Everyday Hero: Standing up for LGBTQI rights in Barbados

René Holder-McClean-Ramirez the Co-Director of Equals Inc. and Chair of Eastern Caribbean Alliance of Diversity and Equality (ECADE) He’s an Outreach worker and Community Advocate who helps LGBTQI people understand their basic rights. Through his organization, he also helps female sex workers.

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René at work © UNDP Barbados

When a member of the LGBTQI community in Barbados experiences discrimination such as workplace harassment, being fired from their job or being denied medical treatment for their sexual orientation or gender identity, they turn to René to see if their legal rights have been violated. Victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes turn to him as a first step in navigating the legal system to seek justice.

In 73 countries worldwide, love is illegal if you are LGBTQI. Laws that criminalize LGBTQI relationships exclude victims of sexual assault, rape and violence from their right to access justice and government services such as medical care and the right to file a police report after a sexual or physical assault. Impunity is widespread.

When a LGBTQI person becomes the victim of a hate crime, sexual assault or domestic violence at the hands of an intimate partner, without explicit legal framework and domestic laws to guide law enforcement and judges in the legal system, they may not receive the same level of protection that local law enforcement, court systems, and laws can offer to its citizens.

Discrimination of people for their sexual orientation and gender identity affect their fundamental rights of protection as citizens. Many LGBTQI people may not be aware of their legal rights and public services available for them. This exclusion also means LGBTQI issues of community security and crime are not being reflected in local policies that shape everything from new data reports and approaches to reduce violent crimes. Their data and views may also be left out of national policies that affect workers’ rights, healthcare, and public services for citizens.

UNDP Barbados sat down with René to ask him about his work.

Through your job as an Outreach Worker & Community Advocate, how do you help address domestic violence and sexual gender-based violence?

I work locally with an organisation called Equals and we work with LGBTQI populations in Barbados. Also, through one of our projects, we work with female sex workers. Our focus has been peer outreach and, in that peer outreach, we do encounter cases of intimate partner violence.

Our role is to help community members facing such situations by referring them and guiding them through access to services. Basically handholding through the whole entire process. So a client may come to us experiencing [intimate violence] and we will access [the services]. If they need medical attention, we would refer them to our peer educators and they will go with the clients, if the client wants that. For legal aid, we refer them to lawyers and with social services we can also go with them. We walk with our clients through [the process] and try to find options for that client that would best help that client.

Why is your work important to you?

This is important to me, firstly [because] I am very much a people’s person. I can’t see persons struggle to gain access to services, or even in accessing services, struggle to get the things that they need. When I came back to Barbados in 2004, I realised that the LGBT community had some struggles, whether it was from fear, discrimination and stigma in accessing services and I work very hard to advocate for the removal of barriers in accessing these services. Also to build relationships with persons in these organisations so that we can help connect community members to these services. I think that everybody has the basic right to health and security.

How does violence affect the women and men in your community?

Well, I think any action of violence against the community has a ripple effect but we are talking about persons who may be younger, either having violence happening to them or seeing it in households. Violence can slow growth, it can lead to the person experiencing it perpetuating the same behaviour, emotionally stressful for persons experiencing violence. And for me, I don’t think we have enough of a push for caring for persons when it comes to mental health and counselling. I don’t think we realise the impact this has on a person’s development in the long run, in maintaining relationships, to be able to work effectively, to learn effectively, to navigate life effectively.

What the biggest threat or challenge women and girls in your community face when it comes to gender violence? When are they most vulnerable?

When we look at lesbians, bi[sexual] and trans[exual] women, so much of that goes unrecorded and we have a culture where they are harassed. Because they believe that lesbians do not have real sex or that they are pretending. Then you have lesbians that may be presenting in a more masculine way, again the notion that they can come and correct the behaviour, either through sexual assault or harassment. Or even violence.

Often times, women may end up having to live in situations where violence is perpetuated not only from in the household but in the neighbourhood towards them. And this again is mentally toying with them. It affects your ability to earn, to actually feel safe in your home. When you talk about transwomen, transwomen are just getting up and out of their house… from the time they are out of that door, it is a challenge.

Most transgenders has trouble even gaining employment. They are not taking public transportation so they are probably taking taxi more often and without having some sort of income coming in, you can imagine what it is like just going to the store, or having to go to work becomes difficult. They can’t catch a bus like other persons or they don’t have a job where they can get a car like the average person. Even just shopping for themselves, buying just clothes and other products can become challenging. Persons have experienced incidences of taunting and the stigma and discrimination that comes with being a transwoman. And I am not even touching on accessing health for the lesbian population or the bi and trans populations because when you go to a doctor you are asked about sexual health and, while not for all lesbian women, they say they are not having penetrative sex then you leave out a whole host of questions that allows you to get the kind of checks you may need. Again, for transwomen, just accessing services at a polyclinic or a doctor’s office is very daunting and is very hard. They end up feeling insecure and I think that a lot of doctors have the biological part down pat but do not always understand everything that goes with this persons mental state or the type of mental care they may need if they are on hormones and the things to look for if the person is in a medical transition.

It is something that we as an organisation would like to do some research on and allocate for because I don’t think people really see the issue around that these women are not always able to get access to the type of healthcare they need. I had the opportunity to speak in 2016 with these women in Canada and there were persons that were there that sought asylum because of how hard it was in Barbados for them as open lesbian, especially those not feminine presenting. Also, transmen wanting to access services and going through transition here is even harder than transwomen.

The violence that women are experiencing, for example I will mention the article that was in the Nation [newspaper] referencing a woman that “gets more men than the men” and that she got [drunk] with the boys and she passed out and a guy decided to take sexual advantage of her. And other people saw her there disheveled and made comments about it. And the fact that the press then went further to then tell the story in a satire way and calling it “male medicine”. This type of thinking is not just the Nation’s, this type of thinking is actually a cultural thing. As I mentioned, the taunting of women. And again, women on the whole get a different treatment to men and are placed as secondary to men and then you layer that with the idea that sexuality, or gender expression, is ‘other’.

To me, violence is also when you cannot get a job, you know. Cause I come to get a job and I sit there and smirk with you but I am not able to get that job because you don’t think that I don’t fit your idea of what a woman should be. Or I have to think about if I walk down the street that I know these guys would harass me. A good example is that there was a petition of a transwoman trying to get a number of boys in her neighborhood from throwing rocks at her house. It was so bad that she had to put chicken wire around her window. So not every woman, whether lesbian, bi, or transgender is able to be that strong neighbourhood, where they adopt that diva attitude for everyone to be afraid of your because you may go and trip off on them. So when you get that kind of attitude they back off but the reality there are few transwomen that are in typical standard 9–5 jobs inBarbados. When I say that I mean working in a bank, working in a store. To my knowledge in Barbados there was only one transwoman who worked in a front [of house] store on Broad Street. A lot of transwomen end up in sex work and when they end up in sex work, especially in the town area they are threatened with rocks, and all this stuff happens to them.

[In a professional setting] you have persons who may not be getting promotions. I remember a person I know, a lesbian, when she went to get a job with a top insurance company, she was told, “ok well you are going to have to grow out your hair.” Because wearing a short haircut enforced that she is a lesbian. Mind you, there are women who are not a lesbian with short hair but to stop her from so presenting as, she had to grow out her hair. And that should not be a requirement. I mean, it wasn’t as though she had an indecent hairstyle, it was that her hairstyle was short. But they thought that to make her more marketable for her image, she needed to look more feminine.

Why did you decide on this as a job?

For me, it was more [that] I had a passion for looking at human rights issues and trying to be involved in making a difference. I would not say that I started off looking at LGBT issues at the beginning, it was more about looking at injustices and thinking that I want to be involved in that system.

I have very passionate friends who are like-minded in their capacity they fell in and eventually I think being involved and kind of being comfortable at the time (because I was not totally comfortable) and Barbados being a little more open, I slowly gravitated to and got involved in LGBT stuff that was going on. Because when I came back in 2004, there was really no active LGBT organisation at the time. I think there was UGALAAB and that was not very active. And I actually really got involved when I decided, well, I saw an ad for Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance and I said, well, let me call and see what is going on with that. From there I never looked back and got the chance to work with some great people and we were able to then start our NGO called Equals and I have been going from there. But for me it is always about trying to find a way to work with and for communities. And anything I write I try to say that because I am not doing it for my glory or to prove a point, it is about trying to see how best we can work with and for communities, not self.

What is your advice for people worldwide who will read your story? What is the one thing they can do to help reduce violence?

It may sound cliché, but the first thing is to educate yourself and get to know people because at the end of the day it is an individual that you are dealing with. It is a human individual. So the community is made up of these individuals and it is not that you have to run out tomorrow and love the whole community but if you meet a transperson, show them respect as an individual, as a person. And when it comes to violence, if you see something, say something.

I think we are often too silent saying, “it has nothing to do with me,” or we try to get involved mentally wondering who provoked it.

“No! If you see something, do something and don’t be there speculating.” We get too much of that. Instead, if you someone being wronged, say something. If you are in a place to help, do something.”

It is not about that whole ‘it’s not my business.’ You know, it is such a Caribbean thing and I am not saying to malicious [poke your nose into] people’s business, but if you know a coworker is doing something to a lesbian colleague or transgendered colleague or bisexual colleague, if you are doing something that is actually speaking directly to that coworker, do that. If your position is ‘this is wrong I am going to send a letter to HR,” do that. If it is calling the police, do that. It is just helping the actual person and saying, “hey what can I do for you?” I think often we prescribe what we think people should have and we don’t stop to ask people, “How can I help you?” “What do you need?”

Why is addressing violence against women and girls in all form important to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

For me, I think it is important and I think that this group is easily marginalised in the society but, as we know, in most societies [women] are the educators, the caregivers, especially in the formative years. So it important that you do not leave out this aspect.

Also too, it is important not to leave out men in this dynamic because it is women that are erasing men and I think we have to actually, in both sexes, encourage and educate. Because the data does prove that if you have educated women and safe girls we have a stronger society and that is , for me, why it is very important. But I also know how easy it is for men’s groups to get up and say, “Oh they are sidelining the men!” and stuff like that but I think that in a culture where we are seeing this more and more, we actually do have to go back and have a conversation with men and say, “Look this is why this is wrong.” Because I find men think that they have a path because they are men and again, sadly, a lot of our laws that we live by were written by a group of men.

If we do not have conversations to really change how we as a society view relationships between men and women and what roles we play and how these rolls affect us as a society, we are going to continue to have problems. It boggles my mind that for a woman to file harassment claims in some countries that it is so much work, and the fact that even if you do get to file that claim, you cannot ask any of your colleagues to corroborate your story. And if a settlement is made, you cannot talk about it, not even to your therapist. You have 180 days to go through the entire process, if it lapses over the 180 days then it is a no. The case is squashed. The first 30 days you have to go through a counselling process to decide if you still want to [bring charges] and then when you do that you have a cool out period of another 30 days. I am sure that when that was all decided it was by a bunch of men. And I think that is why there should be a focus on bringing balance.

Too long we have had a society shaped on the patriarchal set up and how do we bring balance to that. Especially in developing countries, women are more the breadwinner than men. Men may go out and hunt, but the women are going out for water and doing the heavy lifting, doing the farming, taking care of the children. So we have this woman carrying this burden but they woman doesn’t carry the respect that a man does and does not carry the decision-making on things that may affect her like a man does.

With improvements in safety, what 3 things could improve for the women and girls in your community at risk of gender violence.

Going to the police for a domestic [violence] situation is not always seen as a domestic [intimate] situation. There was a time when you could not bring same sex couple’s situations and we have seen a situation where we have seen a community member get murdered because when they went to court about their partner harassing them and threatening them, the judge really couldn’t do anything under their domestic laws. And [he] basically just said, “Well, just stay away from him.” And in two-twos [shortly after] the person’s ex saw them out and stabbed them.

Now, when it comes to family, again we have a lot of persons not wanting to report these cases. OR when you have domestic cases with family, it is usually with a younger person. And depending on their age, if they are in that 16–18 age range, oftentimes there is not much… other than a police coming to say, “You have to respect your grandparents, or your parents, or your aunt or your uncle.” And it never becomes about knowing your rights. One of the things that we try to do is assess the situation.

For us it is very hard to step in and move people out, because we do not have a system where we can put them in shelters. We don’t want to say that there is a situation at home and immediately [the response it so] want to take them out and put them in a shelter. That can be traumatising on its own. That is something that we would like to work towards and see more of. And another thing that we need more of is concerned citizens in society, we need more [who are] reactive and helping to facilitate those circumstances where we, if persons are in need in domestic situations, we can help to house them. But we still have very far to go with that because policies are just a start, we have to do sessions with the police, we have to do education in the community

Trans community, lesbians

For transgendered persons, as a minority they have such a small voice that they get swallowed up. Even in the LGBTQI community. They get marginalised. You have a situation where you are so tied up trying to figure out self and there is no enough mental health support in part because of the homophobia and then most relationships are undercover. An because a lot of the relationships are undercover it can lead to persons that are in these relationships are in a twisted [situation] where it is like, ‘if you want to stay with me you have to tow my line.’ And a lot of times, that is where the violence can start if we are talking domestic violence. When it comes to community violence it is about teaching people that you have to respect individuals and giving persons who are transgendered a chance to fair life. That means employment, education and having the right to access the type of services, whether medical, legal, social care, being able to walk into a supermarket and shop without everyone staring. So we find that a lot of our transgendered community are living in poverty because of this type of violence. And they become dependent on very few people who can take advantage of them.

When it comes to the lesbian community, it is about respect for individual and the livelihood element of it, especially if the person is more butch presenting. Giving lesbian women a fair chance for health and in building wealth and accessing education is very important.

For all women, this is about ownership and decision-making over their body and we wanting to police it as a society saying, “This woman is not having sex the way we think she should be having sex,” or “this woman, this transwoman, is not who she says she is.” So we feel like we have to police it and sometimes we are not happy with that, we then go a step further and abuse it. We are abusing their options to be and it is not your place to own anybody’s body and what they do with it and how they see themselves through their gender expression or their sexual orientation.

What are you doing to change perceptions and attitudes towards violence against women?

My thing is that violence is not ok no matter what. And we have to realise that violence is really about a person trying to demonstrate power over another. So I am thinking that in terms of valuing, women are powerful. Women are an integral part of our society. They deserve the utmost respect. It is something that we have to instill. Boys are taught to fight and we don’t talk emotions, we don’t share emotions, we are not supposed to cry. You know, you are just supposed to fight. So when you have this inability to convey, it comes out like that. It is sad and not all men take it out on women but it is this idea that I have to be dominant over something or someone. And too often, when it can’t happen at work, or with their friends, or out at the court, it happens in the home. Or it happens to who you perceive to be vulnerable persons in your community, or your area, or in your family.

Interviewed by: Juliette Maughan/ UNDP Barbados

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