It is time to campaign for equal marriage in countries where gay sex is still illegal

It is time to campaign for equal marriage in countries where gay sex is still illegal
Maurice Tomlinson and his husband on a beach.

For years LGBT+ campaigners have been convinced that we should campaign to make gay sex legal before we ask for marriage equality.

But I now believe this may be a mistake. It seems to me that marriage may well be a more attractive argument to make in countries where people feel uncomfortable talking about gay sex.

Right now I am currently going through a legal case to bring equal marriage to Jamaica. It’s a country where the law states homosexuality can still earn you 10 years hard labour in prison. Despite this, I am getting a surprising level of support.

I am a lawyer and an LGBT+ campaigner from Jamaica. And for over two decades I have been proud to partner with local and international groups that are working to eliminate anti-sodomy laws from the Caribbean.

These statutes date from British colonial times and criminalize all forms of intimacy, usually between men. They carry sentences of up to life imprisonment (Barbados).

The archaic laws directly violate a range of basic human rights, including the rights to privacy and dignity.

Moreover, they encourage people to carry out violent and sometimes deadly attacks on LGBT+ citizens. And they make it less likely LGBT+ people will get justice if someone does attack them.

Further, the existence of these laws is a major reason why the Caribbean has the second highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa.

Little progress from decades of work

In the light of those facts, most LGBT+ activists have prioritized ridding the Caribbean of these anti-sodomy laws. Of course, this must be a priority for urgent human rights and public health reasons.

So to achieve this goal, we have, for many years, adopted a multi-pronged strategy.

We have mounted direct court challenges to the laws. We have given the police sensitivity training. Meanwhile we have conducted media and other visibility campaigns, in particular by holding Prides where we can.

We have even tried to have a dialogue with faith leaders who oppose decriminalization.

LGBT+ campaigners painting Freeport Police Station in Jamaica.
LGBT+ campaigners painting Freeport Police Station in Jamaica to win hearts and minds. Montego Bay Pride

Sadly we have made little progress. Across the region, we’ve seen – at best – only a muted response to all our hard work. Homophobia has decreased in some countries, but only marginally.

Caribbean music, culture, dress and speech are riddled with overtly sexual references. However, despite this sexual obsession, Caribbean people seem to have little appetite for discussing gay sex. 

Jamaican’s attack on marriage and same-sex intimacy

Given the Caribbean is so resistant to legalizing same-sex intimacy, it’s not surprising most Caribbean queer leaders felt that same-sex marriage was a non-starter.

Indeed, many argued that demanding gay civil partnerships or marriage would undermine our efforts to scrap the sodomy laws. This became the accepted wisdom – and few challenged it.

Then, in 2012, Jamaica reminded us that things can get even worse.

The country introduced the first constitutional ban on same-sex unions anywhere in the Caribbean. That is despite the fact LGBT+ Jamaicans were still not advocating for marriage equality.

At the same time, Jamaica also strengthened the country’s anti-sodomy law.

As if 10 years hard labor is not a high enough price to pay for a private act of love making, Jamaican gays now have to register as sex offenders.

Anyone the courts find guilty of sodomy has to always carry this sex offenders’ card. If they fail to do so, they face 12 months in jail and a fine of JA$1million (US$6,820 €6,225) for each offence. 

The cruel irony of British colonial law

As a Jamaican gay man and human rights lawyer, I was devastated by this massive legal regression.

However, I continued to believe we could only achieve liberation by following the linear path other countries have. The trajectory is typically first decriminalization, then social security benefits, then adoption, then civil unions, and finally marriage.

Most countries have taken decades to go from removing the ban on gay sex to allowing same-sex marriage.

As a result, without a major shift in strategy, many of the former British colonies are at least 50 years away from recognizing same-sex unions.

Group marching at Montego Bay Pride in Jamaica.
Marching at Montego Bay Pride in Jamaica. Montego Bay Pride

But there’s a strange twist of fate. Some Caribbean countries are still British Caribbean Overseas Territories, such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. And therefore they now recognize marriage equality.

Of course, that means that the countries which remain British colonies give their people more rights than those which won independence from the empire.

It is all the more ironic because sovereign nations, like Jamaica, often say their anti-LGBT+ laws and religious doctrine is part of their culture. Whereas, in fact, the homophobia stems from their time as a colony. And so Jamaican LGBT+ citizens continue to suffer under British imperial law.

Forced to choose between being a good son and a husband

Marriage equality has made rapid progress over the last two decades in other parts of the world.

However, I accepted the conventional wisdom we had to decriminalize first. Caribbean media have often asked me about same-sex marriage. But I stuck to the line and never confirmed marriage equality was a goal for LGBT+ Caribbean people.

Meanwhile I was lucky enough to get married myself, under Canadian law.

And then, in 2018, urgent personal reasons forced me to rethink.

My mother, who has been ailing for some time, now requires 24 hours care. Naturally, I wanted to return home to look after her.

But equally I didn’t want to live without my Canadian husband’s financial and emotional support for what would be a very daunting task.

Tom Decker marrying Maurice Tomlinson.
Tom Decker marrying Maurice Tomlinson. Supplied

If we were heterosexual, that would be easy enough. Like any spouse, he’d be able to gain citizenship so he could live and work on the island. Of course, in our case, the law prevented that.

Jamaica was forcing me to choose between my husband and my mother.

So that year I felt I had to mount a legal challenge to Jamaica’s ban on same-sex unions. I filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to strike the ban down.

How my husband won my evangelical father’s heart

Although my cause was just, I still expected Jamaicans to push back. However, the positive responses I received were overwhelming. Even Jamaica’s most established and respected newspaper was supportive.

In retrospect the encouraging feedback shouldn’t have surprised me. Certainly Jamaica has a powerful right-wing religious establishment. However, regular Jamaicans I meet tend not to be bothered that I am married to a man.

Indeed, my own father is an evangelical Christian and was not open to discussing any sexual topic with me, much less my homosexuality.

However, when he met my husband and eventually spent time with us at our home, he witnessed our truly unremarkable married life.

As a result, he has become one of my biggest supporters. He even calls me from time to time to ask what I have cooked for my husband’s dinner!

Another heartwarming incident happened in 2016 when I applied to renew my Jamaican passport.

The application form asked me to state my marital status. As a lawyer, that presented me with a conundrum. Jamaica does not recognize my marriage. So, I left the question unanswered.

The clerk reviewing the application noted the discrepancy and asked me to explain. So I told her my difficulty.  Without missing a beat, she insisted that my marriage must be noted on my passport and asked for my husband’s details. 

Maurice Tomlinson and Tom Decker.
Maurice and Tom at church. Supplied

People can relate to our need to love

All this has made me question whether all our work for LGBT+ rights in the Caribbean is missing a crucial element?

Instead of exclusively campaigning to decriminalize gay sex, should we also be showing that LGBT+ people are members of families?

May we be struggling to win decriminalization because many straight people find gay sex ‘icky’? After all, many still equate it to HIV and AIDS and decades of religious miseducation have taken a heavy toll.

By contrast, people may find our need for love and a family far more relatable. Should we capitalize on that?

Does our focus on decriminalization reduce LGBT+ people to a sex act in the eyes of the public? And, if so, might discussing same-sex unions help to humanize us?

These are not just academic questions. The right answers may save LGBT+ citizens in the Caribbean and around the world years – possibly decades – of pain and anguish.

Moreover, LGBT+ advocacy invariably struggles to secure funding. The COVID-19 economic crisis is only making that worse. So we have to get the best ‘bang for our buck’.

By hiding our agenda, we hurt ourselves and fool nobody

Furthermore, I think there are some other practical advantages to pursuing marriage equality, alongside decriminalization.

Very often, those who oppose removing the sodomy laws accuse LGBT+ people of asking for ‘gay marriage’ even though, at the moment, we are not.

Indeed the homophobes’ rhetoric can even use the term ‘gay marriage’ interchangeably with legal gay sex.

At the moment many activists deny that same-sex marriage is an immediate demand. But it’s near impossible to persuade people that it won’t be a long-term aim. And to do so is potentially damaging for the future.

By hiding this whole agenda, we are only hurting ourselves and fooling nobody.

From a legal standpoint, it is as easy to argue in a constitutional court for scrapping the sodomy law as it is for equal marriage. The case for both is very clear.

However, courts tend to be more willing to go where they think society is heading.

And I think people are warming to same-sex couples who have attracted positive coverage. Recently Pete and Chasten Buttigieg, for example, have won some hearts and minds.

Such high-profile couples can capture the popular imagination in a way which arguments about gay sex currently struggle to do in the Caribbean.

To state the obvious, you can’t provide marriage without allowing people to have consensual sex. Therefore the case for marriage equality also erodes the sodomy laws. However, I am not arguing for one over the other, but for a parallel approach.

We can’t wait another 50 years to live and love freely

It seems to me, therefore, we should boldly combine legal marriage equality with a campaign for decriminalization in one ‘ask’.

Under a banner of ‘dignity for all’ we stand a better chance of breaking the log-jam or resistance much of Caribbean society still holds to fundamental LGBT+ rights.

Further, we now have evidence from dozens of countries that same-sex marriage strengthens society. These examples can be powerful in overcoming the claims of the anti-LGBT+ religious alarmists and their ilk.

There is certainly no silver bullet for LGBT+ human rights advocacy and local contexts may vary.

But I found it interesting that at the last global decriminalization conference – in Barbados in July 2019 – one of the hosts used his closing remarks to suggest that in future meetings, same-sex unions must be given equal billing.

In this radically changed world we must challenge everything, including the established formula for achieving LGBT+ equality. Caribbean queers simply cannot wait another 50 years for our right to live and love freely.

[Syndicated Content]

Published on GayStarNews Read the original article

Author: Maurice Tomlinson

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