It’s easy to spot remnants of British colonial rule in much of the Eastern Caribbean, like people driving on the left or Queen Elizabeth II’s profile on the money. But seven islands have a more sinister hangover from colonial days – laws against buggery and gross indecency making same-sex conduct between consenting adults illegal. While no island actively pursues criminal investigations for breaking these laws, their mere existence intensifies a toxic homophobic culture that allows lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to be bullied at school, that fuels their mistrust of police, and allows them to be alienated from – or even abused by – their families. Despite this, each island has a core group of LGBT activists leading the fight for equality. Here are some of their stories, as well as quotes from other LGBT people we met.
Known for black-sand beaches and rainforest-covered mountains, St. Kitts has a population of roughly 35,000. Few LGBT people come out of the closet, fearing the entire island will know. Gay people feel isolated and some fear harassment and violence – beatings, glass bottles thrown at them. Most of the men Human Rights Watch spoke with on St. Kitts had seriously contemplated suicide. Same-sex relationships are outlawed through “unnatural offenses” laws.
People in Rosa’s community on St. Kitts didn't believe that she’s really a lesbian. They thought that, because she was raped as a teenager, her fear of men made her gay.
But Rosa, who at 23 is athletic and projects confidence and brashness, isn’t afraid of men. “I’m a lesbian,” she says. “I was like that before [the rape]. I was attracted to females and that’s my life.”
Growing up, she always wanted to dress as a boy. “I’d wear a pants and a shirt, and two weeks later [my mom] would cut them up and throw them away,” said Rosa, who walks with a distinct swagger. “She’d give me money, I’d go out and buy men’s clothes, and she’d cut them up and throw them away again.”
The organization helps kids who are kicked out of their homes for being gay to find shelter. It also supports them in school and helps them to come out of the closet, if that’s what they want. They also distribute condoms and make sure that people who are HIV-positive have the necessary medication and proper health care.
They occasionally throw parties – a recent fete was held outdoors in public. “It went smooth, and nobody said nothing,” Rosa said, calling it a success. That this was good news illustrates the anti-gay culture on St. Kitts.
Before founding SKNAFE Alliance, Rosa worked for a pan-Caribbean group that focused on helping people get healthcare. While at that job, gay people from around the island – many closeted – approached her with questions, wanting more information or support. They knew they’d be safe talking with her – the need for a local organization was clear to Rosa.
"I thought, well I’m personally going to make a stand,” she said. “You can make a difference in the country and in the LGBT community.”
Life on St. Kitts can be awful for gay men. They are frequently harassed, threatened, attacked, tossed out of their homes, and abandoned by their families for being gay. One time, Rosa walked down the street with a gay man, and a group of guys started yelling insults at her friend. Female couples can kiss in public, but “a man on a man could never do that.”
Life is not easy for transgender women either. Another friend of Rosa’s, who had lived openly as a trans woman in the United States but was deported back to St. Kitts, “has had to dial it back,” she said.
Rosa wants two big changes on her island. First, the sodomy laws need to go – being gay shouldn’t be illegal, she believes. “Get those laws corrected.”
Second, she wants to marry a woman. To do so, same-sex marriage would have to be legal. “I keep telling people I have the intention of marrying a female, and they say, it is impossible and it won’t work.”
Rosa is determined to make them both happen.
Gay couples abound in the Antigua resorts aimed at international tourists, but it’s rare to see them on island streets. Antigua was asked to abolish its anti-buggery and serious indecency laws in 2016 by other UN members during its Universal Periodic Review, but the island refused, saying that the “moral and religious” nature of Antiguan society would need to change first. It did, however, acknowledge that the laws would have to change if it were “serious about human rights.”
Barry has served as a police officer in Antigua for more than two decades. All this time the veteran officer has kept a secret from almost everyone on the force: He’s gay.
Most days, Barry hears his fellow officers make homophobic slurs. “They say that [gays] should be locked up, that they’re nasty, that they don’t know how a man could kiss a man.” One supervisor called being gay “an abomination”.
He also knows that some officers don’t take crimes against LGBT people seriously. Like the time a transgender friend of Barry’s was stabbed and badly wounded. The police refused to help her. Instead, behind her back, Barry heard them call her “antiman,” a derogatory term, and “disgusting.” Another friend, also a trans woman, was beaten so badly by a policeman that she practically lost sight in her right eye.
With an intimidating set of muscles, a gold front tooth, and a fierce look, Barry’s soft voice is surprising. He grew up in Guyana, one of 12 children. His older brothers labored in the gold mines, but Barry didn’t want that – it was hard, risky work. When he saw an advertisement seeking police recruits to work in Antigua, he applied.
“I never believed I would be successful, but I was.” At 19, the police department flew him to Antigua.
From the start, some officers made sexual advances to Barry at the police academy. But at that age, he repressed his homosexuality, embracing the religion and societal norms he grew up with. Even after he accepted being gay, he constantly hid who he was, even from his family, many of whom live in Antigua. People began to wonder about Barry, despite his good looks and his good job – even when he had a girlfriend. Often, when he was single and girls would try to pick him up – Barry is classically handsome – he’d say he wasn’t interested in a relationship. Some people saw this as a red flag for homosexuality.
“It was torture, because you could not speak to family or colleagues about who you were,” he said. Also, the police department is “male-dominated, and most of their conversation is about heterosexual relationships. And you could hear homophobic statements. It kept me in the closet.”
But in his private life, he became bolder. In 2008, he began to volunteer with an HIV-prevention organization. Then, he started his own organization, Meeting Emotional Social Needs Holistically (MESH). Over time, his organization grew from a few friends hanging out into a group that documents abuses against gay people.
He sees hope in the younger generation. “I see less discrimination on the street among younger people, they’re more tolerant,” he said. “It’s because of media, how LGBTQ people are portrayed, and the information available. Also, a lot of people have relatives elsewhere, like the US, where LGBT people are more open and out.”
He also sees more families supporting gay relatives. And the LGBT sensitivity training he arranged has made a difference.
LGBT people are often afraid to enter police stations, Barry said. They’re afraid the police won’t listen to them. Also, people threaten to call the police on them for being gay – same-sex intimacy, after all, is illegal in Antigua. After the training, Barry noticed that officers were more likely to treat LGBT people better than before. If someone seemed afraid to make a report, they’d be taken directly to the criminal investigation department to give them space and privacy. They were more likely to be taken to a “sensitive” officer. At the same time, he acknowledges that some police officers are afraid of being LGBT-friendly, of seeming weak or soft.
“There is still a level of fear within people of the police,” Barry said. But he hopes this will change. In the meantime, he’ll continue to work to change it from the inside out.
When LGBT tourists post questions about traveling to Dominica in online forums, the answers are usually the same – anti-LGBT laws aren’t enforced, but the country is deeply socially conservative. Be careful. Be discreet. No public displays of affection. During the country’s 2014 Universal Periodic Review, when it’s human rights record was examined by other UN members, it rejected a recommendation to overturn its gross indecency and buggery laws, saying it was “not prepared to introduce any legislation to Parliament decriminalizing sexual relations between adults of the same sex.”
Rachel sat near the beach, constantly checking her phone for news on Dominica, her home island. Protests calling for the prime minister’s resignation had turned into riots, with several stores looted and torched and 32 arrested. For an island with a population of just 72,700, this was big news.
“This will cause more tension between people and the police,” she said.
A few days earlier – before the riots began – Rachel had eagerly awaited the start of a two-day training session with the local police related to gender and domestic violence. As the communications person for Dominica’s bureau of gender affairs, she had helped organize the sessions – not just because she cared about women’s rights, but also because of the way she saw police treat gay men who reported attacks. Because of the riots, the trainings were canceled.
She knows another gay man whose partner beat him so badly it damaged his vision. “And he made a police report. And that got dismissed.” The guy felt he couldn’t press charges, couldn’t admit the culprit was his boyfriend.
That’s why “gay men don’t report violence,” she said.
Even when Rachel talks about heavy subjects – like anti-LGBT attacks – her manner is deceptively light and easy. She’s 27 years old and has a freshness and innocence about her. She likes to laugh and smile, showing off a gap between her front teeth. She’s also speaks with an American accent, having studied at the University of Mississippi in the US, where most of her family lives.
Rachel likes to say she never really came out of the closet. Rather, she raided her brother-in-law’s closet while housesitting one weekend, putting on his shorts and a shirt. “I called my friends over and we sat out and drank and I felt so great. So I kept going into his closet.”
Eventually, she bought men’s clothes for herself, and because of how she dressed, people – including her siblings – assumed she was gay. “I just never set anything straight and I let them keep assuming, because they were right.”
“They are more or less focused on hetero relationships, but that’s only because the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender aren’t included in the policy and law,” she said. So she makes sure to slip these views into official conversations and work. For example, when her bureau made couple’s counseling available to people, she invited LGBT couples.
Once when Rachel was facilitating a sewing class with a group of rural women, one woman started talking about the “gay agenda.” So Rachel drew a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles for them. She described one circle as being for all humans, and she listed out all their rights. Then she described the other circle as being for LGBT people, who’ve had “so many of their rights stripped from them as if they’re no longer human.”
As she pointed to the overlapping middle, she said, “we’re not looking for more, we just want to be equal. What if the person who makes your heart smile every day is a man, and you’re a man, how would you feel?”
The woman who had spoken admitted she had never looked at it that way. “I felt great,” Rachel said. “I got her to understand that it’s not special inclusions. It’s about equality.”
In the future, she wants to keep doing human rights work, but on a larger scale. “I want to work for an organization that can help thousands at a time, help change the minds of people,” she said. “And so far, I’m on the path. I just want to keep going.”
Like many islands, St. Lucia depends on tourism – its beaches are constantly included in “best honeymoon” articles. But while its tourism minister said in 2015 that the island welcomes visitors from the LGBT community, the country has no plans to change its gross indecency and buggery laws. For the country’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN in 2015, St. Lucia rejected decriminalizing same-sex relationships and creating anti-discrimination laws.
Bennet was already used to being part of a minority on St. Lucia by the time he realized he was also different because he didn't conform to roles assigned to men by society.
His father was black and his mother was East Indian – descended from indentured servants brought from India to work on St. Lucia’s plantations. Bennet looked like his mother.
East Indians make up a bit more than 2 percent of St. Lucia’s population. Some people discriminate against him, and people occasionally discriminate in his favor – like the time he was served ahead of black people in an East Indian restaurant.
“My mother always said, ‘do your best to be unique and different as opposed to living the way society said you were,’” he said. At the time, neither realized Bennet would not conform to roles society typically assign to men.
Bennet accepted his sexuality in his early 20s, deciding not to be bound by traditional beliefs. He liked to do tasks that tradition on the island assigned as “women’s work.”
“People would say, ‘if you have a girlfriend why are you doing the ironing? Why are you doing the cooking? Why do you care if the house is in order?”’ he said.
Bennet, now 40, works as the communications and advocacy officer of United and Strong, a local LGBT organization. At this job – and at previous jobs – his focus is on preventing men who have sex with men from contracting HIV and advocating for the rights of LGBT people. He works to better promote the use of condoms and on how to reach young people – the island’s most-at-risk group for HIV. He also works with governmental and community-based agencies to ensure a more conducive environment for the LGBT community in St. Lucia, where many LGBT people keep a low profile. United and Strong is also trying to reach out to rural communities, where many LGBT people do not have access to the necessary information or support.
The fact that he’s a public face for LGBT rights comes at a price.
“People called a radio station saying they’re going to shoot me in the head, cut my throat,” he said. “People threaten me on busses. Say that I should be shot, [that] people from my community should be shot.” Much of the harassment comes from anti-gay Rastafarians, he says.
While he doubts anyone will act on the threats, he has done security training and the organization has taken some security measures.
Bennet hopes St. Lucia will become more LGBT-friendly. One way to do this is through fostering LGBT-friendly businesses, he believes. When the first gay cruise ship came to the island, Bennet recalls, cabs wouldn’t drive passengers around. But when it became known that people on gay cruise ships spent more money than other tourists, the drivers changed their minds. St. Lucia’s government was also quick to defend gay cruise ships.
“People were thinking we were bringing a foreign concept, that the youth would become ‘more gay,’” Bennet said. “But then people realized that, at the end of the day, people were coming to enjoy a vacation.”
Bennet has three children, and his daughter, now 13, is being asked questions about Bennet’s sexuality. To prepare her, Bennet has spent a lot of time talking with her about people who are different.
Like Bennet, his daughter looks East Indian. “So she herself embraces that she’s different, that she’s not the average black child,” Bennet says. “That’s allowed her to understand.”
Like his own mother, Bennet is raising his children to feel good about standing out and being unique.
Now when people ask her if her dad is gay, his daughter has an answer: “It doesn’t matter what my dad is,” she says. “What’s important is that he’s helping people.”
Roughly a dozen Christian ministers from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and four other Caribbean countries urged the US to stop promoting LGBT rights abroad in a 2017 letter to US President Donald Trump. The country refused to overturn its buggery and gross indecency laws, even after a request during its Universal Period Review by other UN-member countries, stating that the laws are supported by its “Christian society.” In response, St. Vincent did note that more and more people – especially young people – accept gays and lesbians.
For Manage, an actor and writer on St. Vincent, activism started in community college.
One of his lecturers, assessing students’ dance presentations, favored some students over others, Manage believed. When Manage called her out, she warned, “I’m going to fail you.” True to her word, when he got his grades, she had given him a zero.
This same lecturer had tried to insult him – both in private and in front of the class – by saying Manage acted “as if he wanted a man.” Manage is gay.
It takes confidence to take on your school, but Manage, who has the big personality and mega-watt smile of a performer, also has clarity of purpose. He considers himself a social activist. “Most of my writings are on that level,” he says. “I speak to resistance a lot.”
He also speaks out on issues of race, gender, rape, and violence against women and children. “I speak to the fact that we are one people and needed to be treated equally, that we are humans and have basic human rights.”
Because Manage is gay, he hasn’t always been treated as equal to others. “For quite a while in my life I have been bullied, I have been harassed, maligned, and to use very strong terms, terrorized as an openly gay person.”
Today, Manage works in the performing arts. In 2005, he set up an organization called Urban League to support kids in underserved communities, like the one where he lives, nicknamed Baghdad because of the shooting and violence. He works with 80 to 100 children a year, creating platforms for them to express their creative ability, through African drumming, poetry, and art workshops. His Urban Expression theater company is geared towards teenagers. He helps kids who don’t know how to read and works with teachers. He also collects donations for books and school uniforms.
All the kids’ parents know Manage is gay. “I’m accepted,” he said. “But if other gay men came, they’d harass them terribly.”
When we asked Manage what advice he’d give his 12-year-old-self, he choked up. He paused, looked down, and took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much I would have changed. I would say connect more to your mother. She wasn’t around a lot to supervise, she was working a lot, I had too much freedom.” He would also “stand up against the abuse more.”
It’s no coincidence he hopes to give St. Vincent’s kids what he lacked – a safe place to go when parents are working, and someone to teach them their own self-worth, so they can stand up for themselves.
With its pristine beaches, Barbados is a top tourist destination, making it one of the Caribbean’s wealthier islands. Similar to other islands, Christianity plays an integral role here, and LGBT people we interviewed often spoke bitterly about their treatment by the church. One man told us that his pastor looked right at him while he preached against homosexuality. There are signs of change: The Anglican Archbishop of West Indies and Bishop of Barbados made headlines in 2017 by publicly calling for every human being to be treated equally, no matter their sexual orientation. Same-sex relationships are outlawed through “buggery” and “serious indecency” laws.
One night about six years ago, as Jason was getting into his car, a man got in behind him and raped him – Jason never saw the man’s face. When he reported the crime to police, the officer made Jason feel he was to blame for the attack.
“Initially they wanted to know where I met this person, how I met this person,” Jason said. They didn’t believe Jason when he said the man was a stranger, and they accused him of withholding details about what happened. To Jason, it was clear the police assumed a friend or a date raped him, and they wanted to dismiss the case. “I’m telling you someone raped me,” he said over and over.
The next day, Jason went back to the police station to give an official statement. At one point, Jason recalls, the officer said, “We’re writing too much now, let’s wrap this up.”
I had spent a few days with Jason before he shared this story, and he almost always radiated good cheer, seeming carefree. But now, his eyes were sad.
As a member of a Barbados LGBT group, Jason knew that police often ignored complaints from gay people.
“What was happening with law enforcement didn’t surprise me,” said Jason, his habitual wide smile replaced by an angry, pained expression. “I’d heard other people talk about it. I was just experiencing it for the first time.”
To this day, he doesn’t know what happened with his case. No one contacted him, and he never went back to ask if police filed a complaint.
Unlike many gay people in Barbados, Jason grew up with privilege. “Barbados is also very classist. You’re not going to face open harassment at [certain class] levels.”
In his social class, parents would often send their gay children away to another country. “That can be a good or a bad thing,” Jason says. If parents are effectively kicking their child out of the country so the family won’t be “stained,” it’s bad. But if parents want their LGBT child to live in a more tolerant place, it can be good, he said.
And it beats being poor and gay, when your main opportunity to leave Barbados is seeking asylum and refugee status elsewhere.
But Jason, who had studied and lived abroad, decided to stay in Barbados and work with other LGBT people there. He sees the human rights abuses firsthand, like the loss of educational opportunities. He also has a gay friend who didn’t pursue a job because it involved taking a lie detector test. One of the questions was “have you ever broken the law?” and the friend had broken the country’s buggery and serious indecency laws – which Jason believes should be struck down.
He sees how LGBT people are constantly scolded and told they’re not good enough until they believe it. “A lot of Barbadians say, at least we’re not in Jamaica where [LGBT people] get beaten and killed. And that’s true, we let them live. But not as themselves.”
Grenada tried to pass a Rights and Freedoms bill, which called for gender equality, in 2016. Even though the bill said nothing about LGBT rights, religious leaders campaigned against it, saying it was a step towards gay marriage, and the bill failed in a parliamentary vote. In 2015, while visiting New York, Prime Minister Keith Mitchell called for more tolerance for Grenada’s LGBT community. However, he has also made homophobic comments. Same-sex relationships are outlawed through “gross indecency” and “unnatural connection” laws.
Mark is an expert at hiding who he is. He barely let his guard down for the first half of our interview. He knows how to expertly and subtly deflect people, a skill he learned while concealing his bisexuality.
“People would think twice before they approached me or said anything about it,” says Mark, who has chosen not to come out publicly.
Also, Mark flies under people’s radar as he has two daughters – one’s just a baby – and has had girlfriends. That said, he’s been living with his male partner for four years.
“We know how to carry ourselves in public so people wouldn’t question what went on behind closed doors,” he said.
He’s worked in LGBT advocacy in Grenada for 10 years, sometimes paid and sometimes as a volunteer, while teaching math and computers or working in a hotel. He even worked with Grenada’s government.
“I’d always wanted to help with HIV/AIDS,” he said. “I saw the need.”
He starting out with an HIV awareness organization, where he went into communities and talked about sex and reproductive health. He always hoped to meet men who had sex with men, to ask them about using condoms and getting tested, if their family knew, and how they treated them.
At one point, he worked in the countryside where people had no internet to learn about LGBT issues.
“I really heard what these people went through, their coming-out stories,” he said. “On the rural side, it’s harder. It’s a more closed place. People are less educated about it, and it’s a religious island.”
He heard stories of discrimination in communities and families, of emotional and verbal abuse. People told him that their families said, “It’s not normal” or they would “beat it out of” them, he said. “A lot of people I met had a hard time.”
Rural schools were particularly problematic, he found. There was no guidance from teachers, some of whom would pick on LGBT students and make jokes at their expense, embarrassing them in front of the class. “A lot [of LGBT kids] developed their own strategy by it, some decided not to be bothered, and some fought back,” he said. “Some fought back physically and got thrown out of school, in some cases, because of their lifestyle.”
Often it’s students who single out LGBT kids in schools. Mark’s oldest daughter is 11, and he and his daughter’s mother have already prepared her to deal with questions from her friends about Mark’s sexuality. “She has a hot mouth so I’m not scared for her,” he said. “She knows how to handle herself. I’m not fearful for her when it comes to that.”
He’s also finding the younger generation in Grenada is more accepting of LGBT people, in part because of how gays and lesbians are portrayed on television. “It may have been a taboo topic at home, but it hits home when they realize it’s within their family,” he says. “Now, they support their child and stand up for them.”
Maybe, with the younger generation, the atmosphere will change enough that Mark will actually feel safe to stop pretending and be himself.
*Not their real names