In a victory for campaigners against homophobia, a law criminalizing same-sex acts between consenting adults in Antigua and Barbuda has been declared unconstitutional by the country’s high court. The ruling, which was issued on Tuesday, stated that the law contravened constitutionally guaranteed rights to liberty, freedom of expression and protection of personal privacy. The case was brought by a gay man in sync with two rights groups, Women Against Rape and the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE). Both groups have welcomed the ruling against the Sexual Offences Act 1995, which has its roots in British colonial-era legislation that forbids “buggery” and “indecency”. Hopes are now high that the ruling will pave the way for similar moves in neighboring countries.
In recent years, there has been growing momentum in the fight for LGBTQ rights around the world. In many countries, same-sex relationships are now recognized and protected by law. However, there are still many places where LGBTQ people face discrimination and violence. The Caribbean is one of these places. Seven countries in the region still have laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy. Although these laws are rarely enforced, they serve to marginalize LGBTQ people and tacitly sanction violence against them. This is why the recent ruling by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court is so significant. The court upheld the right of a gay man to live free from discrimination and violence. This ruling provides hope that other countries in the region will follow suit and amend their laws to protect LGBTQ people. It is also a reminder that there is still much work to be done in the fight for equality.
In Antigua and Barbuda, on paper at least, same-sex acts could incur a 15-year prison sentence, while in Barbados the penalty is cited as life imprisonment. The group has been fighting to overturn anti-gay legislation in several Caribbean nations. Other constitutional challenges in Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis, and St Lucia are expected to be concluded before the end of the year, according to ECADE. Ms. Wong said that she anticipated some kickback from religious leaders. “Antigua and Barbuda is largely a Christian society, so we expect some discussion coming from that quarter soon but we have a strategic plan in place to respond to it,” she explained. “We must realize society is not static but dynamic. Changes are taking place worldwide – and in the Caribbean as well,” she added. It is clear that attitudes towards same-sex relationships are slowly changing in the Caribbean, however there is still a long way to go before these attitudes are reflected in the law. ECADE is to be commended for their work in challenging these outdated laws and pushing for change. Hopefully, their efforts will result in real progress for LGBT rights in the region.
Recent years have seen the rise of a vibrant gay rights movement across the region, including the staging of Pride parades in Barbados and Guyana. November 2018 saw a century-old ban on “cross-dressing” in Guyana struck out, while in the same year laws prohibiting homosexuality in Trinidad were also overturned.
Still, with the Christian Church a cornerstone of society in much of the Caribbean, the reaction can be mixed. Aziza Lake, a senator and vocal advocate for LGBTQ people in Antigua and Barbuda, described Tuesday’s landmark ruling as “excellent news”. “The reception has not been too bad so far; the reaction from some quarters is to be expected. Homophobia is very pronounced here,” she said. “I just hope people will soon start to have a greater understanding of sexual and gender identity.”
Ms. Lake is also pushing for Antigua and Barbuda to follow suit and abolish its own colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexual activity. She believes attitudes are slowly changing, but admits it will take time. “People are getting more comfortable with the idea [of LGBTQ rights] but it’s going to take a while for that to really permeate through society,” she said. “
Ms Lake said many people in the twin island nation had been raised to believe that gay people were “sinful”.
She added that she hoped the move would open the door to address other “outdated” legislation too, such as rape laws which fail to criminalize non-consensual sex within a marriage.
Antigua-based attorney Andrew Akola, who played an integral role in the case, said the court victory brought efforts to end discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference a step closer.
“Antigua and Barbuda now leads the Eastern Caribbean as having recognized the illegality of punishing a person for who they love,” he said, adding: “Consensual love should never be a crime.”