LGBT activists must not forget the Caribbean

Although LBGT activists have experienced victories in the United States and Latin America, the movement must not overlook the state of LGBT rights in the Caribbean.

For many, it is the beautiful beaches and tropical temperatures that define the English-speaking Caribbean.

However, the region can also be described by an unfortunate characteristic – a persistent intolerance and discrimination of LGBT individuals.

In no less than ten Caribbean countries, consensual sex between men is still a criminal offence. In my home country of St. Kitts and Nevis, an ‘offender’ can face up to 25 years’ imprisonment.

Moreover, the LGBT community often faces isolation from their families and threats of physical violence. It is no exaggeration to state that many of them live in fear for their lives - the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported 594 hate-related killings of LGBT people across the Americas between January 2013 and March 2014. The fear of reporting crimes means that many more violent and discriminatory acts against LGBT people go undocumented.

Because of the comparatively small size of the region as a whole, these numbers tend to fly under the radar. But they shouldn’t. All of these countries have signed treaties that make them responsible for respecting the rights of each citizen, regardless of their background. It is time that we remind them of this promise.

Youth activists across the Caribbean are working to shape a world free from LGBT discrimination. There has been good news recently – in August, the Belize Supreme Court ruled that Section 53 of the country’s constitution, which categorised anal sex as a criminal act, violated human rights and was therefore unconstitutional.

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While this landmark victory should be celebrated, changing laws is not enough. To eliminate cultural discrimination, we must also change attitudes. The general public must become allies in the fight for equality.

As a journalist, I know the power of story-telling first-hand. When I began hosting and producing a radio programme (broadcast locally and streamed regionally and internationally), I deliberately included LGBT people in the show, so that they could share their experiences, their perspectives, and their aspirations.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from the listening audience ranged from incredulity to anger. Giving LGBT people a platform of this nature was unheard of. I was accused of trying to introduce ‘foreign values’ and of being ‘brainwashed’ by foolish liberal ideas.

But the criticism didn’t bother me. I knew it was important to show that LGBT people were more than a stereotype – that they were people whose opinions matter, and who deserve the inherent dignity afforded to every human being.

The change was neither immediate nor absolute. But slowly, the presence on the airwaves of LGBT speakers no longer inspired as many heated phone calls or emails. Instead, there was a grudging, then growing, acceptance that they had a right to be included.

More work remains to be done in St. Kitts and Nevis, and the wider region on this issue. But it is heartening to see that, in some places, people are slowly starting to accept LGBT people and their human rights. This growing acceptance is vital as we seek to overturn their criminalisation.

I am hopeful that my efforts, and those of fellow activists, will eventually pave the way for decriminalisation of LGBT communities right across the Caribbean. I hope that the global community will work with us to deliver this change.

Melissa Bryant is a Delegate Speaker in the Human Rights Plenary Session at the One Young World Summit 2016. She is passionate about meaningful youth engagement and empowerment in development.