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Death threats won't stop Jamaican LGBT advocate

(Editor's note: Maurice Tomlinson is one of the best-known LGBT rights advocates from Jamaica. His activism over the years have brought him death threats, so he now lives in Toronto with his Canadian husband. He continues to fight for LGBT rights in the Caribbean, and last week was in court challenging the ban on gays entering the nations of Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. He wrote this op-ed piece for SDGLN, recalling this important hearing that could have widespread consequences for members nations of CARICOM, the Caribbean Community and Common Market.)

“On[e] bullet will solve the problem.”

This was a response to a Facebook post about a legal challenge I filed with the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) against the ban on gays entering Belize and Trinidad and Tobago.

I have been an advocate for LGBTI human rights in the Caribbean for over 20 years, and so these vulgar threats no longer shock me. However, such declarations help to underscore the urgency of the work that I continue to do fighting homophobia and HIV in the Caribbean, as well as the real risks associated with this work.

My latest endeavor to encourage my Caribbean family to recognize the equality and humanity of gender and sexually diverse people is a court case against the Immigration Acts of Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. Sections 5 and 8 respectively of these Acts include homosexuals in a “prohibited class,” along with the disabled, plus other persons on the margins of society.

I had travelled to both countries before and only found out about the offensive provisions when, ironically, I attended a UNAIDS regional meeting in Trinidad. A Belizean transgender activist who was scheduled to attend the meeting was stopped by a Trinidadian immigration officer and subjected to, as she describes it, a very humiliating parade before other officers and then finally allowed to enter the country.

As Trinidad is the regional seat for UNAIDS, I (naively) presumed that there were no laws against the entry of the persons that the agency was meant to serve, namely those most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. I also expected that there would have been some training for immigration officers in how to treat with members of these groups. I was wrong on both counts.

I quickly learned of the travel ban and when I was invited to a subsequent high-level meeting in Trinidad as part of my job as Legal Advisor for Marginalized Groups for AIDS-Free World I refused. I was expected to address senior Caribbean politicians and policy-makers on the work being done to eliminate stigma and discrimination against groups vulnerable to HIV. This was to take place in a country that knowingly stigmatized and legally discriminated against these very individuals. And I would have been complicit, not to mention committing a criminal act, if I entered the country.

I was subsequently invited to visit Belize to conduct advocacy and human rights training for the local HIV group, UNIBAM, and I again felt obliged to refuse when I learned about their ban on gays. As an attorney, it would have been unethical for me to knowingly break the law by entering these countries.

As is required under the rules of the Caribbean Community, I requested that my own country, Jamaica, intervene with the sister governments of Belize and Trinidad and Tobago about this clear breach of the right to freedom of movement under the Caribbean Single Market and Economy. The government flatly refused, and simply said that since the laws were not being regularly enforced then I should ignore them. This I was not willing to do, and so I activated the mechanism in CARICOM to have the governments answer for this breach.

I filed a case before the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) seeking leave to bring the claim myself, and the court agreed on the ground that the mere existence of the laws created a prima facie case of a violation. I was then required to present another case proving the breach.

Over two days of argument involving five judges, 15 lawyers and court personnel and time for two courts (I refused to travel to Trinidad where the CCJ sits as that would have resulted in the very breach I was challenging, and so the matter had to be video-conferenced to the Supreme Court of Jamaica), the court grappled with if/when/how the governments of Belize and Trinidad and Tobago would delete the single word “homosexual” from the prohibited classes in their Immigration Acts.

Ironically, both countries repeatedly stated that they have no intention of ever enforcing the ban, and could provide no credible reason for keeping it. In the interim, the “elephant in the room,” as my lawyer describes it, was made apparent: Institutionalized homophobia was encouraging the retention of this stigmatizing language to send the clear message that homosexuals are simply not equal in the eyes of Caribbean law.

The lawyer for Trinidad and Tobago was not shy about revealing his anti-gay bias. Among other things, he claimed that the law was necessary to keep out “terrorists.” He further stated that I “have an agenda” in challenging this law and am clearly “xenophobic” because I chose not to return to Trinidad to test if I would have been prosecuted and deported.

But perhaps the most insulting and irrelevant question (as noted by the court) was the attorney’s inquiry: “At what age did you know you were gay?” He claimed that this was important to ascertain if I were truly gay because I had been married to a woman, and I have a son. The difference between sexual behavior and sexual attraction was simply lost on this individual.

Further, this statement ignores and trivializes the pain and trauma of many Caribbean men who have sex with men (MSM) who are forced by the systemic homophobia to marry females as “cures” or “masks” for their homosexuality. The anguish experienced by the partners and children of these MSM is also invisibilized by this supremely arrogant and insensitive remark. Sadly, it is not uncommon for seemingly educated Caribbean persons to make these assertions. They also demonstrate the urgent need for more information at all levels of Caribbean society about LGBTI issues.

I am happy that, as Senior Policy Analyst for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, I am now partnering with local and international activists to bring concrete challenges to Caribbean homophobia, which is driving the HIV epidemic. We will be mounting further legal challenges (including a case scheduled for July 20-24 against two local stations that refused to air a tolerance ad calling for respect for the human rights of homosexuals) as well as carrying out LGBTI sensitization training for police, policy-makers and others involved in the regional HIV response. Finally, we will support innovative advocacy and human rights work being done by activists on the ground. Together we can make a difference. And we must.

So, while I await the verdict in the CCJ immigration case (which is due within three months) I continue to work to ensure that the full humanity of LGBTI people across the region is both celebrated and confirmed.