Women & LGBTQ Struggles in the Caribbean, for Left Forum 2019
Posted on 2019-07-01
This Sunday, on June 30th 2019 I had the honor of facilitating a panel for Left Forum 2019 on the struggles happening in the Caribbean against repressive political, judiciary, and religious groups in those societies– which harm women and LGBTQ populations. This blog post will include my opening speech at the panel and I hope to update this blog post with video clips that are posted online at a later date.
Before sharing my speech, I would like to thank the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana and Life in Leggings for sponsoring and hosting this panel, as well as Robert Cuffy for organizing this panel and many other panels at Left Forum.
Good Afternoon everyone, my name is Tamanisha John and I will be the facilitator of this panel on Women and LGBTQ struggles in the Caribbean. I would like to thank Robert Cuffy for organizing this panel and the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana along with Life in Leggings for helping to host and sponsor the discussion we will be having today.
Before I introduce those on the panel and situate the ongoing struggle for women and LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean, I would first like to take some time and acknowledge the most recent passing of Guyanese social, political, and gender rights activist Andaiye (pronunciation?). Born in 1942, Andaiye played an active role in the regions fight for political and economic independence, alongside other activists like Walter Rodney. Andaiye was a founding member of the Working People’s Alliance, worked in the Women and Development Unit at the University West Indies, served as an executive member of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action at CARICOM, and was a member of the Global Women’s Strike and International Women’s Count Network. I tell you briefly about the various roles Andaiye contributed their service to in the Caribbean, in order to highlight how they helped to build a radical and revolutionary left in the Caribbean region. As an activist, Andaiye fought for waged work for women and a left politik utilising a global justice framework that encompassed peace and revolution, for women and oppressed races and social classes. Let’s take a moment to commemorate Andaiye’s long fight against oppression.
Given the subject matter of this panel, I hope that it is clear that we will be discussing how women and queer Caribbean’s are able to make their voices heard and claim space for themselves in their respective Caribbean countries that have a history of coloniality, post coloniality, and neo-coloniality. This subject is not divorced from imperial rule in these societies, because it is through empire that moral and authoritative rules and dichotomies of “femaleness” and “maleness” were imposed over the institutional and ideological functions in these societies. These norms in turn, then come to influence culture—which includes societal thinking surrounding notions of what it means to be male or female and what it means to be considered fulfilling one’s “dutiful” role in society. Because of this, when one talks about violence against women and against LGBTQ communities, as well as discrimination faced by those communities, on would be ill-informed to not mention that colonial era laws still on the books in many countries today that heavily influence whether or not certain human rights are extended to women (that were formerly viewed as property and as “non-waged” workers) and to those within the LGBTQ community (that are viewed outside of laws regarding “regular” (heterosexual) persons). Today, all of the Caribbean countries where homosexuality is still illegal under the law, were once British colonies.
Further, violence against women in the region is consistently labeled a “widespread public health problem,” whose victims often cite failure amongst the judiciary and police forces to adequately investigate or believe their stories. Especially when reporting on abuse by an intimate partner. When looking at some of the themes which arise in conceptualizing the struggles in the region today for rights to protect women and also to extend protections of basic human rights to LGBTQ populations, something that is reoccurring is this notion of the family and church as being cornerstones of social life. Violence against women begins in the home and is relegated to private life, hence the high incidences of femicide in the region. Alarmingly, last year ECLAC put out a report to express concern about the increasing femicide in the Caribbean region—notably, in countries like Belize, BVI, St. Lucia, and T&T. Seen as being outside of “socially acceptable” notions of family, LGBTQ people are subjected to discriminatory legislation—ranging from various “indecency” laws to “buggery” laws that are vaguely worded and “serve to legitimize discrimination and hostility towards them,” through social and legal sanctions.
In regards to the ongoing struggles today, we see a sort of collaboration between the state and religious institutions which continue to downplay the rise in violence against women and to undermine minor civil rights gained by LGBTQ populations.
This year, Cuba cancelled its pride parade as its legislature was set to debate legalizing same-sex marriage. Despite its having sent gays to work camps in the early days of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Cuba recognized as a regional leader in LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean— where some countries still have anti-sodomy laws. Cuba guarantees rights such as free sex-change operations, although it has delayed approving gay marriage. Many activists in Cuba believe that the decision to cancel the pride parade this year was “motivated by the popular backlash last year against the government’s proposal of including a change in the new constitution that would have opened the door to gay marriage. In a rare non-state Cuban campaign, evangelist churches attacked the proposal, which eventually was removed from the new constitution.” So, we see that in even more progressive states when it comes to these issues, pushback by the church is still relevant.
In the Cayman Islands five days after the Chief Justice rewrote legislation to make same-sex marriage legal, the government has announced it will appeal the ruling.The Court’s reasoning was based on the principle that preventing “persons from accessing marriage and the suite of rights that come with it w[ere] a clear violation of freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, including the right to a private and family life, the right to freedom of conscience, and the fight to freedom from discrimination.” The court’s ruling, which took immediate effect, was for the clause in the law that specifies marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples to be amended to state that “marriage means the union between two people as one another’s spouses.” The governments reasoning for challenging the law was that “if the ruling was left unchallenged, the implications for the Cayman Islands Constitution [were] significant and potentially far-reaching go[ing] well beyond the rights of same sex couples.” They further added that the “entire government ha[s] respect for the Hon. Chief Justice and indeed the independence of the judiciary. But even the best judges get it wrong from time to time.” However, the Cayman Islands isn’t the first Caribbean country to legalize and then repeal same sex marriage. Last year, Bermuda did the same exact thing, with the government bypassing the supreme court’s ruling and signing a bill into law that reversed the rights of gay couples to marry. Bermuda’s Progressive Labour Party declared that this reversal was “intended to strike a fair balance between two currently irreconcilable groups in Bermuda (LGBTQ populations and the Church), by restating that marriage must be between a male and a female while at the same time recognizing and protecting the rights of same-sex couples.”
While each of the aforementioned setbacks were expected to reverberate more generally across the region, there are noticeable differences in regards to legislating and upholding the rights gained by LGBTQ communities. For instance, in 2015, Puerto Rico’s government announced that it would no longer uphold its same-sex marriage ban. In Trinidad and Tobago, the judges ruled that homophobic laws were unconstitutional, on the basis that “sections of the Sexual Offences Act” which “prohibited buggery and serious indecency between two men, criminalized consensual same-sex activity between adults.” This 2018 ruling by T&T mirrored the 2016 ruling in Belize which focused on consent as well. This year, there was a powerful win for LGBTQ activists in Saint Lucia as this year the country will hold its first public LGBTQ pride parade in August (23-26) with the aim of “educating and sensitising the general public, as well as nurturing the dignity of non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people on Saint Lucia.” This was a massive victory for St. Lucians LGBTQ community, as the country still maintains its adopted constitution (from its former status as a British colony) which has clauses openly discriminating against marginalised women, children, and the gay and lesbian community.
In regards to women’s struggles in the Caribbean—which have a tradition of tapping themselves into racial, social, economic and political struggles— pushback have been against the notion of women as objects and property owned or to be owned by men, and not people. High incidences of rape and murder amongst young girls and women are rooted in the colonial legacy of the disproportionate ratio of women to men in these societies. Under slavery, African women were expected to “reproduce the slavery system naturally.” Meanwhile, the plantation economy and the indentured-ship system set the groundwork for “the nuclear family with the non-earning housewife” effectively setting up the “most appropriate model of the family and economic unit” as patriarchal. Today young girls and women in the region experience disproportionate violence that Caribbean feminists are tackling from a variety of lenses. “From 9-year-old Ariel Bohla in Grenada, to Sadia Byron in St. Lucia, and the wave of assassinations of women in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and beyond, the need for equality and justice is undeniable.” Therefore, tackling laws and societal norms that purport the “normal” and “natural order” for a woman to be beaten by her male partner or harassed by a male is sexually interested has been at the top of the agenda, along with combatting false constructions of masculinity.
In 2016, women’s rights groups in Guyana protested again the Social Protection Minister who dismissed a case of incest as being a “family matter.” Although the minister was replaced, the new Minister also proved hostile to defending women’s rights and in 2018, actively made efforts to “hush” matters of sexual violence and in one instance where a ranking member within the ministry committed an act of sexual violence, attempted to “coerce the victim into silence and later slut-shame her when she appeared in court.” Meanwhile, the perpetrator was only reassigned to oversee a different region. In Jamaica, it is common knowledge that 1 in every 4 women will experience sexual and physical violence in their lifetime. Although laws and legislation exist in Jamaica to protect women, they are scarcely enforced and often times, as in Guyana, lavish attempts to protect perpetrators—especially those with status—are made. In recollecting her rape, one woman noted that although she “felt raped and violated, [she] got over it because [she] reflected on the fact that he is [her] husband, but [she] is still angry to this day.”
Although rape culture largely plays a role in instances of rape, murder, and other violence against women in the Caribbean colonial laws that constitute familial households in the region also play a role. It is largely a factor when considering things such as women’s pay, where women in the region are more educated and, in some instances, hold higher positions than their male counterparts but are still paid less, due to assumptions that a man is caring for the woman at home, and making an adequate wage.
On today’s panel you will get to listen to two esteemed Caribbean activists, talk about women and LGBTQ struggles in the Caribbean; as well as their personal stories with how they got involved in activist work in the region. Ronelle King is a feminist and activist from Barbados who founded a viral call for women’s rights in the Caribbean with the hashtag #LifeinLeggings after experiencing violent harassment. Since then, the Life in Leggings movement has reverberated across the Caribbean and Latin American region, to as many as 11 countries. Ronelle currently serves as the director of the Life in Leggings organization, continuing to combat gender-based violence in the Caribbean. Twinkle Paul is a trans Guyanese human rights activist with over 7 years of fearless advocacy in the fight for trans rights and social justice in Guyana. Twinkle has worked with both the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination and Guyana Trans United, speaking out against human rights violations and discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in the region. Doing this work, she brings personal insights and knowledge about the fight for LGBTQ rights in the region.
Although a striking picture has been painted, what has been left out of my introduction are the on the ground activisms that have been happening in the region to protect the life and physical integrity of women and LGBTQ groups. In Guyana for instance, anti-cross-dressing laws were recently struck down. In Trinidad & Tobago, the “Lost Tribe” carnival band in mass— founded by openly gay Indo-Trinidadian director Valmiki Maharaj—allows men, women, and gender non-conforming people to wear non-binary outfits as they march through the parade. In Barbados, Didi Winston—a Bajan trans pioneer, LGBTQ activist, and flag waving champion— is using their newfound fame to help lead the charge in making Barbados more sensitive to LGBTQ communities.
Much more broadly, there is a noticeable resurgence of young Caribbean feminists getting organized to address issues of regarding “sexual sovereignty and combatting gender-based violence,” in a more confrontational way. In Puerto Rico you have women’s Plena groups singing at events across the island to destroy the patriarchy and assert that abortion is a personal decision for women to make with their own bodies. In Jamaica, Tambourine Army—composed of mostly survivors of sexual violence—march and spread awareness online about violence against women and trans women on the island. In the Dominican Republic, groups like Tertulia and Coloquio Mujeres RD meet regularly and stage protests to bring attention to increased femicide on the island and to revitalize discussions on gender identity, sexuality, and feminist politics. In Dominica, the viral kreyol hashtag that sparked a movement, #LeveDominik or “wake up Dominica” in English sought to address gender based violence for women victims of rape, abuse, and sexual assault. That movement also expanded to include men— which make up 20% of GBV cases on the island. In 2017 the song “leave me alone,” by calypso Rose was the most popular song at the Trinidadian carnival— it’s message being hailed as a feminist anthem which calls for men to not interfere with women carnival goers dancing in the street who reject their advances. This song was also powerful, because the year prior a woman participating in carnival was killed, and the mayor víctim-blamed her death, on the “revealing” nature of carnival costumes. In 2017 in Trinidad— a viral hashtags #SmearItTT also trended with the goal of forcing the government to implement a comprehensive national Pap smear screening program given the high rate of diagnosis— over 200 annually— for women on the island. Women on the island, especially doctors, wore their red lipstick smeared to work to bring awareness. In terms of more recent broader female solidarity across the region, Caribbean feminists coordinated their solidarity efforts to advocate for Yugoslavia Farrell who was wrongly imprisoned for allegedly used insulting language against the daughter-in-law of Vincentian Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves. Although their jobs were threatened afterwards, the charges against Farrell were dismissed, but a bigger problem was revealed— as have both of these social, economic, and fights have witnessed. That is these struggles must and are operating with pushback from the legal and especially political establishment— at the highest levels in Caribbean society.
Today, we have two Caribbean activists on the panel who can attest to what their fights and these challenges have looked like. I will now turn the mic over to the panelists where they will each have 30 minutes to speak and at the end, we will open the discussion up to the audience to ask questions— as we have the space until 12pm.
Thank you to all who came to listen to this panel and engage in a discussion regarding Caribbean struggles against austerity, colonial laws, and an unresponsive political and judiciary establishment for social rights!