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How gay group United and Strong is changing the island of Saint Lucia

The traditional, religious society of Saint Lucia is gradually starting to listen to United and Strong which promises to make life better for all; LGBT and straight
Castries in Saint Lucia: The country is now starting to change thanks to LGBT campaigners including United and Strong.

With 90% of its population religious, and a strong loyalty to British laws that have helped shape its democracy, Saint Lucia is not always kind to the LGBT community. This small island’s profile is slowly changing, however, and part of that gradual shift, is the work done by United and Strong.

St Lucia’s first and only LGBT organisation, United and Strong Inc (U&S) formed in 2001 and was registered in November of 2005 in collaboration with the Caribbean AIDS Alliance in response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

Its aim was to reach men sleeping with men; however U&S has always worked actively with women sleeping with women. To date United and Strong remains a mixed group, in keeping with our mission statement: ‘To provide an enabling environment for the advancement of human rights for the LGBT community in Saint Lucia.’ Our main goal as a community is to eliminate stigma and discrimination while creating a society that is accepting and loving and where everyone is equal; not just in words but in actions.

Just recently, at the end of June 2012, an alleged case of sexual molestation of an underage male highlighted the progress made in changing attitudes in Saint Lucia and, simultaneously, the amount of work that remains to be done.

While in the past there was an automatic association with homosexuality and paedophilia, the populace has largely railed against this case as one of child molestation. However the commissioner of police took to the media to indicate that recruits to the force are vetted to prevent homosexuals joining the force.

Unfortunately, many like the Commissioner can claim support from laws that discriminate against LGBT people, many of which date back to colonial times. The laws of buggery and gross indecency were introduced by the British and are still in place today.

As a result many LGBT live in fear of being ‘found out’ and are thus reluctant to use the critical prevention, education and health services that they need to protect themselves and others. It also puts them off from testing for sexual infections, even, in some cases if they are suffering from HIV or AIDS symptoms. And that in turn means that many patients only seek medical help for these problems at a late stage which has a big impact on how easily they can be treated.

Sadly there are few ways we can redress within the law, however U&S works closely with lawyers who are advocates for human rights.

There is little solace in our government representatives. While some government ministers have privately stated their support for removing those laws, publicly the story is different. When the issue of changing the family life syllabus in schools to reflect different sexualities recently surfaced, the new minister for education stated that it was up to the community to decide what direction government takes and they have not indicated they want a change.

One thing that is clear is that we need to raise awareness of the discrimination taking place. U&S actively seeks to involve a range of different kinds of organizations, including faith groups and government to highlight and address both deliberate and accidental discrimination. We are pushing to make sure HIV and other sexual infections are tackled as risks to all. And we try to put sexuality and sex into every conversation possible until people stop running from it.

We hope to see discriminatory laws struck off the books; to not have our children taught that homosexuality is abhorrent and deviant behaviour; to love freely and walk the streets without fear of derogation and physical assault; to not have our careers and livelihoods depend on limiting our self-expression.

U&S continues to strive to make Saint Lucians understand that contrary to what they express or believe, being gay is not a western invention but a human reality and that acceptance is the only way forward for the sake of everyone in society, gay or straight.

The membership of U&S also feels a great connection to the global community and is committed to joining forces around the world against those who want to deny us our human rights.

The organisation is run by me and my fellow co-executive director Adaryl Williams and the immediate past director Egbert Felix John.

We broke new ground in Saint Lucia in June 2011 by opening the island’s first LGBT human rights office, funded by the ASTREA Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Within months however, the facility was burnt to the ground (investigations have not determined the motive or cause of the fire). With continuing support from ASTREA and assistance from the US State Department, the office has now reopened in a new location.

Since then we have continued our work, reaching out to the community, advocating for LGBT rights on the island and across the region, and we are involved in HIV testing and counselling.

In particular we made history in the Caribbean when we hosted an ‘international dialogue’ this February to discuss lesbian, gay, bi and trans issues – working in collaboration with ARC International and Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights Project.

The first of its kind in the region, the summit saw participation of over 85 people from the Caribbean, North America, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Central Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Among its achievements was helping groups in the Caribbean have more capacity to document, report and advocate for LGBT human rights. We also had the chance to share and develop strategies about making gay sex legal globally while building solid links between national, regional and international advocacy, allowing us to back each other up and work more closely together.

Now, motivated by the many before who walked the road for social justice, we are participating in World Pride as part of the process of change, as a brush stroke in the bigger picture that our allies around the world are transforming together.

Kenita Placide, co-executive director of United and Strong, is one of the LGBT activists taking part in the World Pride gay rights summit in London today (4 July).

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