Hello, I’m Omar Musni, and welcome to our bimonthly UN Gender Focus podcast, where we look in-depth at some of the stories and issues that are affecting the lives of women and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people across the world.
Along with UNAIDS we marked Zero Discrimination Day this Thursday, but it’s an ongoing struggle.
(Audio clip.) “If we do not expect to be discriminated against on the basis of our religious beliefs, colour, race or gender, if Muslim societies expect others to fight against Islamophobia, we should be prepared to end discrimination at home, too. Islamophobia is wrong. Discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs and colour is wrong. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or any other status is wrong.”
Those were the words of UN Human Rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein at the conclusion of a three-day visit to Indonesia a few weeks ago. Proposed revisions there to the Criminal Code would heavily discriminate against the LGBTI community.
That very same day, in the United Kingdom Territory of Bermuda, legislation was signed into law, repealing, for the first time ever anywhere, the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
These developments stand in the face of the High Commissioner’s efforts to combat anti-LGBTI discrimination throughout the world, even while the Human Rights Council mandated an Independent Expert to support these efforts. This is Vitit Muntabhorn, the first such Expert, presenting his report to the UN General Assembly in October last year:
(Audio clip.) “It is unconscionable that persons with an actual or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity, different from a particular social norm, are targeted for violence and discrimination in many parts of the world. […] It should be underlined that human rights predicate the protection of all persons without distinction.”
For this podcast, we’re going to focus on one region, where the LGBTI community is subject to on-going discrimination — the Eastern Caribbean. LGBTI advocacy groups there, have come together to form the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, or ECADE, based in Saint Lucia.
I spoke to Kenita Placide, ECADE’s Executive Director, who outlined the group’s primary mission.
ECADE is a sub-alliance representing the Eastern Caribbean, made up of 19 organizations across nine countries. ECADE’s primary priorities are really to increase the visibility of organizations on the ground, build capacity and to ensure that organizations have a certain level of accountability and governance structures to hold their Governments accountable. We have also been ensuring that we are able to bring some level of funding to the region.
And your organizations and activists work primarily with LGBTI communities in Saint Lucia and the Eastern Caribbean?
Primarily LGBT; however, we are also working with AIDS service organizations, as well as women’s organizations.
What are some of the greatest challenges that are facing these communities in the Eastern Caribbean?
I think when we look at the top of priority for people in terms of challenges, they feel that what type of funding comes to the region is one of the big priorities for them. Most of the funding was HIV-focused and, therefore, limiting to what else can be done. The other issues that really affect them in being able to fully serve are policies and laws which are highly discriminatory within our constitutions. Within the Eastern Caribbean we currently have 7 of the 11 countries with sodomy laws. The Caribbean is considered to be a highly religious place. And since we have seen the loss of religion fundamentalists in Europe and North America, they are now fuelling in the Caribbean to push their agenda, which they have lost in other places. Societal attitudes, cultural norms are something that we are still challenging to ensure equality.
With those growing homophobic and transphobic attitudes, what have you observed in terms of the safety and security of LGBTI people?
I think one thing that we have done is informing people about security. One of the things that we have been doing has been educating and sensitizing within our populations first. But we have also been working with the Ministry of Health to sensitize health-care professionals; the commissioners’ regional security system, responsible for training for police to sensitize police; trade unions, teachers — creating the loop of change because we don’t think it’s just going to happen from one angle. But one of the things the organizations drive right now is all of them having a media appearance in terms of social media and using this also as an angle to continue the conversation. So, something that was not happening before. What we have found is the activists themselves being able to speak up in their own country is something that’s powerful and has been helping.
How would describe the way social media is being used for this?
Most of the organizations now have Instagram accounts or Facebook accounts or Twitter accounts where they can put things out. But the other thing they do with those is also to continue engaging the general public, they engage their own community members. People are speaking their minds. And when those persons put the negative things, it helps remind us of the work we need to continue doing. But, you know, when they engage with your post, it certainly gives you the opportunity to bring education and sensitization to the table. And that’s not just Eastern Caribbean. Across the Caribbean, the organizations that are really set up are on social media. We are seeing the groups really expressing, recognizing different international days, sharing their work. And this is where we see sharing of their work across borders.
You mentioned the negativity that sometimes can be seen on social media. How do you and your organizations address negative responses to their social media presence?
I mean, the interesting thing about it which I should share with you is — and this is happening locally on land, as well as through social media — that, at times, when somebody put a negative post, by the time we see it, there’s an ally or someone else already defending the post.
So, someone else is already coming to your aid and someone else is already supporting you.
Yeah. And sometimes it’s not even necessary for us to respond as individuals. You may just need to like it and support it. Because people are like, “Why do their life matter to you so much? How does that affect your life? Why are you being so negative?” We have seen also, say, for example, Barbados: when youth advocates of a religious organization decide they were going to march to take back the rainbow and when we reached out to LGBT activists, they actually went and marched with them, which was like, to them, exciting because it was like a mini-pride march in the streets. And one of the things that happened was the exchange, the dialogue, that happened at the end of that march between those Christian kids and the LGBT community was powerful.
Did the individuals who were marching, did they know that there were LGBTI persons amongst them?
Well, it was very clear. They walked with their flag. They identified, they did.
What about popular culture? How does popular culture affect the image of LGBTI people in the Eastern Caribbean? Does it help? Does it hurt?
In terms of music, the music which has the most impact right now in the Caribbean is Jamaica dancehall and a number of artists have been banned, have been asked to change the words of the songs and so on and so forth. So, there has been a real crackdown. As a matter of fact, some of the “kill the gays” tracks have been recently said, “You know what, we the gays are going to take this track and own it and take away the negativity.”
If you have a song that says, “Kill the gays,” what do you do to reclaim that kind of music and turn it around?
I think it’s more of the youth thinking that, “You know what…” Before, it used to be a big campaign that when these songs start playing, you don’t dance to it, you don’t sing it, you don’t accept it. And it’s like now they are dancing and singing to it and say, “You know what? I’m not even going to… I enjoy the lyrics, I don’t enjoy the words of it and I don’t care.” We don’t think it’s the right approach but, you know, at the end of the day, there’s some rights of individuals to try different things that we cannot take out so we have just been monitoring the outcome. Different organizations have been writing to government, writing to promoters, saying they don’t want this individual, they don’t want that individual because of their lyrical content… because of the contents of their music, and the hype of violence against people. And in most of the countries, especially now where the violence level is so high, it has been a good thing to do.
What’s the situation with youth?
When we talk about youth, we’re talking about below the age of 18. And with most of our organizations, they are very conscious of working with youth. Especially because most of the LGBT organizations are said to be recruiting. And so most of the youth programmes are done in collaboration with youth organizations or HIV organizations, not as a stand-alone organization. So, for some places, there is not a youth programme because the additional pressure from the general public, especially the Church as recruiting young people have not been very nice.
And so how do you address the needs of LGBTI youth who might need the help of an AIDS organization, for instance?
There is nothing we can do for young persons under the legal age. The fact is the youth age carries on beyond. And we have been working with young people — well, we take a chance of 17 and over. Persons under 17 usually need parental consent, which usually that’s not a conversation at home, so that’s a little difficult.
Around the world, we’re seeing that Governments are addressing the issue of equality for LGBTI people. Recently, there was the IACHR advisory opinion that the OAS must all recognize sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination laws. How do you feel an opinion like that is going to affect the policies of countries in the Eastern Caribbean?
I think at the moment there is no impact, unless it’s advocated for. I think this is not going to go anywhere soon. However, it also depends on how activists on the ground continue to reference this as part of one of the government’s obligations.
So, activists and the civil society must continue to advocate that these things become implemented?
Yeah, because yes, you can tell them, “Yes, you are signatory of the OAS,” “Yes, you are part and parcel of this,” and, you know, it’s a court ruling. However, unless there’s some political leadership to take this and domesticate it, it just remains a ruling for us. Collectively, there’s a strategy of litigation for the Eastern Caribbean so we actually have a framework that… a road map as we look at the aim of launching the litigation process. And this was a wonderful ruling in a timely manner. However, it’s like the same way we said, “Yay!” it’s like, okay, so now how do we get it to not just be a ruling taking dust but actually used.
As we turn towards the legal challenges for LGBTI people, here’s more from Mr. Muntarbhorn to the General Assembly.
(Audio clip.) “It is salutary that in the past 20 years, approximately 25 countries from all regions have taken steps to decriminalize same-sex relationships between consenting adults. […] The gaps are, however, ubiquitous, despite a global trend towards decriminalization of consensual same-sex relationships. More than 70 countries still criminalize same-sex relations with particular impact on gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men. Of those, at least 40 countries criminalize same-sex relations between lesbian and bisexual women and other women who have sex with women. The death penalty may, regretfully, be applied in a number of countries (about eight) in the African and Asian regions.”
Some Governments in the world are re-examining their laws and they are not moving in a way that is progressive for LGBTI equality. For instance, Indonesia is considering changes to their law. And Bermuda has rolled back its marriage equality. How do you react when you see a Government has decided to go in that direction?
I mean, it’s always heart-wrenching when those things happen and my first instinct is always to reach out to the people on the ground to get opinions, to get ideas and so I know for sure that when I’m asked that question I speak from a place of amplifying the voices of activists on the ground and not just from my opinion. But as an individual, I would tell you that, you know, it almost sends you into a fit of sadness and sometimes anger because I think people still do not understand equality and access and justice as they make those decisions. But again, we also ask our people to — where it is safe to do — to rise up and let them know that they are not happy. But I also think that we have to mobilize our allies who sees this as important to also be able to step up because most politicians respond to majority. And so for now they see LGBT issues as a minority issue. And even then, to the government’s own… when… Say, for example, when they take back same-sex marriage and they give civil partnership is that less equality? In their head, what does that mean?
In light of what you’re saying, beyond public policy, what do you think can be done to effect change at the community level or at the personal level?
What continuously change hearts and minds are personal stories. And so it’s basically the activists asking organizations to create those opportunities where people can actually tell their stories. And one by one this is what helps us change hearts and minds of friends and family. And we just have to be able to create the opportunities where they have that open mind to be able to receive what we are saying. Secondly, how do we put out campaigns, PSAs, information in a way that is not too much “in your face” as they normally say but giving just enough to kind of educate people on the reality and not just for them to live with the myths or rumours. And so, it takes continuous effort to put yourself out there as an individual or to put yourself out there as an organization to continue sensitizing and educating and doing the one-on-ones to bring about change.
That was Kenita Placide, Executive Director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality — just one of the regions around the world where making equal rights a reality for LGBTI people is an on-going battle.
You’ve been listening to our Gender Focus Podcast, from UN News. I’m Omar Musni. Thanks very much for listening.