ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (AP) – For years, Orden David faced persecution in his native Antigua and Barbuda – a common complaint of many LGBTQ people who fear for their safety in the conservative and predominantly Christian Caribbean, where anti-gay hostility is rife.
David was bullied and ridiculed. Once a man got out of a car, made a comment about how a gay man was walking down the street late at night, and then hit him on the head. More recently, another stranger punched him in the face in broad daylight, knocking him unconscious. Then he had had enough.
Facing exclusion and risking his life as the public face of the LGBTQ movement, David took his government to court in 2022 to demand an end to his country’s anti-sodomy law.
“I realized that we have been through a lot with our community and there is no justice for us,” Orden told The Associated Press. “We all have rights. And we all deserve the same treatment.”
Last year, a top Caribbean court ruled that the anti-sodomy provision of Antigua’s morality law was unconstitutional. LGBTQ rights activists say David’s efforts, with the help of local and regional advocacy groups, have set a precedent for a growing number of Caribbean islands. Since the ruling, St. Kitts & Nevis and Barbados have abolished similar laws that often lead to long prison sentences.
“It has been a legal and historic moment for Antigua and Barbuda,” said Alexandrina Wong, director of local nongovernmental organization Women Against Rape, which has joined the lawsuit coordinated by the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality .
“Our Caribbean governments are getting a real sense of what the world looks like and how we can reshape our history and…the future of the Caribbean people,” Wong said.
The ruling states that Antigua’s 1995 Sexual Crimes Act “conflicts the right to liberty, the protection of the law, freedom of expression, the protection of privacy and protection against discrimination on grounds of sex”.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the AP his government decided not to challenge the ruling: “We respected the fact that there should be no discrimination within society,” he said. “As a government, we have a constitutional responsibility to respect the rights of everyone and not to discriminate.”
The law stated that two consenting adults found guilty of anal sex would face 15 years in prison. If found guilty of serious indecency, they risk five years in prison.
Such laws used to be common in former European colonies in the Caribbean, but have been challenged in recent years. Courts in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago have found such laws unconstitutional; other cases in the region are pending.
According to Human Rights Watch and the London-based organization Human Dignity Trust, consensual intimacy is still a criminal offense in six Caribbean countries. The countries include Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Jamaica, with some LGBTQ rights groups considering the Caribbean country the most hostile to gay people.
“Governments in these jurisdictions need to be proactive and repeal these laws now, rather than waiting for members of the LGBT community to enforce legal changes,” said Téa Braun, CEO of Human Dignity Trust. “With three successful verdicts last year and further legal challenges in the Caribbean underway, it is only a matter of time before these laws take effect across the region.”
The government of Jamaica has argued that it is not enforcing the 1864 anti-sodomy laws, but activists say enforcing these laws is fueling homophobia and violence against the LGBTQ community in several Caribbean countries.
LGBT people in such countries face “a constitution that criminalizes them on the one hand, and a religion that says they are an abomination,” said Kenita Placide, executive director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality.
“It has created a culture of stigma and discrimination, which has now led to violence,” she said. “And in each of those countries, including Antigua, we have seen LGBT individuals who have fled because of certain forms of violence.”
Growing up, Orden David was bullied at school and discriminated against outside the walls. People took pictures of him and posted them on social media, calling him slander and physically assaulting him.
“What pushed me to continue with this lawsuit, to challenge the government, is that experience that I’ve had in life,” said David, adding that in 2019 he was knocked out by a stranger who punched him in the face while working at a hospital.
Discrimination against LGBTQ people persists in the Caribbean. Some conservative legislators and religious leaders are opposed to the repeal of anti-gay laws that invoke God in their arguments and call gay relationships a sin.
“I don’t think God created man and woman to interact that way,” said Bishop Charlesworth Browne, a Christian minister who serves as president of the Antigua and Barbuda Council of Church Leaders. He has campaigned for years against the relaxation of anti-gay laws in the country.
“It’s not just a religious issue. It’s a health issue,” Browne said. “It is for the sake of our children, the health of nations, the preservation of our people.”
Some major Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, say that all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. Other places of worship, including many Protestant churches and synagogues, have LGBTQ-inclusive policies.
When LGBTQ activist Rickenson Ettienne was also brutally attacked in Antigua for being gay, his church community sang and prayed for him outside the hospital as he recovered from a skull fracture. “It was traumatic,” he said of the attack. “But even with that experience, I found out that there’s humanity, there’s the human side of people.”
While David did not face outright intolerance in the Christian church where he grew up and sang in the choir, he became disenchanted with some parishioners who tried to introduce him to the scientifically discredited practice of so-called gay conversion therapy. He eventually stopped attending, but believes in God and prays at home.
“Christians must realize that ultimately everyone is human. And if you’re going to push Christianity and then think that being gay is a sin… then you should put yourself in the same category, as a sinner,” he said.
“Christians are supposed to love, accept and encourage people, not push people away… that’s one of the things I really don’t believe in: when Christians use the word ‘hate,'” David said. He has the Chinese word for ‘love’ tattooed on his neck and says that loving people is his ‘main purpose’.
He works for the AIDS secretariat of Antigua, tests people for sexually transmitted diseases, distributes condoms and provides information about prevention, treatment and care. He is also president of Meeting Emotional and Social Needs Holistically, a group serving the LGBTQ community. And he volunteers. He recently walked dark alleys in downtown St. John’s handing out condoms to sex workers.
“It’s important to provide the services to the LGBTQ community, and especially to sex workers,” he said. “Because this population is more at risk.”
Associated Press journalists Jessie Wardarski in St. John’s, Antigua, and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’ coverage of religion is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.