Canada should remember that as it promotes LGBTQ rights on the world stage, it should also listen to – and support – those fighting on the ground.
This was the message that Jason Jones, from Trinidad and Tobago, and Nigel Mathlin, from Grenada, brought to a meeting with officials at Global Affairs Canada this week, as they shared their views on how the Liberal government could support them and other LGBTQ activists in the Caribbean region.
"We don't want anybody to rush in and make mistakes," said Maurice Tomlinson, a Toronto-based senior policy adviser with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, who set up the meeting in Ottawa and is also fighting anti-homosexuality laws in his home country of Jamaica.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to advance the rights of LGBTQ people internationally, a theme he raised in his speech last November at the summit of la Francophonie, where many in the audience represented countries where sexual acts between same-sex couples are illegal.
The work that happens outside of speeches, the activists said, needs to take into account the nuances within the Caribbean region.
They noted the diverse island nations in the region have different cultures and languages, but also different kinds of state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or homosexual activity, so an approach that works in one country might fail in another.
Jones, who said he splits his time between Port of Spain, in Trinidad and Tobago, and London, recently launched a constitutional challenge to the anti-sodomy law in his home country, which carries a punishment of up to 25 years in prison for consensual anal intercourse between adults. The challenge also takes on a law against "serious indecency," which applies to other kinds of sexual activity, except for between heterosexual couples.
"I felt that we had to look at the law," said Jones, a longtime LGBTQ rights activist, who said his legal challenge has led to death threats.
In Grenada, Mathlin, who founded an LGBT and HIV organization called GrenCHAP, is focusing on improving attitudes towards LGBTQ people through raising awareness at the grassroots level.
Last year, a constitutional referendum that would have guaranteed gender equality was defeated. Mathlin said a campaign by fundamentalist church groups, which claimed it would have led to legalization of same-sex marriage, played a role in the defeat.
"We believe the attitudes of the general public is what is holding progress back," said Mathlin.
Mike O'Shaughnessy, a spokesman at Global Affairs, said Canada contributed more than $700,000 to LGBTQ-related projects through more than 30 of its missions around the world, including those in the Caribbean.
Many of these discriminatory laws, as Mathlin noted, stem from the colonial past, which is why there are also voices calling for Canada to go beyond supporting grassroots efforts and push for reform at a higher level, such as through the Commonwealth.
Michael Motala, who co-authored a report from Egale Canada last year on state-sponsored discrimination against LGBTQ people in Canada, said the fallout from Brexit could lead to the United Kingdom looking for more trade opportunities within the Commonwealth, where homosexual acts are still criminalized in many countries.
"(This is) a huge opportunity for Canada to do something real," said Motala.
Motala also said Trudeau, who appointed Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault to be his special adviser on LGBTQ2 issues, has much work left to do on this issue within Canada.
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, as well as the visiting activists, are also reaching out to the Caribbean diaspora in Canada, to tell them they have a role to play in promoting the greater acceptance of the sexual and gender diversity they see here when they travel back home.
Jones said Canadians of Caribbean origin often send money home to their families.
"We need to send back cents and sense," said Jones.
Tomlinson said he knows these conversations can be challenging, as there is sensitivity to perceived "Caribbean-bashing."
Yolande Davidson of the Jamaica Canadian Association, which met the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network on this issue in January, said an ongoing dialogue is one way to change perceptions on both sides.
"I definitely think that sometimes Caribbean folks, and Jamaicans especially, may feel a sense of being unfairly targeted or portrayed as intolerant or unconcerned with human rights because of the dialogue around human rights in the Caribbean and in Jamaica," she said.
"The way that bias and discriminatory perspectives are overcome (is) essentially by getting to know someone on a human level."