As One People - Protecting Sexual and Other Minorities in Grenada’s Constitution
We sat with baited breaths and tense spirits, exchanging nervous glances and thoughtful notes. Excited, but at the same time daunted by the prospect of addressing hundreds of people and being broadcast live across the country. Firm in resolve but anxious. What would be the crowd's reaction to our message? What would be the consequence for the organisation and the individual speakers?
Groundation Grenada and GrenCHAP were presenting at the constitutional reform consultations in Grenada in October 2014. We were pitching to both the constitutional reform advisory committee as well as to the Grenadian public; trying to have both groups understand the need to extend anti-discrimination sections in the Bill of Rights to protect Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) persons among other vulnerable groups.
This was the first time LGBTI equality was being advocated across mass media; the first time LGBTI rights were being discussed in a national debate, mixing into the stir-fry of that public debate, a very new and somewhat spicy ingredient.
Groundation Grenada is a social action collective working to re-imagine solutions to Caribbean problems and apply them. Human Rights underpin our work. Some of our members identify as LGBTI, others do not, but we all fight fiercely for the equality of LGBTI people in Grenada. GrenCHAP is the Grenada Chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership, a network of NGOs in the OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) islands, working with the most at risk populations in order to reduce the rate of HIV infection and increase respect for basic human rights and dignity. Both organisations are seeking to shift conceptions about LGBTI people, rights and issues in Grenada and the wider Caribbean.
Many Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries, retain analogs of section 377 of the old UK Penal Code, the mother of all colonial laws against 'sodomy', 'buggery', or in Grenada's case, 'unnatural connexion'. The retention of these laws in modern times is driven in Grenada by deep-rooted cultural homophobia which expresses itself in other ways as well. In a 2013 constitutional challenge against the unnatural connexion law, affidavits were filed which referenced harassment and assaults on LGBTI people and advocates, including by the police, and discrimination in healthcare. Unlike other Commonwealth countries which have anti-sodomy laws but don't use them, Grenada prosecutes people against whom the police have evidence of sodomy. We are aware of at least two such prosecutions within the last five years. One of the men is still serving a jail sentence; the other was released when the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew the charge in the face of a legal challenge on the constitutionality of the penal provision on which the charges were found.
Grenada is a party to the the Organisation of American States, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the [Inter] American Convention on Human Rights and other bodies and treaties through which it has undertaken to affirm and respect the human rights of LGBT persons. In its last review under the Universal Periodic Review process, Grenada has also undertaken to look into repealing the “unnatural connexion” (sic) offence. However, our dualist legal system means that commitments in the international arena have no direct applicability absent explicit steps by national authorities to domesticate them. As such, these commitments remain diplomatic niceties with no effect in the lives of Grenadian citizens.
A United Nations poll from April 2014 shows that in Grenada, stigmatizing attitudes appear to be rooted in the belief (among 42% of informants) that homosexuals “choose to be that way”, presumably perversely. Our own experience is that stigmatising attitudes appear to be rooted also in deeply entrenched cultural ideas about gender and a sense that LGBTI people are transgressors of those cultural ideas. The Poll also shows that these attitudes were shaped by religion among the majority of informants (54%), by families (23%) and by popular culture (12%).
In recent years, the LGBTI community and equality advocacy groups have emerged, raising awareness and changing attitudes towards LGBTI people, and seeking space for the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the nation building process.
It is within this context that Groundation Grenada and GrenCHAP partook in the constitutional reform process by preparing and sending submissions to the Constitutional Reform Committee, asking for the extension of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the anti-discrimination section of the Bill of Rights to include sexual orientation. The existing prohibited grounds are limited to race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex. These have remained unchanged since Grenada gained independence from the UK 1974.
It was important for us to try to get constitutional protections for LGBTI people for a number of reasons. Firstly, constitutional protections are entrenched and therefore less susceptible to political manipulation; it would be difficult for an anti –LGBTI government to remove these protections. Also, the protections would apply against discriminatory laws as well as practices and would provide very solid constitutional grounds for challenging discriminatory laws like that against unnatural connexion. The particular proposals we submitted would also put the struggle for LGBTI equality firmly within the scope of human rights, from a discrimination perspective, thereby addressing the argument that LGBTI equality is not a legitimate part of the human rights agenda. Quite importantly as well, constitutional protections for LGBTI groups would be a powerful statement from the government that sexual minorities have rights. This would provide a significant push back to some cultural attitudes underpinning homophobia by shaking the assumption that respecting the dignity of LGBTI people is un-Grenadian.
Following the first round of public consultations, the constitutional reform advisory committee made proposals to the cabinet, all of which were accepted. One of them was to expand the prohibited grounds of discrimination to include ‘age’, ‘place of birth’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘religion’, ‘social class’, ‘disability’ and ‘language’. We asked the committee members to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their proposed list of amendments and solicited support for the proposal from the Grenadian public. The appeal to the public was part of our overall strategy as ultimately, any proposed constitutional amendments would have to be approved in a public referendum.
Committee members have explained that the public consultations were also being used to help determine public support for particular proposals through crowd responses. The proposals which they thought had clearly no chance of succeeding in a referendum were not submitted to cabinet.
When we submitted our proposal in September 2014, we had no idea the committee would ask us to present our case nationally. Public attitudes towards LGBTI people extend to LGBTI advocates, whether they are themselves LGBTI or not. No doubt the committee understood what advocating LGBTI equality in a national live broadcast event would mean for us. In a quaint exchange with the president of the committee at the time, he ended the letter inviting us to present by saying “meanwhile I pray that God richly bless Grenada”, an unusual conclusion. We didn't miss a beat when we concluded our reply letter with “meanwhile, may reason and the true spirit of democracy prevail”.
In the written submissions, we contextualised what we were asking for in the historical and cultural discrimination that LGBTI groups have faced and continue to face, and, explained the ways through which LGBTI people are denied access to justice and redress. We unpacked the ‘Grenada is a Christian Nation’ argument and explained that a democracy, which we claim to be, is supposed to be inclusive; explained the public health implications with reference to the links between stigma and discrimination against vulnerable communities and HIV; and referred to Grenada’s international legal obligations.
“What we propose is an expansion of the Bill of Rights to extend protection to vulnerable populations including lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender…” Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe, co-founding director of Groundation Grenada announced on the day of the presentation to deafening applause from the crowd.
When they quietened, we took them through a PowerPoint presentation, explaining basic concepts of power dynamics, oppressive structures, prejudice and discrimination, and, how these things operated in relation to one another. We addressed the fact that LGBTI groups are not a recent phenomenon through reference to some local terms that people accepted as ancient, which refer to LGBTI people. We also addressed some of the misconceptions underlying homophobia.
At many points the moderator and committee members stepped in again to quiet the crowd and get them to listen. Imagine the surprise when, at the end of our presentation, people began clapping in response to some of our points. Imagine our greater surprise when after we left the building people came to express their gratitude and support for the proposal. Even more so was the support shown across social media. There are many people in Grenada who believe in the equality of LGBTI people who don’t express their views because they do not want to be viewed negatively. Part of what advocacy does is provide solidarity and courage to potential advocates who feel scared and isolated.
Ultimately our proposal wasn’t submitted to cabinet. They thought, perhaps rightly, that it would not have passed at referendum. Following the presentation, people spoke out on social media, on local television stations and in at least one newspaper against what they saw as our message of moral corruption. We were quite happy to use the opportunities to engage people on the issue, to get people talking about it and importantly, to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. Raising awareness and changing perspectives is important. Those things happen often within conversational spaces, like talk shows and Facebook forums.
In a very circular way, by daring to take part in the constitution consultations, the experience has helped frame the issue as something, which must be part of any national debate which purports to include all Grenadians, and while the forthcoming constitutional amendments may not reflect our demands, we are sure that the current constitutional debates will act as the foundation in making the proposed change a reality sometime in the near future.
Richie Maitland is a Grenadian LGBTI activist and Co-Director of Groundation Granada, a social action collective working to re-imagine solutions to Caribbean problems