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At Long Last, Change Is Coming for Caribbean Gays

As activists push for change in the notoriously homophobic region, Aruba takes a big step in the right direction.

Published in: The Advocate

A decade ago, I was confronted with a massive display of homophobia. At the time I was a member of the Dutch parliament visiting the island of Aruba, a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. I was with members of parliament from the Netherlands, from Aruba, and from other islands of the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean. I proposed a delicate topic for the agenda: the legal recognition in Aruba of same-sex marriages conducted in the Netherlands. In 2001, the Netherlands had introduced same-sex marriage legislation, the first country to do so. But Aruba did not register those marriages nor did it grant same-sex couples any rights.

 We had gathered in the Aruban parliament in Oranjestad. As I was about to introduce this topic, we heard a noise coming through the open windows. A group of people were demonstrating outside. I distinctly remember the yells: “Dittrich, homo! Get off our island! Aruba is gay free!”

The justice minister at the time had revealed himself as anti-gay, even suggesting homosexual conduct should be criminalized in Aruba.

This was in 2005.

Ten years later the mind-set of Aruban members of parliament and society at large had changed significantly. ALFA, the Aruban LGBT rights group, and Desiree Croes, an openly lesbian member of parliament from the Christian Democrats, the governing party on the island, invited me to Aruba to support their quest for legal recognition of same-sex couples. They wanted Human Rights Watch to bring an international perspective and hence strengthen the debate on recognizing same-sex relationships in Aruba.

In November 2015, I met with the Aruban prime-minister, Mike Eman. He received me warmly. We both recalled the incident from 2005. He was a parliament member at the time and had witnessed the homophobic slurs against me. Now, he recognized that social attitudes toward homosexuality had changed. He promised to support initiatives from the Aruban parliament to introduce registered partnerships for same-sex couples.

Even then, no country in the Caribbean had granted same-sex couples legal recognition. But change has come!

Aruba's Prime Minister Mike Eman and Boris, shortly after Eman promised his support of civil unions of same-sex couples.  © 2015 Private

Less than one year after the prime-minister’s promise, the majority of the Aruban parliament voted to amend the Civil Code to include the option of registered partnerships for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Registered partnerships grant similar rights and responsibilities as marriage contracts.

Three political parties are represented in the Aruban parliament: one in government, the other two in opposition. In spite of many political differences, the heads of these three political parties acknowledged the importance of equal rights and non-discrimination. They withstood pressure from several religious groups and negotiated the amendment to the Civil Code and submitted it to the Parliament on September 8, 2016. By a vote of 11 to 5 with 4 abstentions, it was adopted that day.

The proponents of registered partnership said in the debate that while they were not ready to introduce marriage equality, they wanted to make sure that same-sex couples had equal rights. In the parliamentary debate they made reference to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is binding on Aruba, as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They also acknowledged that the European Court of Human Rights decided in June 2015 in the case of Oliari vs Italy that if a country does not want to open its civil marriage to same-sex couples, it is obliged to provide a reasonable alternative.

The new Aruban law will come into effect after other relevant legislation has been adapted.

Aruba has made progress after years of pressure from ALFA and from Desiree Croes. On many occasions, Croes has initiated debates in parliament and in society at large about equal rights for LGBT people.

When she sent me her message celebrating the victory of LGBT people in the Aruban parliament 11 years after my encounter with the homophobic crowd, I felt emotional. My feeling was of hope that change can be achieved through perseverance.  

The progress in Aruba has not gone unnoticed. In other parts of the Caribbean LGBT activists and their allies are inspired to claim equal rights and non-discrimination in their countries.

The future is not in front of us, it’s inside of us.

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