The Caribbean is a region of great cultural and linguistic diversity, but there’s something that unites many of its countries.
Today, in nine Caribbean countries, same-sex intimacy is still criminalized through what are called “gross indecency” laws. These laws criminalize same-sex intimacy between men.
These nine countries share something else in common – they were formerly British colonies. So, what’s the connection between a historical tie to Britain and the ongoing criminalization of LGBTQI+ people in these countries today?
When the British colonized these islands, they imposed their Victorian laws and morality. Among these were “gross indecency” laws. Today, these laws remain on the books, contributing to the legal persecution of men who have sex with men.
But, the effects of these laws are not just felt by gay and bi men. Their continued presence, whether they are enforced or not, helps maintain a hostile social climate for all LGBTQI+ people.
Situation on the Ground
LGBTQI+ people in the Caribbean experience high levels of direct violence compared with other regions of the world. In fact, approximately 50% of the 286 LGBTQI+ people who requested help from Rainbow Railroad from the region in 2020 reported life-threatening physical violence, with transgender women reporting the highest rates. Those who reached out to us cited safety concerns like being attacked, rejection from their families, needing to go into hiding due to threats, family-based violence, and sexual violence. Some were burned with acid or fire, or the victims of gang violence.
Independent human rights organizations have corroborated the abuses faced by LGBTQI+ people in the region; a 2013 survey by Human Rights Watch of LGBT Jamaicans found that more than half of respondents had been victims of homophobic violence. Non-violent discrimination was even more pervasive, with bullying and exclusion faced in education, healthcare and within local communities. Police and security forces rarely take any complaints seriously, and often turn a blind eye to violence committed against LGBTQI+ people.
It’s important to note that these instances of extreme violence are in no way unique to the Caribbean. Rainbow Railroad regularly gets reports of crimes committed against LGBTQI+ people from all corners of the globe, sometimes even from what we deem safer countries like Canada and the U.S.A. The epidemic of violence faced by LGBTQI+ people truly knows no boundaries.
Due to this ongoing situation of extreme violence, Rainbow Railroad continues to engage extensively in the Caribbean to assist people to safer countries. Since 2013, we’ve received 1,514 requests for help from the Caribbean. And with your help, we’ve assisted 438 people out of the region, so that they could live lives of greater safety and freedom. We’ve helped hundreds more through our additional in-country programming.
In recent years, the situation for LGBTQI+ people in some majority English-speaking Caribbean countries has begun to improve.
Local activists, often in partnership with international organizations, have challenged gross indecency laws. In 2016, a court in Belize struck down laws against same sex intimacy. Trinidad and Tobago followed suit in 2018. And just last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that Jamaica’s laws criminalizing LGBTQI+ people violate international law. Rainbow Railroad’s Case Officer Gareth Henry was a co-plaintiff on this case.
These legal and symbolic victories have begun to chip away at the edifice of pervasive homophobia and transphobia in the region, imported in part by the British centuries ago.
But, the reality is that there is still so much work to be done. Rainbow Railroad receives requests for help from people every single day facing life-threatening persecution and violence in the region. The stories of those who are the most marginalized – trans women – are harrowing.
One recent request for help came from Krystal in Jamaica, who Rainbow Railroad helped to safety in 2020.
Krystal suffered a series of increasingly violent attacks on their life, just because they are trans. In one instance, when a friend found out that they were trans, they burned Krystal with hot oil—a painful reminder of a similar attack by a neighbour who threw a pot of boiling water in Krystal’s face when they were only 19 years old.
As Rainbow Railroad continued to work with Krystal, it became clear that their only hope for survival was to leave Jamaica. But due to COVID-19 border closures, we couldn’t immediately move them out of the country. In the intervening months, Rainbow Railroad sustained Krystal financially and helped them secure a temporary place to hide out until the borders opened. This was a common theme of our work in 2020 – when we couldn’t help people leave immediately due to border closures, we sustained them for months until it was safe to do so.
Thankfully, Krystal is now living a safer life in Europe. You can learn more about Krystal’s story and other people we recently assisted in our 2020 Annual Report.
Rainbow Railroad continues to work extensively in the Caribbean, while at the same time advocating that governments of safer countries accept more LGBTQI+ refugees. Rainbow Railroad envisions a world where laws that criminalize and threaten LGBTQI+ people are abolished, so that no one has to flee their home just to have their basic human rights respected.
Your continued support sustains this work in the Caribbean and globally.