UNITED NATIONS -- Two years ago, a gay couple and their friend vacationing in St. Lucia were tied up, beaten, threatened with knives and guns, and told that they would be killed if they tried to escape. The men later freed themselves, climbed out a window and hiked down the mountain to a friend’s house.
That incident was the worst case of anti-gay violence on record on the small Caribbean island, according to Kenita Placide, co-executive director of St. Lucia‘s United and Strong, which works on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Placide said she has received several threats “just because I am an advocate for LGBT rights.” Two men held her up on the steps of a local department store and threatened to kill her if she did not stop advocating for gay rights on television, she said.
In the Caribbean, “the media have played a major role” in the international visibility of the struggle for gay rights in Jamaica, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. But Placide said the scrutiny in those countries has overshadowed the worsening human-rights conditions in other Caribbean nations.
At a recent meeting at the United Nations to assess progress on LGBTI rights, many people from the Caribbean said the situation remains dire. Gay sexual relations remain illegal in many countries, carrying prison sentences in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The 2010 Dominican Constitution bans same-sex marriage and even same-sex couples from cohabitating. Haiti has no legislation pertaining to gay rights. At least two countries —Belize and Trinidad and Tobago — have immigration laws that ban gay people from entering the country.
In recent years, dozens of hate crimes have been reported in St. Maarten, the Bahamas and other socially conservative Caribbean islands where many gays are not open about their sexuality.
Because of the rise of anti-gay violence in St. Lucia since 2005, Placide said, “We are concerned that we are becoming a little Jamaica.
“Jamaica has had gruesome murders that none of the other Caribbean countries can say they have had,” Placide said. “What’s happening in St. Lucia is that we have the murders, and because the victims were openly gay, we have made a point about it. Whether Jamaica is more out there than other countries, that depends on the media and scholars — it all depends on who places focus on what.”
As the outrage against recent anti-gay rulings in Russia and other countries dominate headlines, human-rights advocates at the U.N. meeting, organized by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), said they’re worried that the high-profile rulings draw too much attention away from worsening condition for gays in many other countries.
“More often than not,” said Placide, “Latin Americans are invited to the table, and when they speak, they do not necessarily represent the reality of the Caribbean. When governments or U.N. agencies speak about working in the Caribbean, more often than not, they went to Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. The smaller islands that are doing as much work and have as many issues as Jamaica are left behind.”
Legal protections for LGBT persons in Latin America vary widely. The Chilean transgender activist Andrés Rivera Duartes said, he doesn’t think his country has made much progress when considered alongside Argentina and Uruguay. Those countries, he said, “not only have gender identity laws but also same-sex marriages.”
In 2012, the Chilean Congress passed anti-discrimination legislation — seven years after it was first introduced. Though the legislation does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity, it outlaws any discrimination that “threatens the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights.”
Chile currently has no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. But it has acknowledged that transgender Chileans have some rights. In 2007, Duarte filed a lawsuit that became a landmark in Chile because it resulted in the first-ever recognition of the rights of transgender persons to legally change their name and sex.
Prompted by the homophobic murder of Chilean youth Daniel Zamudio and a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against Chile for refusing to legalize gay marriage, Duarte said that “the Chilean government has been forced to make progress” that have “allowed for steps that bring us closer to achieve dignity and respect to transgender and intersex people.”
In Colombia, Wilson Castañeda Castro, an LGBT public policy adviser to the United Nations Development Program, said that the fight over marriage equality remains in limbo, as court judges continue to overrule one another over the precise definitions of a “solemn contract” between same-sex couples. In June, Congress failed to pass legislation giving same-sex couples the right to civil marriage.
Castro’s organization, la Corporación Caribe Afirmativo, works in cities along Colombia’s Caribbean coast to advocate for LGBT persons who have been victims of human-rights violations due to police brutality and armed conflict.
Between Feb. 23, 2007 and June 30, 2013, Caribe Afirmative’s new executive report on the state of LGBT rights in the Colombian Caribbean region states that “79 violent deaths of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals in the region; classified in 68 manslaughters, seven suicides and four post-op deaths. Of these cases, 40 were transgender women, 34 were gay men and five lesbian women.”
Although it was difficult to extract stronger commitments from their own country's U.N. representatives or those from the U.S. and Europe, activists said that the face-to-face meetings in New York were instructive.
“I was able to tell the European Union that we, as a civil society, could accompany them in the process of advancing these human-rights issues in Chile, but that we could not do all the work for them alone,” Duarte said. “I hope our meetings made them think about what they are still not doing on transgender and intersex issues.”