If at fifth you don’t succeed…

With the extraordinary exception of the Mia Mottley phenomenon in Barbados, Gaston Browne of Antigua & Barbuda and Keith Mitchell of Grenada are currently the two most electorally-popular prime ministers in the Caribbean. A scant eight months ago, both Browne … Continue reading

Sound of the Trumpet: Intimidation, Aid & CARICOM

Me bun a fire pon a weak heart
Babylon and dem free talk coulda never get me down
And though they try to use me
And abuse me
I leave dem with a frown

. . . Fire!
You and your crew can go to Hell
‘Cause after we no under your colonial spell

– Bushman, “Fire Bun A Weak Heart”

1060x600-0ea42119085487b05457fde5473edc01Trump’s Christmas Gift to Netanyahu

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and the whole world was talking about Jerusalem. US President Donald Trump, champion of religious right and unabashedly pro-Israel, announced that he was moving the United States’ embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The US Government called the move a recognition of “reality on the ground.” They cited their sovereign right to locate their embassy where they wanted, as well as a decades-old, oft-delayed Congressional decision to relocate the Embassy.

The only problem was that successive American, Israeli, Palestinian, Russian and European governments had called Jerusalem a “final status” issue – so sensitive that it should be decided only after other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were settled. A United Nations Security Council resolution dating to 1980, “called on. . . [t]hose States that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City.” Multiple UN resolutions forbade states from doing anything that would jeopardize the peace process by taking actions that would “alter[] or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem.”

But the announced move of the US embassy did just that. It was a recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ecstatic. Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, was apoplectic. The Muslim world was furious. Clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza claimed 12 lives. The wider international community – including some the USA’s staunchest allies –was concerned about the impact such a move would have on peace, security, and the fabled “two-state solution” of a secure Israel and a secure Palestine living side-by-side, in peace.

This international concern quickly morphed into a United Nations resolution that reaffirmed international consensus on Jerusalem and declared the US embassy move – without ever naming the USA – as “null and void.” The meat of the resolution is in these three paragraphs:

Stressing that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions,

Expressing in this regard its deep regret at recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem,

Affirms that any decisions and actions which purport to have altered, the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council, and in this regard, calls upon all States to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Holy City of Jerusalem, pursuant to resolution 478 (1980) of the Security Council

The vote on the resolution was set for 21st December.

NaughtynNice_List_16x9Trump and Nikki Haley Prepare Their Naughty/Nice List

As soon as the resolution was announced, President Trump and his UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley began an unprecedented and undiplomatic threats that were widely derided as “bullying,” “blackmail” and “thuggish” behaviour. Ambassador Haley sent personalized letters to all UN Ambassadors, with an unsubtle threat that President Trump was going to take the vote “personally,” and that he would be “watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those who voted against us.” Ambassador Haley followed up her letter with a series of television appearances and social media pronouncements where she promised that “the US will be taking names” of votes that didn’t line up with their view on Jerusalem. President Trump backed his Ambassador’s threats, explicitly linking votes on the resolution to receipt of American foreign aid.

Where past American administrations sought to downplay the significance of UN votes that they were likely to lose, the Trump White House decided to make it a cause célèbre, and devoted extraordinary diplomatic and political capital to altering the outcome.

The Result? 128 supported the resolution, in spite of the threats. Nine countries – including the US – lined up to vote “No.” 35 countries voted to “Abstain,” and another 21 apparently had something better to do at the time, failing to show up to vote altogether.

5440390625_feab8a9520_bA Trump Bump? Tallying Up the Effects of Trump’s Gambit

The day after the vote, the US press styled the passage of the resolution as a “stinging rebuke” of Trump, a “dramatic rebuke,” as “Defying Trump,” and as a “resounding rejection” of Trump. Ambassador Haley, on the other hand, claimed some measure of victory in the number of countries that didn’t vote “yes” on the resolution. The reality was far more complex. The overwhelming majority of countries – close to 70% – could claim, with some justification, that they were simply voting in line with their long-standing views on the Palestine-Israel issue, Trump or no Trump.

A second subset of countries – about 16% of the UN Membership – would have a hard time convincing anyone that President Trump’s threats didn’t make them at least little wobbly in the knees.

Finally, in the “stinging rebuke” camp, a few countries – about 12% of the UN – certainly seemed to stiffen their spine in response to US pressure. However, even among that 12%, there are a number of plausible non-Trump reasons to explain their votes.

Within CARICOM, voting positions ran the gamut, from consistency, to a disturbing number of possible wobbles, to at least one country on whom the US threats had the opposite effect. More on CARICOM later.

compare-travel-insurance-plansComparing Votes: One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Five years ago, the international community was faced with a far more vexing problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Whether to officially recognize Palestine as a state – albeit a “non-member, observer state” of the United Nations. The USA, then governed by President Obama, opposed the resolution. The US made no secret of its opposition to the resolution, and campaigned against it. However, as is typical of the stylistic differences between Obama and Trump, the USA’s 2012 anti-resolution efforts were far more respectful and decorous. The vote, however, was remarkably similar:

2012 vs 2017

Now, it must be said that, all things being equal, it should’ve been easier to vote for the 2017 resolution than the 2012 one. The 2012 resolution was breaking new ground (international recognition of Palestinian statehood), while the 2017 one was simply restating settled and consistently-held positions from at least the last four decades. Nonetheless, the resolutions also serve as rough proxies for States’ positions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. You would expect most countries’ vote on the 2012 resolution to be replicated on the 2017 resolution.

The numbers bear out this theory: 132 of the UN’s 193 member states voted exactly the same way in 2012 as they did in 2017. “Yes” votes remained “Yes.” “No” votes stayed in the “No” column. Abstainers continued to abstain. One country – Ukraine – skipped both the 2012 and 2017 votes. For ease of analysis, we’ll say that this 68% of the UN membership was unmoved by President Trump’s added pressure.

That leaves us with the 61 countries whose vote changed between 2012 and 2017.

Five of those countries changed their vote from abstaining to not voting at all (Mongolia, Moldova, Samoa, San Marino, Tonga). Kiribati, on the other hand, skipped the 2012 vote but showed up to abstain on the 2017 resolution. I believe that skipping the vote altogether suggests that you might have heeded the sound of the Trumpet, but it’s hard to say. Most of those countries have tiny UN Missions. The vote was close to Christmas. It’s possible they’d already left town for the holidays. I’ll exclude those six countries as “inconclusive” and focus on the remaining 55.

Only one country in the entire 193-Member UN General Assembly made a barefaced, 180-degree switch from “Yes” to “No” between the 2012 and 2017 resolutions: Honduras. This is understandable. Honduras’ right-wing government just unabashedly stole an election, and is counting on the USA to continue turning a blind eye to that blatant fraud. If I were the Honduran President, I’d also be shining Trump’s shoes and taking out the White House garbage.

Every other country weakened or strengthened their position by a half-measure; moving from abstain/absent to yes/no or vice-versa.

31 countries weakened their vote in the face of the increased US pressure:

Vote wekeners

These are the countries that should have special seats at the Nikki Haley reception to celebrate Trump’s power. If they’d voted consistent with their 2012 positions, there could’ve been as many as 157 “Yes” votes instead of 128.

Some of these changed positions have obvious answers. Trump’s rhetorical assault on Mexico and Mexicans has them reluctant to engage the US on anything not related to NAFTA or the Wall. Myanmar is terrified that the USA will take greater interest in their on-going Rohingya genocide. South Sudan is almost entirely dependent on aid, and that aid is already under threat. Guatemala’s new President, Jimmy Morales, is a staunch right-winger who recently received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is keen to strengthen Guatemala’s historically strong ties with Israel. He’s already announced his own plans to move Guatemala’s embassy to Jerusalem.

However, if you believe that Trump scared people into changing their vote on Jerusalem, start with this list.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to make a case that Trump was rebuked and defied, there is another, shorter list, that can help you make your case. In spite of the Trump/Haley pressure, the following 24 countries “strengthened” their vote relative to the 2012 baseline:

Vote strengthener

It’s fair to say that the European Union is less fond of Trump than Obama. Also, the EU is significantly invested in the Israel-Palestine peace process and is part of the Quartet that has always declared Jerusalem to be a final status issue. Many of the changes from “Abstain” to “Yes” probably reflect EU votes in support of their own interest in the peace process. Nine of the 24 “strengthened” votes are EU members.

One of the more interesting votes on this list is Canada’s “Abstain.” Many expected Prime Minister Trudeau to be more progressive than his predecessor, Stephen Harper. And, on this issue, he was: moving Canada’s vote from a “no” in 2012 to an “abstain” in 2017. The fact that Canada stopped short of a “Yes” vote may be rooted (like Mexico) in ongoing NAFTA renegotiations with the Trump administration, or in that fact that, on reflection, Trudeau’s progressiveness is limited to local issues (Marijuana, LGBT rights), and not global affairs.

So, was there a Trump bump? Was he resoundingly rejected by the international community? The answer is mixed. At the extremes, you can argue that 16% of the UN Membership “capitulated” to Trump, while 12% “poked him in the eye,” and the remainder ignored him. That is an overly simplistic summary of the numbers. However, for all the bombast and hyperbole, all the tweet storms and threats, a net of at least seven countries undeniably moved Trump’s way. The real impact of the threats was undoubtedly greater.

fe769c3598c14f0b4b3d624a25843b8bThe USA’s Aid Threat: A Decision in Search of a Justification

On the eve of the vote, President Trump made an explicit threat to cut aid to countries that voted in favour of the Jerusalem Resolution: “They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us,” he said. Well, we’ll be watching those votes. Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

Here’s the problem with that threat: Well before the UN vote on Jerusalem, the Trump administration had already decided to radically slash US aid.

In March 2017, the White House released an official document called America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” That document, published way before any brouhaha over the Jerusalem resolution, pledged to “Reduce[] funding to the UN and affiliated agencies,” to “Reduce[] funding for multilateral development banks, including the World Bank,” and “Refocus[] economic and development assistance to countries of greatest strategic importance to the U.S.” The cuts to the US aid budget were predicted to be 28%, or $10 billion less than 2017.

[The budget document also pledged to “Eliminate[] the Global Climate Change Initiative and fulfills the President’s pledge to cease payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds.” But that’s a whole different blog posting.]

More tellingly, there was concrete evidence that the US Government had already drawn up plans to gut American aid globally. In an article called “The End of Foreign Aid As We Know It,Foreign Policy magazine detailed a series of planned cuts to the American aid programme that would completely eliminate foreign assistance to many countries. Foreign Policy magazine quoted from a leaked 15-page State Department document that detailed massive cuts across the board. According to that document, cuts to the Caribbean include:

Vanishing Aid

Setting aside the special case of Haiti for a moment, US aid to the Caribbean, in this document alone, is scheduled to be slashed from $62.52 million all the way down to $26.8 million – an almost 60% reduction. Most of that remaining money is in assistance in the field of health. Development assistance to Jamaica, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean is scheduled to be cut to $0.00 in 2018.

That’s zero dollars.

Again, this document was leaked to Foreign Policy a full eight months before President Trump and Ambassador Haley started claiming that there was a link between the Jerusalem vote and aid.

Clearly, then, the White House and the State Department have already given considerable thought to cutting aid, and have decided where they want that aid to be cut. What they were looking for was a justification for their planned steep cuts to the aid budget. The Jerusalem vote was as good a justification as cover for the planned cuts.

Those countries hoping for a holiday aid miracle may soon realize that the Grinch had already stolen Christmas.

T&T sayings 006CARICOM: Cockroaches in the Fowl Fight?

Caribbean folk wisdom from Trinidad to Jamaica cautions that cockroaches should stay out of fowl parties and fights. A glance at how a divided CARICOM voted on the Jerusalem resolution suggests that more than one country may have elevated this local edict to the level of foreign policy.


Six CARICOM states kept their 2012 “Yes” vote as a “Yes” in 2017 (Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Suriname and Saint Vincent & the Grenadines). Both the Bahamas and Haiti remained consistent in abstaining both times.

Barbados strengthened its position, abstaining in 2012 and voting “Yes” in 2017 despite the increased pressure.

The remaining five CARICOM States: Antigua, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and Trinidad all took a half-step back from their 2012 vote. Both St. Lucia and St. Kitts decided to skip the vote altogether. [In a post-hoc justification of her country’s absence, the Foreign Minister of St. Lucia certainly sounded as if her vote – if cast – would have sided with the USA.]

A few troubling stats about the CARICOM voting record on this matter:

  • While 68% of the wider General Assembly remained consistent from 2012 to 2017, only 57% of CARICOM states did.
  • Only 16% of the General Assembly weakened its stance from 2012 to 2017. However, 36% of CARICOM changed to a weaker posture.
  • CARICOM makes up 7% of the UN Membership. However, CARICOM states comprised 16% of the countries that adopted a weaker stance.

What does this disproportionate representation among the abstainers and absentees say about CARICOM? Depends on how you look at it. One answer could be that all five weakened votes came from countries that changed governments between 2012 and 2017. Maybe these governments, which collectively represent a slight rightward shift, philosophically, would also have abstained or absented themselves from the 2012 resolution if they had the chance.

Another answer could be that America’s toehold in the region is now more of a foothold. It is difficult to ignore the fact that the changed Jerusalem votes represent many of the same countries that led the charge to alter a CARICOM Heads’ decision regarding Venezuela, and to align themselves with a US-authored resolution that would have laid the groundwork for intervention.

Yet another answer could simply be that it was almost Christmas, diplomats and foreign policy advisors were heading home for the holidays, and no one saw the sense in antagonizing President Trump on an ultimately symbolic gesture.

What is undeniable, however, is that the US, and other great powers, may be looking anew at the region, to see if the previous reputation of CARICOM as principled and generally united on foreign affairs has been replaced by a more transactional, flexible, influence-able and uncoordinated foreign policy approach. Our perceived “wobbles” on the Israeli-Palestine issue, whether grounded in fact or circumstance, will cause us to be probed and pressured anew in the coming years.

This could be the first Trumpet
Might as well be the last
Many more will have to suffer
Many more will have to die
Don’t ask me why

– Bob Marley, “Natural Mystic”

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The Long, Tortured History of Absentee Parliamentarians One hundred and ninety-five years ago, in the venerable House of Lords, the Earl of Shaftesbury “laid on the table the report of the committee appointed to inquire into the precedents relative to … Continue reading

Anti-AIDS, Pro-Gay, or Both?

One of the most sacred of sacred cows in the global fight against HIV and AIDS is the mantra that archaic laws prohibiting homosexual conduct must be repealed in order to make further progress in controlling the spread of the disease. The logic that underpins this mantra is devastatingly simple: men who have sex with men are at a higher-risk for contracting the virus. Societal stigma against gay men complicates their access to AIDS-education and outreach, not to mention antiretrovival drugs and medical attention. Laws that ban gay sex underpin this social stigma and discrimination. Therefore, repealing these laws will result in real reductions in the number of new HIV infections and deaths among those already infected.

In recent months, there has been some newsworthy and unexpected pushback against this conventional wisdom from a number of Caribbean sources. First, Professor Brendan Bain, head and project manager of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network (CHART), who said in court documents that, in his professional opinion, decriminalising homosexual activity would not necessarily lead to a reduction in the rate of HIV infections. Professor Bain was swiftly removed as head of CHART amid global outrage, because his opinion was apparently incompatible with the organisation’s mandate to “provide access to quality HIV & AIDS prevention, care, and treatment and support services for all Caribbean people.” (note: I’m not very familiar with Prof. Bain’s scholarship, so I’m not commenting on his research or findings).

Second, CARICOM heads of state and government, meeting in Antigua and Barbuda, rejected a document emanating from their own Pan-Caribbean Partnership against HIV & AIDS (PANCAP), which purported to commit them to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS through not only repealing the offending laws, but also encouraging churches to eliminate faith-based discrimination against homosexuals.

[Also, Caribbean churches across the region have been flexing their considerable muscle on this issue, most notably in a hastily-planned rally in Jamaica that drew over 25,000 chruchgoers opposed to “the homosexual agenda and the repealing of the buggery act.”]

Both Professor Bain and the CARICOM Heads are suggesting that the fight against HIV and AIDS and the fight for gay rights are separate and distinct battles, despite decades of international efforts to merge the two. The howls of indignation from regional and international LGBT communities – as well as international donors – are increasing in volume. PANCAP, whose excellent work is largely funded by foreign donors with an anti-discrimination agenda (their website lists “contributing donor partners” as the governments of Canada, the EU, Germany, the USA, the UK, along with the Clinton Foundation and the World Bank), is worrying where its next dollar is coming from. And an unlikely alliance of reactionaries, nationalists, Caribbean academics, bigots, homophobes, religious leaders and political opportunists have become emboldened by the words of Professor Bain and CARICOM heads – all seeing and hearing what they choose to see and hear in the recent controversies.

Some will say – perhaps with some justification – that the expressions of Professor Bain are simply the product of being influenced by virulently anti-homosexual Jamaican society, or that the position of the CARICOM leaders is a politically self-serving act of pandering to an anti-gay electorate. Others will point out that the Caribbean is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in HIV prevalence, and that most Caribbean countries outlaw gay sex. They will see a causal link between those two facts, and accuse anyone with a differing view of burying their heads in bigoted sands.

However, on this front, the CARICOM heads are actually right. It is not simply a legalistic point to say that the anti-AIDS and pro-gay fights are different things. It is a fundamental fact. And in the context of Caribbean societies, the fact is that dedicating scarce anti-AIDS resources to fight gay rights causes is not the most effective use of real or political capital – despite the very worthy arguments in favour of eliminating state discrimination against homosexuals.

Just The Facts, Ma’am. . .

First of all, let’s get past the heated rhetoric. The arguments conflating the anti-AIDS and pro-gay struggles are simplistic to the point of illogic. Yes, the Caribbean has high HIV rates and laws against homosexuality. But France decriminalized sodomy in the 18th Century, and has a liberal attitude towards homosexuality, yet prestigious medical journals have characterised the infection rate among French men who have sex with men (“MSM”) as “out of control.” The direct, causal connection between HIV rates and anti-sodomy laws is tenuous, at best.

So let’s look at how well or poorly the Caribbean, with its anti-sodomy laws, is doing in its fight against HIV/AIDS. Let us use as our source the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) document “Global Report: UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2013.” What it says about the Caribbean’s fight against AIDS may surprise you:

  • “since 2001, the annual number of new HIV infections among adults in sub-Saharan Africa has declined by 34%. The most pronounced decline in new infections since 2001 (49%) has occurred in the Caribbean.” – pg 12
  • “Across sub-Saharan Africa, diverse countries have achieved notable reductions in HIV prevalence among young people (15–24 years). In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV prevalence among young women and men fell by 42% from 2001 to 2012. Even with these favourable trends, HIV prevalence among young women remains more than twice as high as among young men throughout sub-Saharan Africa.Trends are mixed among other regions, with the Caribbean experiencing substantial declines but with no clear downward trend apparent in the Middle East or North Africa.” – pg 17
  • “In other regions, where HIV prevalence among sex workers is considerably lower, prevalence trends appear to be stable, although there are indications of a reduction in HIV prevalence since 2007 among sex workers in the Caribbean.” – pg 22
  • “In 2012, according to national GARPR reports, the highest median HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men was reported in Western and Central Africa (19%) and Eastern and Southern Africa (15%), with somewhat lower but still high levels of HIV infection reported among men who have sex with men in Latin America (12%), Asia and the Pacific (11%), Western and Central Europe and North America (8%) and the Caribbean (7%).” – pg 22
  • “Inadequate resources impede efforts to reach men who have sex with men with essential HIV prevention services. International funding vastly outweighs domestic spending on focused prevention services for men who have sex with men globally, including in all regions except the Caribbean.” – pg 26
  • “there is considerable variation in the coverage of prevention services for pregnant women living with HIV. Coverage is highest in Eastern and Central Europe and the Caribbean (more than 90%), while coverage is much lower in Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East and North Africa (less than 20%).” – pg 39

So, to summarise, according to UNAIDS, the Caribbean is doing better than most regions in (1) controlling new infections; (2) reducing prevalence among young people; (3) reducing prevalence among sex workers; and (4) providing medication to pregnant women with HIV. Even more remarkably, the Caribbean, with its anti-sodomy laws, is doing as well as, or better than most regions in the levels of HIV infection reported among men who have sex with men!

Dig a little deeper in the appendices of the UNAIDS report and you will see other interesting facts. For example, the Caribbean’s Estimated HIV Prevalence among adults has gone down from 1.3% in 2001 to 1.0% today. That prevalence rate is still one of the worst, besting only Sub-Saharan Africa’s 4.7%. However, it is interesting to see that the Bahamas’ 3.3% prevalence and Haiti’s 2.1% skew our regional average upwards. Why is this interesting? Because the Bahamas and Haiti do not have laws banning gay sex, yet their prevalence is among the highest in the region. Indeed, the Bahamas’ 3.3% prevalence is worse than that of 20 countries in Africa.

(Since I know you’re wondering, Boom-Bye-Bye Jamaica has a prevalence rate of 1.7%, down from 2.4% in 2001)

Now, I know that the naysayers will say that the Caribbean data is inaccurate, that anti-gay stigma reduces reportage among the MSM communities, or, worse, that government entities are intentionally misstating the scope of the problem. Me? I take this data as the UN reports and analyses it. Whatever grain of salt you want me to take with this Caribbean data, I don’t believe it to be any less accurate than the data for other regions of the developing world.

The unvarnished fact is this: in spite of the existence of laws that criminalise gay sex, the Caribbean doing better than ever in its fight against HIV and AIDS. And the Caribbean is currently making better progress than most regions in its ongoing battle.

Gay men aren’t the only stigmatized group at higher-than-average risk of contracting HIV. Sex workers (prostitutes) and intravenous drug users are also high-risk groups. Coincidentally, the Caribbean also has laws against prostitution and intravenous drug use. Yet very few donor countries or NGOs are claiming the decriminalizing of prostitution or drug use are necessary prerequisites to reducing HIV prevalence.

Yes, you can legitimately argue that criminalising gay sex is more central to a gay man’s identity than the “occupational” or “recreational” prohibitions against prostitution or drug use. But that’s a gay rights argument, not an epidemiological one. And it reinforces the separation between the anti-HIV and pro-gay battles.

The Laws Of Man. . .

There are legal and legalistic issues surrounding the existing structure of our laws governing sex in the Caribbean. Most of our laws do not specifically ban homosexuality or even homosexual sex. Rather, they outlaw sodomy and/or buggery – that means ALL anal or oral sex (hetero- or homosexual), plus bestiality. Do these laws, given their very limited enforcement, really deter any homosexual men from having sex? Do they deter any heterosexual couples from engaging in fellatio, cunnilingus, or anal sex? Is the repeal of these laws really a critical blow against stigma and discrimination, or are they an exercise in “checking the box” by NGOs preoccupied with formalistic legislative harmonisation (see also the fights against unenforced death penalty laws and abortion laws in the Caribbean).

Let us not pretend that the ancient anti-sodomy laws we inherited from the United Kingdom are the source or cause of the Caribbean’s homophobia. Repealing these laws will do next to nothing in changing the minds or mores of those who are virulently anti homosexual. Nor should we pretend that the Caribbean has static, unchanging views on homosexuality. Young people have different views than old people. People who watch “Modern Family” and “Will and Grace” on their imported US cable TVs may have different views from those who do not. Church goers and Dancehall music aficionados can discuss homosexuality in different terms than those with more secular interests. People have friends and family members who are “out” as gay or lesbian. The Caribbean view on homosexuality is more complex and nuanced than it was 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. Even though the laws against sodomy remain on the books.

Is it the law that will change the society, or the society that will change the law?

Those who lash out against laws that “criminalise private sexual conduct between consenting adults” need to recognise that most societies have such laws – laws against prostitution, or adult incest, for example, both disregard the issues of privacy and consent in pursuit of some perceived greater moral good. Should these victimless crimes also be taken off the books?

That said, our existing laws and constitution are actually fruitful ground for legal activism by gay right proponents. Our constitutional protections of privacy, due process and nondiscrimination can certainly be interpreted as placing what happens in the bedroom between homosexuals off limits to state intrusion. All that is needed are the right facts, the right lawyers and the right judge(s). As recently as 1986, the US Supreme Court said that nothing in their constitution prohibited anti-sodomy laws. By 2003, the same US Supreme Court, interpreting the same constitution, struck down those same laws. In the Caribbean, we all have “Recognition of Marriage” statutes, which say that if you’re married in a foreign jurisdiction (UK, USA, etc.) then that marriage is automatically recognised in our countries. What happens when married gay couples show up at our registry demanding official recognition of their union?

(I could go on, but I’ve generally stopped giving free legal advice).

Questions Worth Asking. . .

Whether or not the anti-sodomy laws should be repealed is a question worth asking (and answering). Whether private gay sex, public gay displays of affection, or gay marriage can or should be countenanced by Caribbean societies are issues that are increasingly difficult to duck. Whether gay rights are universal human rights or externally-imposed Western European values that infringe on Caribbean sovereignty is open for debate. Whether there is something special about Caribbean morals that exempt the region from the global movement towards increasing acceptance of homosexuality requires careful consideration.

But. But…

These are debatable, divisive, contentious issues in the Caribbean. The fight against HIV/AIDS is not. The overwhelming majority of Caribbean citizens want greater HIV/AIDS education and access to quality care for all who need it. We want people to get tested. We want cheap, readily-available antiretroviral drugs. We want cheap, available condoms. We want trained, empowered medical personnel. We want effective treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. We want to arrest and eliminate the spread of HIV in the Caribbean, and we want to ensure that people with HIV live long, productive, lives, free of stigma and discrimination based on their illness.

Conflating these unanimous goals with the acrimonious controversies surrounding the gay rights agenda can only serve to weaken our shared resolve to win the war against HIV/AIDS. Reasonable minds can differ about whether it is “worth it” to use the anti-AIDS movement as a vehicle to advance gay rights. But reasonable minds really shouldn’t pretend that the two issues are one and the same.