjoyed was tested, and some people began to flee the island.Today, Barbados continues to criminalize buggery and gross indecency, two provisions that essentially refer to gay sex. The punishment for buggery is life imprisonment, the harshest sentence for this charge of any country in the Western hemisphere.Though the law is rarely enforced, its very existence stigmatizes LGBT people and turns them into unapprehended felons, say activists.And while violence against LGBT people is not as high as in other English-speaking countries in the Caribbean, such as Jamaica, advocates say that discrimination and harassment is common.There are no anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT Bajans, and the handful of political victories that have been won over the past few years continue to come under assault from a resurgent fundamentalist Christian movement fuelled by North American homophobes.As Barbados celebrates a half-century of independence, queer and trans Bajans feel they’re still not being afforded the respect and recognition they deserve as citizens of a free nation. And some fear that things may be about to get worse.

Freundel Stuart, who leads the Democratic Labour Party, has been prime minister of Barbados since 2010. Credit: OEA—OAS/Flickr Creative CommonsIn September 2016, Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart came to Canada and held an open forum at the University of Toronto as part of the festivities around the anniversary of independence.Dressed in a powder-blue Tommy Hilfiger shirt, the 65-year-old attorney addressed a lecture theatre without a microphone, fielding questions from members of the Barbadian diaspora who had come to hear him speak.In a professorial tone and with a penchant for historical tangents, Stuart went into the weeds on issues such as Barbados’ debt burden, how to enhance the tourist economy and the ins-and-outs of obtaining building permits.But when Xtra asked him if his government would commit to repealing Barbados’ harsh buggery laws, Stuart reverted to the sharp-witted attorney, rejecting out of hand the question’s very premise.“I have been a lawyer for the last 34 years now,” he said. “And I am not aware that we have what you call ‘harsh’ buggery laws.”Stuart maintained that the buggery laws were merely the same-sex equivalent of rape laws.“Rape is the offence committed against in a heterosexual relationship, and buggery is the offence committed in a same-sex relationship,” he said. “At the kernel of both is the absence of consent.”First, there must be a complainant who can bring forward the allegations so that a prosecutor can push the case, Stuart said. Therefore, if the sex is consensual, there can’t be a case.“There is a lobby that is trying to get the government, trying to get successive governments, in Barbados to decriminalize, as they say, homosexuality,” Stuart said. “But you can only decriminalize something that is already a criminal offence.”He acknowledged that almost every family includes people who are LGBT, but stated that the country’s Christian character precludes any further steps to change the law.Stuart then launched into a condemnation of many of the aims of his country’s LGBT rights movement.“Those people, who feel that we should create an environment where they can practise their lifestyles in public on high noon on a sunny day,” he said, “want even the very limited controls we have, removed.”“We respect that — as long as you don’t become too evangelical about it and want to convert all of us to it,” Stuart said, prompting a round of laughter in the room.

The Parliament of Barbados, the country’s seat of government. Credit: oriredmouse/Getty ImagesWhile the prime minister argues that the buggery laws are about consent, he’s contradicted by a prosecutor who actually brought forward charges last year.Elwood Watts, principal Crown counsel in a buggery case, said in no uncertain terms that buggery does not require consent.“As long as the penis enters the anus, and there is a complaint, it is an offence,” Watts explained. “It does not matter if you claim the person consented or did not consent.”And according to LGBT activists, the prosecutor’s views reflect how the law is viewed by everyday people, the police and the courts.Speaking on the phone from Barbados, Shari Inniss-Grant and Stefan Newton, both directors at Equals Barbados, an LGBT-rights group, say they’re disappointed, though not surprised, by the prime minister’s stance on buggery.“What he said about the law is a misstatement of the law,” Newton says. “And he’s an attorney — he should know better.”“It’s clearly understood around the world, in the Commonwealth and particularly in Barbados, as something that’s criminalizing homosexuality,” Inniss-Grant says. “And it has the effect of stigmatizing individuals who are queer and really promoting discrimination against them.”The text of the law itself is clear and makes no mention of consent.“Any person who commits buggery is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life,” it reads.And when someone is charged with buggery in a rape case, the result can be a conflation of homosexuality and peodophilia.When a scout leader was charged with buggery for raping a 12-year-old boy, the chief scout commissioner didn’t speak out against child predators, but against gay men.“My organization will not tolerate any practice of homosexuality in its ranks, whether boy scout to boy scout, leader to leader or leader to boy,” he said.And the laws can sometimes lead to vigilante violence.“Some persons perpetuate violence against LGBTQ individuals because they even think they’re privately enforcing the law,” Newton says.The prime minister’s denial that the buggery law is “harsh” is absurd, Newton says, considering that it comes with the most severe penalty for any sexual offence.As for his comments about people “practicing their lifestyles in public on high noon, on a sunny day,” Newton is perplexed.“I don’t think two men are going to be out and buggering each other in the middle of the road,” he says.

Barbados GLAD/YouTube

About a month after the World Congress of Families conference, the gossip writer for the Nation, Barbados’ leading newspaper, gleefully recounted the public rape and humiliation of an LGBT Bajan.

“She has been a good ‘man’ to many women,” the column began. “Her habits are no secret and she prefers to be referred to as the masculine sex.”

“You see, she had one too many drinks in a farming community recently, and while out cold, a man had his own way with her. He even left the evidence on her body.”

The victim, who hadn’t been seen for days because of the humiliation, had photos of the aftermath of their rape distributed online.

“Some fear ‘my gentleman’ may never be the same after being emasculated,” the writer concluded.

The LGBT community and its allies were horrified and demanded a retraction. The piece was pulled by the paper, which issued an apology to “right thinking members of our community,” but not to the victim.

Though violent hate crimes against queer and trans Bajans are less common than in other parts of the region, harassment, discrimination, property damage, verbal abuse and occasional episodes of violence are a reality for many LGBT people on the island.

And there’s no guarantee that police will help. A recent study showed that 75 percent of LGBT Bajans who went to the police said they were denied assistance.

Sometimes, the police themselves are accused of being the perpetrators.

In September 2016, Raven Gill, a 25-year-old trans woman, complained that she was verbally abused, publicly humiliated and forced to strip in front of male officers after she was arrested for causing a disturbance. Gill claimed that officers repeatedly questioned her gender and placed her in a male holding cell.

Gill, along with René Holder-McClean-Ramirez, a director of Equals Barbados, filed a complaint with Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, who promised to look into the matter.

According to Holder-McClean-Ramirez, many LGBT people are wary of any interactions with the police.

“You’re not treated as a person reporting a crime,” he says. “There’s always this other layer where you’re guilty of some behaviour, or encouraged what happened to you.”

“And sometimes the same policemen are the persons who are inflicting violence on LGBT persons,” Newton adds.

B-GLAD has hosted multiple sensitivity training sessions with Barbadian police officers. Mohammed says that while she doesn’t think that the police force is resistant to change, there’s still a long way to go.

Discrimination, especially in housing and employment, remains far too common. Mohammed and a former girlfriend were evicted from their home by their landlord for being in a relationship.

“She didn’t want lesbians living in her apartment building, and we had to leave,” she says. “And in Barbados, there’s no way for us to challenge that.”

The lack of recourse is one reason why Barbadian activists have made an anti-discrimination law one of their top priorities.

“It just makes daily social interactions hard if you are a member of the LGBTQ population,” Newton says.

On Nov 6, 2016, hundreds of Christians adorned in the national colours of blue, gold and black held a rally to decry sexual immorality for the second year in a row.

Amid the festivities, which included gospel music and dancers, speakers made the case that LGBT Bajans represented a moral and demographic threat to the soul of the nation.

Johanan Lafeuillee-Doughlin, a local lawyer, said Barbados should not decriminalize gay sex, and begged the crowd to not give into the cultural imperialism of developed countries.

“If all Christian influence on government was suddenly removed, my friend, within a few years no one will have any moral compass or moral absolutes beyond their individual moral sentiments and individual human opinion; that can be so unreliable,” Lafeuillee-Doughlin said, as she shared her view of the “possible social and legal implications of removing the laws which criminalize anal intercourse, otherwise known as the buggery law.”

“We will be inviting a watershed of slippery slopes,” she predicted, as shown in this video. “A secular society void of any moral compass. This is not the nation that Barbadian fore-parents have handed to you and me as Barbadians, and neither should we hand such to generations to follow.”

But despite the nationalistic rhetoric, Americans featured prominently in the night’s proceedings.

Charlene Cothran, a once-prominent LGBT activist and publisher who became ex-gay in 2006, said that no one is born gay, a fact she claimed to be certain of because she had previously chosen to become a lesbian.

“I gave myself fully over to it,” she said. “The lesbian spirit saturated every part of my conscious and subconscious mind.”

Judith Reisman, a conservative activist who claims that homosexual “recruitment techniques” rival those of the US Marines, and that Nazism was a “German homosexual movement,” delivered a powerpoint presentation from the stage.

She went on a conspiratorial rant about Alfred Kinsey, the influential sex researcher, claiming he was a sado-masochistic psychopath, beastiality enthusiast and pedophile, whose work is responsible for many of society’s ills.

“He actually was involved in the sexual torture of 300 to 1,000 infants and children,” Reisman said, matter-of-factly.

She argued that comprehensive sexual education would turn children into “little sexual deviants,” bedeviled by substance abuse, AIDS and venereal disease.

After the event, Steve Blackett, the minister of social work, told a Barbados’ newspaper that he wholeheartedly agreed with Reisman’s presentation.

Barbados must stand firm against the foreign evils and foreign values that threaten the country, he said.

Mia Mottley, the head of the Barbados Labour Party and the Leader of the Opposition. Credit: Barbados Labour Party/FacebookIn 2003, then–attorney general Mia Mottley spoke out in favour of decriminalizing buggery and prostitution.“Law, which seeks to discriminate in a society whose history has been scarred with the cancer of discrimination, has in fact, to be reformed,” she said.But even after a government report recommended reform the following year, change didn’t come. Since then, support for the buggery laws has fallen significantly, though a majority of Bajans still support them.Today, no one in government is speaking about decriminalizing homosexuality. Some government ministers have spoken out against discrimination, while others remain firmly fundamentalist.But recent comments from a high-ranking government official presage that politics in Barbados may take a homophobic turn.Speaking at a constituency meeting for the ruling Democratic Labour Party in November 2016, Chris Sinckler, the minister of finance, said that his party would make morality a key issue in the next election, which will take place sometime before early 2018.“In my mind, if it is not in other people’s minds, that the next election is also going to be fought for the moral heart of this country,” he told the crowd. “When you lay down at nights and you get up with the Grace of God in the morning, think about the ethics and morals that underpin this country.”Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the government is thinking about making this push when Mottley, who pushed for decriminalizing homosexuality, is now the leader of the opposition and poised to form the next government.One clergyman heard the dog-whistle loud and clear.“His reference to morality is restricted; it would appear to refer to sexual issues surrounding homosexuality,” Canon Wayne Isaacs, a senior Anglican cleric, wrote on Facebook.“We must not allow our thinking on moral issues to be influenced by a ‘right-wing’ form of Christianity coming out of North America that is not in our interest politically, socially nor morally.”A few months later, government Senator David Durant viciously attacked a comprehensive sex education curriculum aimed at fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, calling it “one of the greatest assaults on the health and innocence of children.” That was followed by an HIV/AIDS counsellor arguing the curriculum was turning children gay.To Maurice Tomlinson, this rhetoric is all too familiar.The Jamaican-Canadian lawyer who is challenging Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws in court, says that the Jamaica he grew up in was considerably friendlier towards LGBT people than today.“We had ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ — everybody knew who was gay,” he says.But things started to change.“In the late ’80s and the early ’90s, we ignored the rising rhetoric of the churches, when the evangelical North Americans started to come down to Jamaica with their hateful rhetoric,” he says. “After the religious rhetoric started to rise, we started to see the attacks.”The combination of well-financed outside organizations like the World Congress of Families and the politicization of homophobia is a dangerous cocktail for Barbados.But Tomlinson, who lived on the island while he was attending law school, thinks it’s not too late for the nation.“I’m hoping that in the case of Barbados, we can be more proactive, we can nip it in the bud,” he says. “We can call it out, we can prevent it from escalating.”“Because I don’t want to see us lose Barbados, the way we’ve lost Jamaica.”

Queen Elizabeth II, Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the leaders of other Commonwealth nations gather in Malta for Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in 2015. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty ImagesDuring a trip to la Francophonie summit in Madagascar last November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke up for LGBT rights to the assembled leaders, which included 10 who lead countries where homosexuality is illegal.“Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities suffer in too many countries, including certain members of la Francophonie who are here today,” Trudeau said.“We owe them the same respect, the same rights and the same dignity as all other members of our society.”Barbados is the third-largest destination for Canadian foreign investment. Canadian banks have a strong presence in the country and Canadian tourism dollars contribute greatly to the economy.The Canadian government isn’t above using that klout to pressure the Barbadian government around LGBT issues. On April 11, the Canadian High Commissioner raised the issue of Barbados’ buggery laws to Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, who denied that LGBT Bajans are persecuted.To B-GLAD co-founder Ro-Ann Mohammed, that smells like colonialism all over again.“It creates more problems than anything when entities from the global north come and say, ‘This is what you should do,’” she says. “‘We left you with these laws, but now you’re wrong and you’re backwards and you’re savages.’”Much of the opposition to LGBT rights in Barbados is galvanized by what they see as imperial bullying from countries like Canada, the US and the UK.“That’s a huge part of their argument — pushing back against any sort of progression for the movement,” Mohammed says.After then–British prime minister David Cameron threatened in 2011 to cut aid to countries that continue to criminalize homosexuality, there was significant pushback in Barbados.That doesn’t mean that foreign entities don’t have a part to play in the struggle for LGBT recognition in the Caribbean.“Instead of going above them, try reaching out to community leaders,” she says. “What resources can I provide you with? How can we be of assistance? How can we strengthen or fortify your movement?”Despite the increasing influence of North American Christian fundamentalists in Barbados, organizations like B-GLAD, Equals Barbados and their predecessors have made significant progress over the years.Acceptance for LGBT people in Barbados is growing, though most people still think the buggery laws should be maintained. And even while some members of the government appear to be on the verge of adopting more hateful rhetoric, others are approaching the issue with compassion.B-GLAD is helping organize sexual education seminars, and Equals Barbados is fighting back against police mistreatment. As Christian organizations host pro–family values rallies, LGBT people are now holding counter-rallies. Queer and trans activists from across the eastern Caribbean are partnering together to advocate for their rights.And there’s more visibility for LGBT people than ever before.“We can slowly see that there’s a shift and a change,” Mohammed says.And though LGBT Bajans must contend with a suspicious public, a sometimes-hostile press, vacillating politicians and well-financed North American homophobes, the progress made over the past few years speaks for itself.“We weren’t always homophobic — this was brought to us,” Mohammed says. “But we have the burden of trying to reverse it.”

Editor’s note, Aug 16, 2017: A previous version of this story referred to Johanan Lafeuillee-Doughlin as a pastor. She is a lawyer.

Editor’s note, Aug 18, 2017: This story was updated to add a direct quote from Johanan Lafeuillee-Doughlin from her speech to the rally as seen in this video.

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