* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.“We need to change the perception of the man in the street"
By Hugo Greenhalgh
Changing hearts and minds in the Caribbean is not that simple, Maria Fontenelle told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone from Saint Lucia.
“We have to do a lot of work in terms of public perception,” the communications and programmes officer at the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE) said. “It’s a very religious place, and we’re dealing with something that is seen as ‘against God’s law and against nature’.
“We need to change the perception of the man in the street.”
Fontenelle would know. A print journalist for more than 20 years with The Voice, Saint Lucia’s oldest newspaper, she moved a number of years ago into television prodiction and public relations. The power of words and images underpins her activism in the region.
Same-sex relationships are still penalised across the Caribbean and Jamaica, in particular, has borne witness recently to several vicious attacks on the gay community.
Violence across the region is a particular issue. As is living openly in an LGBT+ relationship. “One problem is the lack of details (about attacks),” Fontenelle said. People tend to live under the radar – and when they do stand up, the consequences can be horrific.
“We have had the murder of gay men, in particular,” Fontenelle said. “And cases of lesbian women being raped – alongside the usual disowning and homelessness from both families and landlords. There are also labour issues – in terms of job losses (for LGBT+ people).”
The situation is bleak, Fontenelle added, which is why organisations like ECADE are vital in the Caribbean. “The first step that needs to be done is decriminalising same-sex relationships,” she said. “It is about acknowledging the rights of LGBT people – which are so often used as grounds for discrimination and violence.”
The current antipathy towards homosexuality has more roots in the colonial powers in the region, rather than the Caribbean’s own history, Fontenelle said.
“Our descendants come from Africa,” she said. “We do have a history of LGBT people in our culture that has not been subsumed under centuries of the western philosophy of sin and abomination.”
But history does not help people to live openly now, Fontenelle added. “Still people are wary of putting a face to it locally.”
Fontenelle co-founded the regional organisation ECADE in 2016, having previously been, initially a volunteer and then a full-time employee of United and Strong (LGBTQI), a human rights group active in Saint Lucia.
An advocate on many levels, her journalist background and training gives her a greater oversight of the challenges she faces in her attempt to change those hearts and minds, particularly of younger people.
The problem starts at home, Fontenelle said. “To be honest, there is a lot of homophobia amongst young people because itis reflected from their parents.”
There is hope, however, she added. “For those aged between 18 to 30 or their early 30s, they are expressing a lot more progressive views than in the past.”
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