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queer activists caribbean

The queer Caribbean women fighting a vital, dangerous culture war

We speak to activists from Barbados, St Lucia and Trinidad about their continued resistance in places where it's unsafe to be LGBT

Former British colonies such as Uganda and Kenya, as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh, are among the world’s worst places to be gay. Britain has played a major role in exporting homophobia across the world, with 33 out of 55 Commonwealth states criminalising homosexuality based on laws that were introduced during occupation.

But Britain’s homophobic legacy also makes life extremely challenging for LGBTQ people in the Caribbean. In Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, gay sex carries a penalty of between ten years and life imprisonment. While sex between men is more widely prohibited under law, LBT women suffer from layers of marginalisation as the forces of patriarchy seep into the queer community. In the face of widespread sexual violence and discrimination, female LGBTQ activists are striving to ensure that Caribbean women have a say.

“People are violent towards queer people because they see something that they think is foreign and immediately want to resist it,” says Donnya Piggott, an LGBTQ activist from Barbados. Donnya believes that a post-colonial rejection of Western values has created systemic and aggressive homophobia across the Caribbean and West Africa. “Caribbeans want to stamp their sovereignty so much that they resist anything western, and the LGBTQ movement is undeniably western-focussed,” she explains. In Jamaica, just 5 per cent of people support repealing the country’s buggery laws. But in their resistance of “western values”, the majority of Jamaicans are actually supporting a law that was introduced during British occupation.

Donnya’s passion for LGBTQ activism began at the University of the West Indies where, as Humanities Rep, she participated in a panel discussion on LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean. After being inundated with requests to create a safe outlet for LGBTQ people, Donnya founded Barbados Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination (B-GLAD) in 2012. B-GLAD focuses on public education and advocacy. While other organisations work within the LGBTQ community, Donnya and her team work on behalf of the community to help increase public understanding of the needs of LGBTQ Barbadians. “In order to create real change we have to work with the public at large,” she says. “Whether it’s going to churches and having those difficult conversations with people of different faiths, or reaching out to people who engage in behaviours that harm the queer community.”

Sexual violence against women is widespread across the Caribbean. In Barbados there have been cases of corrective rape being used to specifically target lesbian, bisexual and trans women. “It’s a game of power,” says Donnya. “Men feel like they can take advantage of women who might not conform.” This type of violence has become so deeply embedded into Barbadian culture that women struggle to be taken seriously when reporting attacks. “Earlier this year there was a report in a gossip column where lesbian was raped,” she explains. “The title was ‘masculine woman gets a taste of male medicine,’ it was awful – her rape became a national joke.”

“Earlier this year there was a report in a gossip column where lesbian was raped. The title was ‘masculine woman gets a taste of male medicine,’ it was awful – her rape became a national joke”

But even within the queer community, patriarchy still runs deep. “People sometimes ask me: ‘why isn’t a man speaking?’” She says. “It sometimes feels like your voice isn’t enough.” More open discussion between queer people will be key to changing this. “When gay men were suffering from HIV, lesbians took the step forward and took care of them,” she explains. “I think there should be more camaraderie. We need to work together because we have done it so successfully in the past.”

Activist Kenita Placide agrees that queer women receive little credit for their contributions to the LGBTQ movement. “The lack of acknowledgement from gay men means there can be little regard for the input of LBT women,” she explains. “This plays a big part in whether women feel like they have a voice in LGBTQ groups and society.” But in over two decades as a queer activist, Kenita has been working to amplify female voices. After ten years as Executive Director of St Lucia-based NGO United and Strong, Kenita co-founded the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality. The organisation works across nine islands in the Eastern Caribbean with a total of 18 organisations, most of which are LGBT-led.

In St Lucia, like many Caribbean countries, hostility from politicians, the media and evangelical faith leaders has created the perfect storm of systemic homophobia. Though Kenita and her team are working to change this narrative. “We continually reach out to evangelical churches,” she says. “We’re trying to have the conversation with faith leaders about how we make spaces more inclusive.”

Yet LGBTQ activism in the Caribbean can be dangerous. Kenita was motivated to become an activist herself after two of her gay friends were murdered in quick succession. Seven queer people have been murdered in the last ten years in St Lucia, which is a lot for a small island with a population the size of Dundee. Following her media appearances, Kenita says that the homes of queer people are often vandalised. For women in particular, this creates an atmosphere of hyper-vigilance. “LB women are safer in terms of murders, but not in terms of rape,” she explains. “There has been a major push to put gender based violence on the agenda, but our job is to make sure it’s inclusive of LBT people.”

Though there are signs that things are slowly progressing. “Our leaders are still patriarchal and adhere to colonial ways of thinking, but you can feel the people getting fed up,” says queer Trinidadian activist Zeleca Julian. Zeleca is the co-director of I Am One, a community-based organisation in Trinidad and Tobago that addresses the needs of gender and sexual minorities. I Am One organise The King Show, the first pageant in the Caribbean that showcases stud culture and trans masculinity.

“To be Trinidadian is to be different. It teaches you to push against injustice in creative and practical ways”

This year Zeleca and her team launched the first regional King Conference in Trinidad, which created a space to theorise the ideas and concepts that came out of the show. Zeleca believes that even the challenging parts of Caribbean culture can be harnessed to create change. “In Trinidad we are a mix of different cultures, races and religions that continue to be affected by white supremacy,” she explains. “But it's also our strength because to be Trinidadian is to be different. It teaches you to push against injustice in creative and practical ways.”

Support from international organisations helps activists like Donnya, Kenita and Zeleca to expand their networks. This summer The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) became the first LGBTQ-focussed organisation to receive Commonwealth accreditation. TCEN is a network of 44 NGOS across 42 countries working to champion LGBTQ equality. This decision provides queer activists with a vital opportunity to put the human rights of LGBTQ people on the international agenda.

Speaking at last month’s PinkNews awards, Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged Britain’s role in exporting homophobia around the world. “The anti-LGBT laws which remain in some Commonwealth countries are a legacy of Britain’s colonial past so the UK government has special responsibility to help change hearts and minds,” she said. This commitment was a direct result of lobbying by TCEN organisations including The Kaleidoscope Trust, a London-based charity working to advance the rights of LGBTI people internationally.

While it is important for western countries like the UK to challenge homophobic attitudes abroad, we must be mindful that systemic homophobia in places like the Caribbean can be a form of cultural resistance. Instead of echoing our colonial past and imposing our values, we should amplify the voices of activists on the ground. But to create real change, it is imperative that the experiences of queer women are not erased and female LGBTQ activists have a seat at the table.