To my – and many others’ – surprise, this week’s headlines declared new support from the Roman Catholic church for laws that provide for civil unions between same-sex couples.
It was a weird sort of roundabout thing, Pope Francis’s words appearing in a documentary film released at the Rome Film Festival, prompting guesswork as to whether they came before or after his consecration. (Buoyed by the marquee, everyone seems to be ignoring the fine print, that the pope still doesn’t intend gay and lesbian couples to actually have sex – at least not yet. Sex between a married heterosexual couple remains the only kind sanctioned by church doctrine.) Like the pope, Barbados made its own headlines on this issue across the Caribbean last month. Government would recognise unions between people of the same sex, the governor general announced in the ceremonial throne speech at the opening of the new parliamentary term.
In her brief two and a half years in office, the country’s prime minister Mia Mottley has leapt to the fore as a regional leader on several fronts. Indeed, she’s very deliberately sought to reinvigorate – and lead – a new wave of political regionalism, becoming an incisive voice for the Caribbean on the international stage.
It was no accident how many prime ministers of other states in the region were present at her inauguration. She has both embodied and called for a new kind of Caribbean cultural confidence.Regional collaboration and diplomacy have significant value, and may be critical to the future of the Caribbean.
But I want to make a case against the region’s lockstep diplomacy, rooted precisely in Mottley’s leadership on human rights for LGBTI people.
The region has a dirty history of collective diplomacy on women’s rights and LGBTI issues at the UN and Organization of American States that has been pitched to our lowest common denominator. Because of the conservatism of other Caribbean states on these human-rights issues, the voters of Barbados, TT and Belize, for example, have often had to settle for a regional voice and a Caribbean platform globally on LGBTI issues, reproductive freedom and sex education benchmarked to the sexual politics of St Vincent and the Grenadines or Jamaica.
Worse, in the recent past, the Caribbean’s 14-state bloc has repeatedly sided with the Vatican and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in tipping the balance of international consensus and influencing the language of covenants on a range of questions of personal autonomy, bodily rights and gender.
The Caribbean’s collectivism was even nakedly exploited by St Lucia’s Sarah Flood Beaubrun (back when she belonged to the other party and was the country’s ambassador to the UN in New York). Her faith politics prompted her to engage in rogue efforts to misrepresent the entire Caribbean’s position on HIV policy in global negotiations – before she was reined in by her prime minister.
It’s not just been how Caribbean states take oppositional positions to advancing rights in these areas. Often it’s that the issues are ones where capital hasn’t sorted out a clear enough position; so diplomats abroad, following their noses and their own biases, decide here’s an issue where public views are hostile, or at best conservative, so no is the safe way to go. More rarely, as in the case of our own government, it’s a sustained agnosticism, where they are clear that we have no position and don’t plan to.
Since those dark days I’ve welcomed how Belize and the Bahamas have broken ranks from the old consensus of silence and emerged as new regional champions on LGBTI inclusion.
What will Barbados do? How will Mottley balance her two commitments: to making Caribbean advocacy on the global stage more synchronous and leaderlike; and to remaining accountable to advancing the human rights of the Barbadian voter?
It’s an artful dance. Her arguments at home for why the State cannot discriminate are, after all, grounded in the region’s shared history of conquest, enslavement and division.
Caribbean unity, the influence of the regional bloc – and the leadership Mottley’s regional peers have given her – are best wielded against external forces that threaten the region or will decide our fate. On matters of gender and rights, it is we who are the enemies of our own people.
Perhaps Mia knows what I and my colleagues here have been arguing for a decade – that the only way to ensure such rights and freedoms, to extend full human dignity to others, is to domesticate the sense of justice people feel towards each other. No matter how much external suasion exists, it is really local ownership that will prove transformative. Mottley’s best influence over her regional colleagues may prove to be her political example – that governments can have the cultural confidence (like the Bahamas did three decades ago) to decriminalise homosexuality.