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Barbados Prime Minister backs LGBT+ workers’ rights and hints at same-sex marriage

Barbados Prime Minister backs LGBT+ workers’ rights and hints at same-sex marriage

  • In a passionate speech, Barbados Prime Minister says allowing LGBT+ discrimination would make them no better than slave owners.
Mia Mottley.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley has promised LGBT+ workplace rights and hinted the country will start to discuss same-sex marriage.

Now campaigners are left wondering if she will act on her words – in a country where gay sex remains illegal.

Mottley’s speech comes after an apparent mistake where the Barbados government offered 12-month visas to remote workers. Initially the official website explicitly excluded married same-sex couples – and by extension other LGBT+ people.

However, officials quickly changed the wording on the 12 month Barbados Welcome Stamp to allow same-sex couples to apply.

Moreover, in addressing the issue, Mottley made far more significant comments for LGBT+ Barbadians.

‘There is an issue as to who Barbados will welcome and who it will not welcome. While I want to say that as long as I am prime minister we welcome all, everyone.

‘This country that has been forged, regrettably, in the bowels of discrimination can not now want to discrimate against anybody for any reason. All must breathe.’

Promise not to discriminate

At the moment, gay sex remains illegal in Barbados and LGBT+ people have no rights or protections.

But Mottley, who became prime minister in May 2018, hinted this may now change.

In a lengthy speech in Parliament, she said Barbados needed to have ‘difficult discussions’. And she said ‘now is not the time to have those discussions’.

However, she did promise the new bill against employment discrimination would cover ‘gender’ and ‘sexual orientation’. And she promised Barbados will have ‘no discrimination on any grounds in the workplace’.

Moreover, she suggested that allowing discrimination was not a Barbadian value. She said:

‘The people who want to put us in a box that allow people to be discriminated against for any reason, that is not who we are. We are not that person.’

Recognizing same-sex partners

Barbados wants to offer 12 month visas for remote workers from other countries. The idea is that they should choose to work on the ‘paradise’ island. Because the scheme is for those earning $50,000 a year or more, their presence will significantly boost the economy.

But when Barbados Tourism Marketing published details of the scheme on Monday (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’.

However, in her speech, Mottley hinted she would be open to recognizing same-sex partners more widely. She said:

‘And for us to recognize that a person has a partner, it is not for us to be doing anything else.

‘We will also have the discussion as to whether it is acceptable for us to discriminate against that boy or girl out there… somebody dies, to whom does the house go?

‘This is a country that recognizes unions other than a marriage. More than 70% of the people born in this country come from unions other than a marriage.’

Barbados is one of 20 countries included in a decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 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.

The law must not be ‘a scourge’ on citizens’ lives

In a wide-ranging speech, she also seemed to liken the struggle for LGBT+ rights to the Black Lives Matter movement. Mottley said:

‘The world is finding itself coming to grips with this issue of discrimination because of the horror of the knees of a man on the neck of another man. And I deliberately put it that way. 

‘Irrespective of what color you put as an adjective before, it is wrong. And if you put another adjective, it is still wrong.’

She also described herself as a fan of Tanya Stephens. The Jamaican reggae artist has written lyrics criticizing homophobia. Indeed, Mottley quoted one of Stephens’ songs – Do You Still Care:

‘Do you care that the person who saved your life may have been queer? Do you care that the person who is now wanting to offer you blood may have been black?’

Moreover she added:

‘This is a country that now has a female head of government. This is a country that is wanting to say it is not mine to judge.

‘It is really not mine to judge. That is for you and your God, whoever that is god is. But what we do know is this, that the laws of the land must not act as a scourge on the lives of human beings.’

Finally Mottley also referred to Barbados’ history with slavery:

‘This country will in the near future have a conversation that really flows naturally from all that we are doing.

‘We can’t allow discrimination in the workplace. Because if we do it we will be no different from the overseer who discriminated against our grandmother and our great grandmother. We will be no different from the massa who ensured that families were separated.’

‘A win for the country at large’

However, despite the fine rhetoric, the prime minister stopped short of making specific LGBT+ rights pledges.

Now LGBT+ campaigners are left wondering what to make of Mottley’s speech. Is it a sign the government will finally catch up on LGBT+ rights? Or is it just ‘waffle’, as one activist told us.

LGBT+ Barbadian Donnya Piggott is feeling optimistic. Welcoming the employment legislation, she told GSN:

‘For the last two years, I’ve felt that this current government has been pretty progressive and interested in transforming Barbados in a way that benefits all of us.

‘As an advocate, I’ve recognised how the economic case for inclusion is a powerful argument and I’ve completely thrown myself into that work.

‘I think its so important to recognise other groups that will benefit from this on the basis of sex, age, disability and gender. It’s a win for the country at large.

‘It’s so much more substantial than going after ancient buggery laws that speak to anal sex. We’re more than who how we have sex, we’re human beings. This legislation recognises us as people that need to be protected and valued.

‘I’m all for anti-discrimination legislation across the board and beyond the workplace but I also feel this is a great start.’

‘Just another opportunity to kick the can down the road’

By contrast, LGBT+ lawyer and Caribbean activist Maurice Tomlinson described the speech as ‘waffle’.

As he points out, as a lawyer Mottley will be well aware of the Inter-American Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and on the current legal battle to repeal its sodomy law.

Indeed, when she was attorney general, Mottley said Barbados should scrap its sodomy law.

Moreover Tomlinson argues she has a ‘super majority’ in parliament – there is only one opposition MP. Therefore she has no excuse not to act.

‘This is a golden opportunity for the prime minister to address all the anti-gay legislation in Barbados.

‘She can literally wave a wand and get rid of the anti-sodomy law. She is not even touching it. It is the worst law in the western hemisphere. It is life imprisonment. And even if it is not enforced, it is used to stigmatise LGBT+ people.

‘Instead they are just changing the visa requirement for foreigners. I think the whole thing is the missed opportunity. I am very disappointed.

‘This is just literally another opportunity to kick the can down the road again. Sometimes it is better to have a hostile opponent. When somebody like this prime minister who seems to say the right thing but refuses to do the right thing, that is more insidious.’