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Dennis, Judy Shepard push human rights in Caribbean

Judy Shepard, Cokie Roberts, gay news, Matthew Shepard, Washington Blade

Judy Shepard, on right, with Cokie Roberts, at an event unrelated to the Shepards’ Caribbean visit. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Dennis and Judy Shepard are in the Caribbean this week to meet with LGBT rights advocates, parents and other officials.

They met with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago on Monday upon their arrival in the country. The Shepards later that day attended a reception at an art gallery in Port of Spain, the Caribbean nation’s capital.

The couple also met with a group of parents and attended a forum at the University of the West Indies. The Shepards were also scheduled to attend a screening of “The Laramie Project” at the University of Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday.

The couple is slated to meet with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica and Jamaican LGBT and human rights advocates upon their arrival in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, later this week. Nearly 200 people are also scheduled to attend a screening of “The Laramie Project.”

Judy Shepard told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from Port of Spain that she and her husband received an invitation to travel to Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.

“We always take advantage to talk about the human rights agenda,” she said.

“We’re going again to talk about human rights and equal rights throughout these countries at the behest of organizations and human rights activists within those countries and with the support of our own government,” added Dennis Shepard. “If Matt was alive, we wouldn’t be doing this. It would be him.”

The Shepards’ visit to Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica is their fourth trip abroad with the U.S. State Department.

The couple traveled to Singapore, Taiwan and Sweden late last year. The Shepards visited Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Hungary in September 2012.

“What the rest of the world is experiencing also reflects back into the U.S.,” Judy Shepard told the Blade, referring to marriage rights for same-sex couples and other global advances in LGBT rights. “It sets an example for everybody else.”

Colin Robinson of CAISO, a Trinidadian LGBT advocacy organization, met the Shepards on Monday during the Port of Spain reception.

“For folks here it was exciting and inspiring meeting parents who have been able to take that role after their son’s death and who are taking leadership in creating space for equality, for LGBTI people,” he told the Blade on Tuesday during an interview from his home outside the Trinidadian capital. “The biggest impact of the visit may be inspiring people who are struggling and organizing here to make change that there are people like the Shepards who can and will join the fight.”

Robinson said two government officials attended the Monday reception, but it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar met with the Shepards. Vice President Biden met with the her last May while he was in Trinidad and Tobago to meet with other Caribbean leaders.

Dane Lewis, executive director of Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, told the Blade he and his colleagues are scheduled to meet with the Shepards on Friday.

“We feel that it is timely, what with the reality being faced by many LGBT youth and their families struggling to deal with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.

Rampant anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica has garnered headlines around the world.

A group of partygoers stabbed Dwayne Brown to death near Montego Bay last July after someone at the gathering realized the teenager was cross-dressing.

A Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays report said the organization knows of at least 30 gay men who have been murdered in Jamaica between 1997 and 2004. These include Brian Williamson, the organization’s co-founder who was stabbed to death inside his Kingston home in 2004.

Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica are among the English-speaking Caribbean countries in which homosexuality remains criminalized.

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said shortly before her Dec. 2011 election that her government would review the country’s anti-sodomy law under which those who are convicted face up to 10 years in prison with hard labor. It has yet to do so, but the Jamaica Supreme Court last June heard a lawsuit that challenges the colonial-era statute.

Robinson noted his country recently had a “discussion around sexual orientation and citizenship” within the context of constitutional reforms.

“There’s no political leadership on this issue,” he told the Blade. “There is a climate where it would be very easy for politicians to take leadership… but they won’t.”

Robinson acknowledged anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica is “real” and “worse objectively” than what he said occurs in his own nation. He added he feels the country has seen some progress on LGBT-specific issues that has yet to occur in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Our violence happens in homes,” said Robinson. “Homophobic violence is by parents and relatives and not mobs. Looking in it’s very eager to see the Caribbean as this place of backwardness and horror where terrible things happen, but there have also been changes that we admire in Jamaica that haven’t happened here.”

Robinson added he feels the Shepards’ trip will have what he described as a largely “domestic” impact in the sense that it will inspire Trinidadian advocates to continue to seek progress on LGBT-specific issues.

“It’s really important to us here to domesticate these issues,” said Robinson. “That is the only way progress will happen. It won’t happen through U.S. imports. International media will help, but it will really happen when people perhaps inspired by the Shepards – parents, ordinary heterosexual people, those of us who are trying to build a movement.”


LGBT advocates from Caribbean, South America visit U.S.

Jamaica, LGBT rights, gay news, Washington Blade

Anti-LGBT violence remains a serious concern for advocates in Jamaica and in other countries in the Caribbean and South America. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Sturtz)

A group of LGBT rights advocates from the Caribbean and South America are in the U.S. this month on a State Department-sponsored trip designed to help them bolster their advocacy efforts in their respective countries.

Advocates from Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago arrived in D.C. on June 7 to take part in a trip organized through the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

They attended Capital Pride events and met with Casa Ruby CEO Ruby Corado, members of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and other advocates while in the nation’s capital. The activists also met with officials at the State Department and the White House.

The group traveled to Memphis on June 14 where they met with what their itinerary described as “small NGOs (non-governmental organizations) serving the LGBT population.” They also discussed “being LGBT within another minority community.”

The advocates on Monday traveled to Little Rock, Ark., and are scheduled to arrive in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday. The trip is slated to end on June 23.

“It’s a very intense program,” Donovan Banel, legal advisor of Suriname Men United, a Surinamese LGBT advocacy group, told the Washington Blade on June 12 during a mixer at Number Nine with National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling and other advocates. “I can take a lot of what I learned back to my home country and then apply it and help support the LGBT community that is in Suriname.”

Mellissa Johnson of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance noted anti-LGBT discrimination and stigma remain prevalent in Antigua and Barbuda. The islands are among the 11 nations throughout the Caribbean and South America in which homosexuality remains criminalized.

“I’m happy for the opportunity to see how far and what progress has been made with the LGBT community here,” Johnson told the Blade. “We are facing some serious issues back home, so we wanted to see how you dealt with it here to see if we can incorporate it back here.”

The Jamaican Supreme Court in November is expected to hear a case challenging the country’s sodomy law filed by a man who claims his landlord kicked him out of his home because of his sexual orientation. The Supreme Court of the Judicature of Belize last year heard a challenge to the Central American nation’s sodomy law that a local LGBT advocacy group filed in 2010.

LGBT issues gain traction, visibility

Same-sex couples can legally marry on the Dutch island of Saba, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, has spoken out in support of marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Nearly three dozen countries earlier this month approved a resolution in support of LGBT rights during the Organization of American States’ annual meeting in Paraguay. Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Barbados are among the nations that backed it “with reservations.”

Belizean first lady Kim Simplis-Barrow has publicly spoken out against anti-LGBT discrimination and violence in her country. A so-called conscience vote that would allow Jamaican parliamentarians to consult with their constituents on the country’s anti-sodomy law has yet to take place, even though Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller during her 2011 campaign pledged to call for one.

Gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster and his husband, Bob Satawake, last week released a video that commemorated Pride month.

Anti-LGBT discrimination, violence persist

Jamaican police on June 15 reportedly rescued a gay man who had been attacked by a mob after he was seen putting on lipstick. This latest incident of anti-LGBT violence in the country took place nearly a year after a group of partygoers killed Dwayne Jones, a cross-dressing teenager, near the resort city of Montego Bay.

Media reports indicate several people in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince were injured last August after a mob attacked a British man and his partner as they celebrated their engagement.

Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic last June sparked outrage among local LGBT rights advocates after he described Brewster as a “maricón” or “faggot” in Spanish during a press conference.

A diplomatic reception with Dominican President Danilo Medina and his wife that had been scheduled to take place in January was postponed after several ambassadors said they would not attend because Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, the Vatican’s envoy to Santo Domingo who organized it, did not invite Brewster’s husband. It took place on March 24 with the gay U.S. ambassador and Satawake in attendance.

David Bustamante Rodríguez, a Cuban LGBT rights advocate with HIV, remains in jail after he staged a “peaceful protest” against the country’s government on the roof of his home near the city of Santa Clara last month.

Luke Sinnette of Friends for Life, a Trinidadian LGBT rights organization, noted to the Blade while in D.C. that Caribbean countries are often connected by culture, colonial-era laws and other factors. He said what happens in a particular nation can reverberate throughout the region.

“If something happens in Belize or happens in Jamaica, you can then use that in Trinidad, or the other way around,” said Sinnette.


Saba becomes first Caribbean island to legalize same-sex marriage

Saba, Glenn Holm, gay news, Washington Blade

Saba Tourist Bureau Director Glenn Holm (Photo courtesy of Glenn Holm)

The Dutch island of Saba earlier this month became the first jurisdiction in the Caribbean to allow same-sex couples to legally marry.

Xiomar Gonzales Cedeno Ruis and Israel Ruis Gonzales from Aruba and Venezuela respectively exchanged vows at the island’s courthouse on Dec. 4. A same-sex couple from Curaçao married in Saba on Tuesday.

The Netherlands, which has allowed gays and lesbians to marry since 2001, gave its Caribbean territories more time to implement the same-sex marriage law. Observers expect Bonaire and St. Eustatius, which were formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles that formally dissolved in 2010, will follow suit.

Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten, which have greater autonomy from Amsterdam, do not allow gays and lesbians to legally marry. The three islands, along with Bonaire and St. Eustatius, must recognize same-sex marriages performed within the Netherlands.

Glenn Holm, the openly gay director of the Saba Tourist Bureau who worked with Cedeno and Ruis, told the Washington Blade he plans to promote “gay weddings on the highest point of the Dutch kingdom” while in the Netherlands next month.

“There are of course some people who are against it, but they will just have to get used to it,” he said, referring to Dutch euthanasia and abortion laws that will soon take effect on Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius. “It simply means that the choice is there should it be necessary, the same for same-sex unions. If it’s not your bag you don’t have to let it concern you. Live and let live, love and be allowed to love whosoever you choose to.”

Martinique and Guadeloupe are expected to consider the issue next year as French lawmakers debate a same-sex marriage bill. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, has spoken out in support of nuptials for gays and lesbians, but LGBT people still face systematic discrimination and even violence throughout the region.

Jamaica and several other English-speaking Caribbean countries still have colonial-era sodomy laws on the books that criminalize same-sex sexual acts. The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have all criticized the Jamaican government for not doing enough to curb rampant anti-LGBT violence in the country.

Puerto Rican advocates have repeatedly criticized outgoing Gov. Luís Fortuño and his administration for what they contend was an unwillingness to speak out against anti-LGBT violence in the American commonwealth in the wake of gay teenager Jorge Steven López Mercado’s brutal 2009 murder. The Puerto Rico Senate late last year approved a proposal that would have eliminated LGBT-specific protections from the island’s hate crimes law.

A 2011 Justice Department report that blasted the Puerto Rico Police Department cited an inadequate response to hate crimes as among its numerous deficiencies.

Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer with AIDS-Free World who fled his homeland in February after he received death threats following local media reports about his marriage to a Canadian man, described same-sex marriage in Saba as a “toehold where we can advance LGBT human rights in the Caribbean.”

The Supreme Court of Jurisdicture of Belize in May is expected to hear a case challenging the country’s sodomy laws. AIDS-Free World has also challenged laws in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago that prohibit gay people and those with disabilities from entering the country.

A Trinidadian newspaper on Dec. 18 reported Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar wrote in a private letter to the head of an international LGBT advocacy group in the United Kingdom that she would support a ban anti-LGBT discrimination.

“As a human rights activist, I think it’s excellent because it’s a way to get up the laws and two it provides evidence for the courts to say there is absolutely no negative impact within this entire region of these rights being recognized for LGBT,” Tomlinson told the Blade, referring specifically to Saba. “Its evidence that even within the Caribbean you have forward-thinking legislators who are willing to push the envelope and take the political risks that are necessary to advance human rights of all citizens.”