Barbados is facing a startling increase in the level of anti-gay rhetoric, stirred up by religious groups from the US.
Barbados has the worst anti-sodomy law in the western hemisphere, life imprisonment. But we have not yet recorded the level of homophobic violence common in other Caribbean countries.
That said religious groups have changed their tactics. They have held blatantly homophobic conferences, street marches, and public meetings vilifying and demonizing LGBTI.
Our politicians have also jumped on the anti-LGBTI bandwagon.
In response to this rising tide of hate, LGBT Barbadians held our first official Pride last weekend (24 to 26 November).
Is Barbados Pride asking for trouble?
For years, many Barbadians have argued that Pride was too radical for our society to handle.
Some LGBTI advocates were also against the idea for fear of backlash. Religious fundamentalists and anti-gay figures have claimed a Barbadian Pride celebration would mimic the ‘moral decadence of the West’.
I had often been told a Barbados Pride would only be asking for trouble. But I refused to heed such misgivings. I knew how important Pride was for our LGBTI community – especially for me as a transgender woman.
I was privileged to deliver a talk at the Pride launch. During it, I recounted how the original catalyst to Pride celebrations globally, the Stonewall riot against police abuse and state indifference, remains an integral part of LGBTI advocacy.
Senior civil servants, representatives of diplomatic missions in Barbados and the media attended the launch. And I impressed upon them why such advocacy was needed here.
Sadly no member of the Barbadian government accepted our invitation to attend the launch, testifying to their antipathy towards the LGBT community.
But I shared how the government ignores us and treats us as undeserving of dignity, respect and legislative protection. In Barbados, this is coupled with extremist religious dogma and a increasingly hostile pop culture.
That is why I felt we had to push back against this onslaught of neglect and abuse.
The terrible toll of trans deaths in Central and South America
I am openly Transgender woman. And I seek to live my life as part of mainstream society and not as a segregated minority character and caricature.
So my exasperation boiled over when I read that this year alone, 325 trans persons around the world were slaughtered simply for existing. The youngest of these was just 15 years old.
There have been over 2,600 trans deaths worldwide over the last nine years. And that’s just the documented cases.
Of those, more than 2,000 occurred in Central and South America as well as neighbouring countries. That is our Caribbean region.
Evangelical ministers spreading lies and hate
Even closer to home, we have seen right-wing evangelical ministers come into Barbados. They are spreading deliberate and gross misinformation about the LGBT community.
In reality I am a non-violent, law-abiding, gainfully-employed citizen of Barbados. But to them, I am somehow “mentally diseased”, “demonic” and a danger to society.
Meanwhile, many LGBT persons, after being harassed and even attacked, receive little to no assistance from the local police.
In my own case, a mob threw stones and glass bottles at me outside a minimart in 2016. The police largely ignored my report.
Despite all this, many people in Barbados assert the LGBTI community is either making false complaints or making mountains out of molehills.
They don’t want to believe it when local advocates and foreign entities report that Barbadian LGBTI people have been forced to seek asylum overseas.
LGBT people are fleeing Barbados in droves because they no longer feel safe in our homeland. Our island is beginning to mimic the homophobic and transphobic attitudes of Jamaica.
We are witnessing ‘murder music’ playing on public transportation and in public spaces. We are also seeing an increase the number of average citizens threatening LGBTI people with violence.
Tourist-friendly doesn’t mean LGBTI-friendly
Some claim that Barbados is tolerant of LGBTI people because ‘whenever gay tourists come here they are welcomed’.
But local LGBTI people do not receive such preferential treatment.
For example, at our annual Kadooment festival in 2013, bystanders assaulted a gay person carrying a flag because he dared to make himself visible.
A gay man was also hospitalised earlier this year with stab wounds, inflicted because of his unabashed personality and flamboyance.
Barbados is steadily reaching a level of homophobia and transphobia which mirrors the extreme violence seen in some southern US states. This is not surprising since much of the anti-gay rhetoric we are witnessing originates from those same areas.
Fearful LGBTIs going back in the closet
This sad societal change is taking its toll. LGBTI Barbadians fear a loss of employment, home evictions and worse. So they choose not to associate with other members of the community or even be seen with us.
Others choose simply not to make themselves known to anyone at all.
This is at a time when we need more visibility from the LGBTI community to counteract the lies religious extremists are spreading about us.
Research has also identified that LGBTI people are also hesitant to seek HIV and other health care, which threatens our country’s public health efforts.
We can hardly blame those community members who are retreating into the shadows. They are, after all, facing increasing threats to their livelihood and and well-being.
Influencers inspiring hatred
As seen the world over, unchecked hate speech can quickly transform a tolerant society into one where anti-LGBTI violence is commonplace.
This is especially true in micro-states like Barbados where influential people carry greater weight than elsewhere. Statements by local right-wing religious extremists have therefore fanned the flames of intolerance that threaten to consume Barbados.
For example, university lecturer and sociologist Dr Veronica Evelyn, has called homosexuality ‘illogical’ and a threat to the Barbadian family.
Similarly, Dr Lucille Baird gave a grossly deceitful presentation about us. She said LGBTI advocates want to make everyone else gay and ‘perpetuate the myth of heterosexual AIDS’.
Reverend Marcus Lashley also sought to correlate homosexuality to paedophilia and pederasty.
As a result, Barbados is rapidly transforming from a society where a person’s sexuality was largely irrelevant to one where you hear the violently homophobic epithets ‘Bun fiyah!’ (burn gays) and ‘Boom!’ (mimicking the sound of shooting gays) more frequently on the streets.
It will only be a short time before citizens start acting on the homophobic sentiments the haters have deliberately whipped up. We will likely see more anti-LGBT physical violence, including murder.
Politicians using LGBTIs as scapegoats
Our politicians, meanwhile, want to distract from our economy’s poor performance, due in part to Brexit.
Barbados is largely dependent on tourism. And the island receives a significant number of visitors from the UK. Naturally, Brexit has caused a downturn in those arrivals.
But there’s more to it. Barbados, like much of the Caribbean, is driven partly by a ‘barrel baby’ culture. Whenever a – usually older and breadwinning – relative goes overseas, they often send back money and goods to support their family.
Prior to Brexit, the Pound Sterling was approximately BDS $3.15. It has now fallen to $2.66.
This slump in the pound means that if a Barbadian living in the UK continues sending the same amount of UK currency to help their families, it means a tighter budget for the recipients. If that breadwinner still wants to give his Barbadian family the same amount, they end up squeezing their personal budget in the UK.
Of course the lower value Pound also means the cost of living is rising in the UK. So, through a trickle-down effect, they can send fewer goods back to Barbados.
That’s not the end of our economic woes. We’ve seen recent tax hikes and impositions here.
One is ironically named the ‘New Social Responsibility Levy’ (NSRL). They introduced it at 2% earlier this year and have now raised it to 10%. It is applicable to just about all imported goods. So Barbadians are paying more to clear goods from the UK through Customs. But equally, products on the local supermarket shelves are more expensive. So Barbadians are feeling a severe economic pinch.
For our politicians, the LGBTI issue is a useful distraction from these economic woes. So they have been quick to launch their own ‘morality’ campaigns to capitalise on the changing public mood.
Why we launched Barbados Pride
This impending threat was why a group of us decided to organise Barbados Pride. We felt an urgent need to halt and reverse the coming homophobic storm.
We created Barbados Pride as a statement of the LGBTI community’s refusal to feel shame for who we are. And we wanted it to become a safe space where we could unite and find support from LGBTI individuals and allies.
We we also wanted to prove that local advocates could organize a successful Pride.
This was our second attempt at organizing Pride. The ambitious 2015 version largely fizzled due to community challenges and fear.
This time around a smaller group of us decided on a focused and ultimately more successful program. We were also lucky to have support from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
Barbados Pride featured a weekend of events including the first ever public Walk for LGBT Rights in the English-speaking Caribbean.
We also held activities to showcase the multifaceted LGBTI community. So we organized an expo for LGBT-owned businesses and a talent show.
And we screened a film about the fight against the dreadful Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, which is in many ways similar to our own draconian law.
Transgender Day of Remembrance in Barbados
Another event we included was the first ever ‘Memorial Stand’ for Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) in Barbados.
In August 2015, I started a holding peaceful, stationary protests, we called ‘Flash Stands’. A group of us would suddenly gather, stand for 30 minutes to half an hour, and then disperse about our day.
We deliberately positioned ourselves opposite the Parliament Buildings in Bridgetown. Obviously we wanted that political symbolism but also parliament is in a dense traffic area.
At these Flash Stands, we held placards bearing slogans against Section 9 of the Sexual Offences Act. It is this law which criminalises the act of buggery (read: anal sex) and imposes a life sentence upon conviction.
We also used them to speak out against the ill-treatment of LGBTI people in Barbados. And we proudly flew LGBTI flags alongside the Barbados flag.
The world marked Transgender Day of Remembrance on Monday 20 November, so I wanted to repeat this kind of protest.
The Memorial Stand was our chance to remember that terrible death toll of trans people worldwide.
Thank you Canada
The High Commission of Canada in Barbados agreed to host our launch event. We felt this was fitting in light of the fact that Canada co-chairs the UN Equal Rights Coalition.
This coalition of states is seeking to advance the human rights of LGBTI people globally.
Canada and Barbados also share a similar history. Both are former British colonies, where our anti-sodomy laws originated. Canada, of course, managed to jettison its law nearly 50 years ago. But event today, in our 51st year of independence, Barbados ironically clings to this colonial imposition as a sign of our sovereignty.
When we asked the Canadian High Commission to assist us, we meant to show our government how a proper, diligent government which strives to look out for the interest of human beings should act when met with a marginalised group.
Rainbow and trans flags fly in Bridgetown
We walked through our capital, Bridgetown, bearing placards, wearing rainbow and trans pride flags as capes and carrying the Barbados Pride banner.
We were making a statement to the public that we would not allow the descent into rampant homophobia and transphobia to continue any further. And we were going to use the power our existence and resilience to fight back with all our might against it.
When we stood across the road from the façade of the Parliament grounds, we reminded our country that we are born and bred ‘Bajans’ with full validity as citizens. We would not allow ourselves to be picked off like ‘Banks’ beer bottles on a wall.
Barbadian LGBT people are taking steps to ensure the full enjoyment of our human rights and Barbados Pride is testimony to this fact.
In the face of government apathy, Pride reminds our Barbarian family of our celebrated history of tolerance as we seek to reject imported religious rhetoric with its alien legacy of hate.
Read more about Pride in the Caribbean