Greater LGBT+ rights will help transform Barbados as it moves to create a new constitution following its move to republic status, campaigners say.
Prior to the inauguration of its new president Dame Sandra Mason, prime minister Mia Mottley’s government presented a new charter to parliament which, for the first time, references a person’s human rights as it relates to their sexual orientation.
“All Barbadians are born free and are equal in human dignity and rights regardless of age, race, ethnicity, faith, class, cultural and educational background, ability, sex, gender or sexual orientation,” article one of the document reads.
Though the five-article charter is not a legal document, activists anticipate that it will influence future legislation.
Donnya Piggott, co-founder of Barbados – Gays and Lesbians and All-sexuals Against Discrimination (B-Glad), said the island nation’s break with the British monarchy will bring about fresh opportunities to implement important equalities legislation.
“The charter is of huge significance; I think that Mia Mottley and the administration are trying to chart a new path for Barbados without us having to just adopt what was there before independence,” she told The Independent.
“As a human rights advocate and part of the LGBT community, I think a lot of the laws that exist in the constitution have been oppressive, such as the buggery law which has often been used to justify homophobia against the LGBT+ community.”
Ms Piggott, CEO of queer travel guide organisation Pink Coconuts, added: “As it relates to human rights, a lot of our laws have been carried over from colonial rule and we’ve never had a chance to really determine where Barbados is going.
“Becoming a republic is a great opportunity for Barbados to wipe the slate and determine who we are.”
During a debate about the charter, Ms Mottley, who is known for her progressive politics, told parliament: “It is a document that reflects how the majority feel, but that is committed to the protection of all, not just the majority, because the role of a government is to confer the benefits of the protection of the rule of law, the precepts of fairness, on its people while insisting that order remain to avoid anarchy”.
In 2015, Ms Piggott received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work with LGBT+ communities, attending Buckingham Palace to be conferred with the honour.
While acknowledging the damaging legacy of the British Empire on Barbados, the campaigner explained that though she felt “conflicted” in accepting the accolade, it had helped to advance the equalities cause within the country.
“At that time, royalists were a large part of the homophobic groups within Barbados and after I was given this award, people started to listen and engage more,” Ms Piggott explained.
“They started to think. Given that they had such allegiance to the Queen, Britain and these laws, and were also homophobic, only to see that I was then awarded because of the work I was doing….it was cognitive dissonance at that point.
“My small voice was amplified, as an advocate, even more.”
Ms Piggott, who fully supports Barbados’ removal of the Queen as its head of state, describing it as a “good start”, said: “While I know that a lot of people tend to reject awards from the queen and from these powers, I think it’s always important to be strategic and think about how we can then use these awards to advance our causes.
“It was a conflicting move but it was also necessary.”
Ms Mottley’s administration is building upon a pre-existing framework; the 1998 Report of the Constitution Review Commission, known as the Forde Report, which states that the rights of all Barbadians should be protected.
Nonetheless, the parliamentary debate around the charter, late last month, brought about some contention between the government and opposition as its leader, Bishop Joseph Athlerley, claimed that the term “sexual orientation” could send the wrong message to adults interested in having sex with children.
This led to accusations that he was comparing same sex relationships with paedophilia; a well-known homophobic slur.
The charter also declares citizens as equal by virtue of “our humanity, in the eyes of the creator”, sparking criticism from the opposition and some religious groups who have expressed concern that the use of the word ‘creator’ signifies a departure from acknowledging a sovereign ‘God’ in alignment with Barbados’ traditionally Christian values.
“Until we have our own constitution we are only a republic in name. This is an opportunity for the people and government to make a constitution that is for all Barbadians,” René Holder-McClean-Ramirez, Barbadian LGBT+ and human rights advocate, told The Independent.
“Thankfully the conversation towards constitutional change has started with the charter and constitutional talks planned for 2022.
“But, through the parliamentary debate on the constitutional charter, we are already seeing some religious groups mistakenly linking equality to a loss of religious freedoms and, sadly, the opposition leader’s debate contribution had homophobic tones.”
Mr Holder-McClean-Ramirez, who is one of the co-founders of campaigning group Equals Barbados and the first chair of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE), said conversations around the charter gave “a snapshot of how the conversations around the constitution will go”.
“The conservations will happen, though, but I fear that this will be a tumultuous year as talks progress,” he said.
“Members of some religious groups feel that their rights are going to be affected when that’s not the case; all that we’re saying is that everyone is born free and equal, and everybody has the same rights.”
Humanist Barbados has also called for an introduction of more LGBT+ rights moving forward.
At the moment, homosexuality is not explicitly illegal in Barbados, but colonial-era laws, even if rarely enforced, criminalise same-sex relationships while transgender people have no legal recognition.
Last year, Ms Mottley said Barbados will recognise civil partnerships for same-sex couples and pledged that the issue of gay marriage will be put to the public through a referendum, given that marriage is a function of the church and lays outside of the government.
“This country, that has been forged regrettably in the bowels of discrimination, cannot want to discriminate against anybody for any reason. All must breathe in this country,” she said.
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