Religion and policy collide over gender-neutral laws in Barbados


Government Minister Dr. Denis Lowe (left) stands opposed to a proposal championed by opposition Senator Wilfred Abrahams (right), to give all partners in all forms of relationships equal protection against domestic violence


BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sunday November 30, 2014 
— A Barbadian Cabinet Minister is prepared to personally campaign to churches and members of his constituency to fight the introduction of gender-neutral legislation on domestic violence.

Speaking to a Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Christ Church East branch meeting last Sunday, Minister of Environment and Drainage, Dr. Denis Lowe, went as far as to threaten to resign his post, rather than sign any legislation which appeared to recognise same-sex couples.

Background: The Minister’s reaction follows a resolution for the reform of Barbados’ domestic violence laws, which was circulated by opposition Senator Wilfred Abrahams to the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) annual conference.The resolution, which omits gendered definitions of the parties that could constitute a relationship, would effectively extend protection to same-sex couples.

Barbados’ existing and limited legislation on intimate partner violence – the 1992 Domestic Violence Act – provides only for the grant of protection orders in instances of domestic abuse, and only considers such abuse in the context of marriage between a “husband and wife”.

AMG understands that the Abrahams resolution introduced language to define a “partner” as “any person in a visiting relationship”, and “spouse” as a “party to the relationship where the parties are living with each other in the same household, as though they were husband and wife.” And while Abrahams has lauded the proposed bill as a “socially revolutionary piece of legislation”, he faces intense opposition not only from the incumbent government MP, but within his own party as well.

The implied recognition of same-sex relationships appears to be politically inconvenient for both major political camps.

Senior members of the opposition BLP were reported to express their dissatisfaction with the proposed bill, while members of the party’s Christ Church East executive branch have lodged a formal complaint, indicating that they had no knowledge of the resolution or its contents before it was presented to the party conference.

[This] deeply offends the branch procedurally as well as, by implication, suggests the branch’s acquiescence and/or support of any formal legislative recognition of non-heterosexual relationships at this time, and where there has been no engagement or discussion on the matter.

— BLP Christ Church East branch executive

Meanwhile, for the incumbent MP, the implication that public policy should be nuanced by religious considerations has been made clear: “I am a man of The Bible, a person of faith”, said Lowe, stating that the legislation “runs against the grain of what I have always known to be the biblical way.”

Lowe further threatened to circulate briefs on the proposed legislation to every church and religious leader on the island, to ascertain whether they were prepared to “encourage” the tenets of the legislation in their churches.

Defining victims, not relationships: Despite the MP’s assertions, gender-neutrality in the context of the proposed bill is not an endorsement of same-sex unions. The Abrahams-supported resolution, by virtue of its elimination of gender-specific definitions, does not legally recognize marriage or partnerships between persons of the same sex. Says Abrahams, the legislation seeks only to “widen the ambit of who actually is a victim.”

Popular opinion on homosexuality in Barbados, according to a recent poll by the Caribbean Development Research Services Inc. (CADRES), has shifted positively over the course of the last decade, with levels of acceptance rising 11 percentage points since 2004, with over half (67%) of the Barbadian population self-describing as “tolerant” or “accepting” of homosexuals.


Overwhelmingly, the study also found that 82% of Barbadians were against discrimination towards homosexuals, with encouraging — albeit not statistically-significant — levels of tolerance among Barbadians who self-described either as active or non-practising Christians.

The incumbent MP, for his part, appeared to dismiss the report findings as a “parade [of] agendas”, alluding that he would never shift towards acceptance of homosexuality.

Controversies over gender-neutral legislation are not limited to Barbados. In The Bahamas, efforts to introduce gender-neutral constitutional reforms were met with similar opposition, particularly from Evangelical groups, forcing the postponement of a referendum on several planned amendments.

In Jamaica, efforts to modernize the Offences Against the Person Act, and to create more inclusive protections for victims of sexual violence, are still underway. There too, religious considerations have challenged some of the slated proposals – including those which seek to legally recognize the possibility of marital rape.

In the case of Barbados, as debate continues in the public sphere on the rights of homosexuals in its society, Abrahams stated: “It is entirely unfortunate that the public is now being misled as to the content and extent of the draft legislation… the fact is if you are being abused or being victimized, that I don’t approve of your lifestyle does not mean you are not entitled to the full support and protection of the court.”

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