Homophobia In The Caribbean And Its Silent Impact On Asylum In The U.S.

Application for asylum to USA concept with application form and USA flag

Arielle Williams, Reimagined Futures for Howard University News Service

No matter how fast she drove, the Caribbean air made the island stand still. There was a lazy comfort found in monotony that the people of Tobago, an island of 1.3 million people, relished in. 

Every day was the same whether it was spent at the beach, reveling in the water and running around with sea-salt coated skin or simply sitting on the porch gossiping with your neighbors. 

The porch was as sacred of a location as the church was.

Lineage and generations seeped into the worn yellow cushions on that porch and traditions were passed down with every swig of rum from family elders. Drunk stained words built foundations of families no matter how outlandish, only the sound of sustained laughter carried out as day bled dark into night. 

The thought reminded her of how her childhood memories would simply fold into one another and the quiet insanity of nap times with her eight siblings when she was growing up. 

They were almost as loud as the soca and parang that blasted from the radio settled on the ledge of the wall in its permanent spot. It was uncomplicated, soundless like the comforting touch of her mother’s hand on her cheek or the wayward landing of a butterfly. 

But for Dierdre Williams, that uninterrupted familiarity she felt as a child was soon washed away as she grew into adolescence and further into her sexuality.

She was no longer a girl and societal expectations picked up rather callously.

“I used to climb fruit trees in my yard and the sun was always on my back,” Williams, a queer transplant from Trinidad and Tobago to the United States said. 

“I remember the ease and freedom of people dropping by the house unannounced. A certain freedom you couldn’t find elsewhere and Tobago was a paradise compared to anyone else’s concrete jungle.”

However, this sense of normalcy was rattled when she got married to her partner in 2018, understanding that both her mother and father were no more pious than the next person on this island. 

“I would not be surprised if my parents knew that they had a child who had experience with intimacy and same sex relationships,” she said, “My mother used the term ‘rudeness’ often but it was never in the context of insolence but rather I was engaged in a exchanges that were deviant and had sexual undertones.”

Williams felt like there was nothing left for her in Tobago, gaining the opportunity to become a Fullbright Scholar and choosing to expand her research and education internationally, simultaneously separating herself from the undercurrent of homophobia in her home country. 

The High Court in Trinidad and Tobago in 2018 recently overturned their anti-sodomy or “buggery” laws, that said anal intercourse, was punishable by sentences of up to 25 years in prison. Section 13 and 16 that housed these laws have been established since 1986 and have been strengthened over the years, in 1994, 2000, and 2012.   

The Human Rights Watch reported that section 16 of the same act, on “serious indecency,” stipulates that a person who is sexually intimate with a person of the same sex without having intercourse is liable to imprisonment for up to five years.

Trinidad and Tobago’s High Court is the second in the Caribbean to eradicate these laws as unconstitutional, following a similar ruling in Belize in 2016.

Belize inherited its anti-sodomy law, known as Section 53, from a British colonial ordinance banning “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” reported NBC news in 2016 shortly after the ruling. 

In 2018, LGBTQ activist Jason Jones was the catalyst that brought about the decision of decriminalizing Section 13 and 16 in the Trinidad and Tobago High Court. 

Jones described the loving and open household where he was able to be openly queer, his mother a famous journalist from the United Kingdom and his father the first black television announcer ever in the global south.

His parent’s ties to the gay community through their work made it easier for him to pursue a career in advocacy especially after facing homophobic bullying in his youth. 

“Their support allowed me to live an openly gay life from a young age and was the reason why I took up the case that I did,” Jones said. 

Jones discussed the importance as well as the impact of this case and what that looks like for future generations as well as the other countries in the Caribbean. 

“I knew this case would not just have legal resonance within Trinidad and Tobago, but this case would have much precedent in much of the English-speaking Caribbean,” Jones said.

Because of his victory in the Privy Council, this decision may lead to the decriminalization of all of the English-speaking Caribbean countries and their colonial era buggery laws, Jones claims. 

Mauritius has also recently filed a similar case based off of the progress made in Trinidad and Tobago, along with India. 

“Because of the judgement made by the Trinidadian justice over my case that has led to legal precedence all over the world,” Jones said. “In India, my case was used to decriminalize over 70 million LGBTQ people in that country. That’s the kind of link and resonance that this has on an international application.”

While the case decriminalized homosexual sexual acts, it did not tackle the societal and religious reservations to queer people in the Caribbean.

Williams was able to win her Fulbright Scholarship and immigrate outside of the country, but Donna Smart, her family friend, won an immigration lottery in 1995 to move away.

The purpose of immigration lotteries is to diversify select populations from countries with low immigration numbers to the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa program where over 55,000 visas are provided annually by the United States government. Trinidad and Tobago is eligible for the visa and it provides an opportunity to migrate to the United States with no application costs. 

“I wasn’t necessarily trying to leave Tobago, but I wanted to make a better life for myself and my kids so I made the decision to migrate,” Smart said.

Asylum and immigrating to the United States or other Western countries especially in the face of gender or sexuality-based discrimination was not a simple task.

Additionally new policy changes during the Trump presidency along with the global pandemic, has added to the challenges for asylees, adding to drastically changed systems over the last decade. 

The Trump administration in the fall of 2019 reduced the American refugee program by almost half, largely diminishing the number of refugees who were eligible for asylum due to persecution in their respective countries, announced the State Department. 

“The administration said it would accept 18,000 refugees during the next 12 months, down from the current limit of 30,000 and a fraction of the 110,000 President Barack Obama said should be allowed into the United States in 2016, his final year in office,” reported the New York Times. (I think Biden maintained these numbers, you should add this as well)

Despite intervention from the judicial branch to halt a significant portion of these policies targeting mainly African, Caribbean, and Hispanic countries; seeking asylum and safe haven in the United States has continued to be an increasingly difficult task.

The impact of these severe and hardline immigration and asylum policies leave refugees in limbo, often in the hands of life-threatening environments and situations that cannot be remedied in the court of law in their countries. 

Jones recounted the time he headlined a drag show in 1992 in Trinidad, that sparked outrage against the LGBTQ community. 

“I ended up on the front page of papers and very derogatory language was used,” Jones said. “It was seen as an attack on society rather than pure form of art that led to homophobic violence that was not uncommon in Trinidad.”  

Caribbean expats who are unable to seek asylum are subject to mob mentality and abuse that often result in their deaths, confirmed Jones. 

“I think what we have to understand is that the Caribbean is an extremely homophobic region and is the last region in the Americas that has criminalized homosexuality,” Jones said, “When looking at asylum in relationship to homosexuality in the Caribbean, we have to realize that each case has it’s own merits and homophobia looks differently person by person, country by country.”

Another up hill battle for queer residents from the Caribbean are the overtly religious islands and the deep roots that religous entities have in societal and communal influence. 

“Their responses do not change the fact that morally and spiritually our position is an accurate one, our position is a healthy one and one beneficial to mankind,” said Winston Mansingh, president of the Faith Based Network, representing 40 religious bodies and community groups in Trinidad and Tobago in an interview with the Religion News publication.

Mansingh and other religious leaders were staunch opponents of the 2018 ruling brought about by Jones, calling for the acquittal of the case based on religious inequality. However, Mansingh believes that he is equally an advocate for the equal rights, but queer rights breach a gray area.

“We empathize and recognize that everyone has rights that are based on (the) declaration of human rights. But we believe strongly that the push for gay rights is a separate kind of rights. There is a very, very strategic, well-thought-out plan to camouflage gay rights within human rights,” said Mansingh in the same interview.

With this understanding, religious groups along with other societal homophobic practices adversely affected the lives of the LGBTQ community looking for respite in not only Trinidad and Tobago but throughout the Caribbean as a whole.