Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell recently delivered an address entitled “Saving Caricom” at the University of the West Indies Institute of International Relations Diplomatic Dialogue Series in Trinidad & Tobago.
Mitchell claimed that his political career was harmed by his support of LGBT rights. Many disagree with his contention. Still, Mitchell is right in his support of these rights and should be applauded for raising such issues.
Other politicians in the region including around the Commonwealth Caribbean who may have wished to argue on behalf of LGBT rights would likely never have advanced as far as Mitchell politically.
Mitchell has been elected to the House of Assembly in three successive general elections, is now serving a second term in the cabinet, and has enjoyed influence in the political arena for decades.
Indeed, The Bahamas, in contrast to most Caribbean states, enjoys greater tolerance for gays and lesbians and less discrimination, which is not to say that there is quite some distance to go in terms of attitudes and some laws.
Counter to Mitchell’s statement, his political advancement, having pushed for greater rights and tolerance, redounds well as to how far The Bahamas has come in a relatively short period.
Considering how far we have come and the long road ahead, The Bahamas has a case to make before the nations of the world about fundamental human rights for and non-discrimination against gays and lesbians. Mitchell should not be deterred in stating the case.
In 1991 the administration of Sir Lynden Pindling decriminalized certain sexual acts by consenting gays and lesbians, though the age of consent for heterosexuals is 16 and 18 for homosexuals.
In 1998 then National Security Minister Frank Watson reaffirmed the country’s stance of no prohibitions against gays and lesbians serving in the uniformed branches.
That same year, in response to a paroxysm of hate-filled protest against passengers on a gay cruise to Nassau, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham offered one of the most progressive statements any Bahamian or Caribbean head of government has ever issued in opposition to homophobia.
In 2011, a subsequent Ingraham administration supported “a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution promoting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation”.
At the time, the usual frenzy of homophobes decried the country’s support for a resolution supporting non-discrimination and an end to violence against various groups.
What made the howls of derision sad and laughable was that many who opposed the resolution failed to fully grasp its contents.
It also remains sad, though unsurprising, that calls to end discrimination and violence against gays and lesbians are often described as or contorted as some sort of radical agenda by disingenuous homophobes seeking to stir opposition against their favourite enemy.
In earlier periods calls for the equality of women and blacks were met with a similar cry, i.e., that fundamental justice for these groups was really a call for special rights as if the right to the protection of one’s life was the preserve of white men or, in today’s world, heterosexuals.
As is often the case, many who criticized the 2011 resolution and Mitchell’s comments, did not bother to read or thoroughly study either.
Disappointingly, some in the media failed to adequately report Mitchell’s more substantive comments, preferring instead to mostly focus on his complaint of his political career being harmed.
A survey in one daily of the views of a selection of Bahamians discussing Mitchell’s speech was from individuals, none of whom seemed to have read any of the excerpts in question. Ignorance truly is the brainchild of prejudice.
Instead of considered views on the facts of what Mitchell actually said, there was a rush of general prejudice and shallow clichés in response to what many thought Mitchell said.
To quote another, in a different context, one of the responses to Mitchell’s supposed comments by one inveterate letter-writer constituted a factual error, marred by an analytical error, compounded by a moral error.
Mitchell’s comments came in the opening months of 2014 when there are across the globe stories and chapters unfolding in the ongoing struggle for equality of gays and lesbians.
Mitchell was right to take up the fight in a Commonwealth Caribbean where there remain all manner of discrimination, prejudice and hatred toward gays and lesbians.
In the lead up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, many of the nations of the world responded vigorously to the homophobia rampant in Russia.
In the US, two of the four major professional sports are witnessing the emergence of openly gay athletes, Jason Collins in the NBA and potentially Michael Sam in the NFL, both in sports leagues often known for homophobia.
In Uganda, a pernicious bill providing for prison sentences for homosexual acts ranging up to life imprisonment has been signed into law. One of the country’s leading tabloids published the names of some alleged to be gay, putting the lives and livelihoods of a number of people at risk.
In the US a bill was passed in the Arizona state legislature employing the notion of religious freedom as a stalking horse for potential discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The bill, vetoed yesterday by the state’s governor, would have allowed for businesses to engage in discrimination against various individuals and groups because of the religious views of business owners.
Because of prior law, the bill could not solely or explicitly refer to gays and lesbians, though they are the intended target of the law. Likely unconstitutional in terms of US federal law, the bill is a feat of religious intolerance and might allow for a Christian shop owner to refuse to serve a single mother with a child born out of wedlock, an atheist, someone who gambles, and others. It might allow a Muslim taxi driver to refuse a Christian passenger.
The question of religious freedom that the Arizona bill raises is central to the debate, but not in the way that the homophobes and the fundamentalists might imagine.
The chorus of the narrow-minded who objected to Mitchell’s statement because we are a “Christian nation” are on shaky ground intellectually, constitutionally and, in the view of this columnist, ethically.
Watch carefully what many mean by the term “Christian nation”. What they really mean is Christian fundamentalism. The fundamentalists do not get to singlehandedly define for the rest of us what constitutes a Christian nation, as if they are God’s mouthpiece.
What stunning arrogance to think that they are the final arbiters of various ethical questions in a pluralistic democratic society.
Does a Christian nation allow for the death penalty? Not for many Roman Catholics and others who view capital punishment as morally wrong.
To say that we are a Christian nation is not the final word on the question of gambling. There are Christians who support and oppose gambling, not to mention that the issue is also one of democratic rights.
Quite a number used their narrow conception of a Christian nation to oppose the constitutional referendum granting certain Bahamian women the right to automatically pass on citizenship to certain female offspring.
What many Christians of various stripes fail to appreciate is how their freedoms are bound with those of gays and lesbians. Indeed the protection of the latter from violence and discrimination is linked in the broader catalogue of freedoms and rights including freedom of religion and religious tolerance.
Consider the case of various countries. Bahamian Christian fundamentalists may want to visit their Hindu fundamentalist cousins in India. On second thought, the competing religious fundamentalist would despise one another, both using God and their sacred texts as warrants for hatred and intolerance.
In India scores of Christians have been killed by those proclaiming a Hindu nation that should be rid of Christians. There are those around the world who proclaim a Muslim nation believing that Christianity should be banned as a threat to the identity and beliefs of their homeland.
The protection from discrimination and violence of Christian minorities is directly linked to the protection of gay and lesbian minorities around the world.
Lest we forget, in India, and in many nations with a Muslim majority, gays and lesbians are as much under threat as are Christian minorities.
We are sociologically a Christian nation. We are also a democracy, with a more advanced democratic ethos than many countries which continue to persecute various minorities.
As people of faith, Christian and otherwise, as non-believers, and fundamentally a democrats, we should cherish the freedoms, rights and protections of all at home, including gays and lesbians, all the while championing the rights of others around the world.
Fred Mitchell also needs to be consistent. Many who applaud his advocacy on behalf of freedom in South Africa and gays and lesbians internationally, were disappointed and appalled at the seemingly expedient stand he took in opposition to the proposed constitutional referendum on gender equality.
Equality is indivisible, a principle and a vision for which The Bahamas should proudly stand among the nations of the world.