An interview with St Lucia’s outspoken LGBT lesbian activist reveals her optimism and courage in the face of daunting circumstances for gays in her island nation where homosexuality is still criminalized and Christian homophobia runs high.
Kenita Placide (photo right) is at the forefront of the Gay and Lesbian movement in Saint Lucia. Dressed in baggy jeans and a T-shirt, with her hair cornrowed back, I couldn’t help but notice a shyness about this heavily pierced young woman as we spoke in her hometown of Gros Islet. She took time with each word. Her voice was raspy and strong as she admitted that the subjects she deals with on a regular basis are very sensitive.
The group, United & Strong, has actually existed since 2001 and has at its core the interests of Lesbian, Gays, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) people of Saint Lucia. As the co-Executive Director of the grouping Kenita Placide has weathered many a storm, or hurricane. She says she has received several threats, the worst of which was when two men held her up and threatened to kill her if “I didn’t stop this bullah ‘ting.” The newly acquired offices of United & Strong were also burnt down recently, just a few months after the office opened in the north. The case is presumed to still be under investigation.
Placide, a product of Canon Laurie Primary and Vide Boutielle Secondary, has had a long history of advocacy, having been a member of drug-free groups, Red Cross and says she has a passion to see justice be done.
The issue of the rights of Gay and Lesbians came to the fore last week when UN Special
Envoy on HIV/AIDS to the Caribbean, Dr Edward Greene, announced that figures showed that at least 20 percent of the population of some Caribbean countries were gay. Greene said that the abolition of buggery and prostitution laws by 2015 is being considered by some Caribbean countries striving to achieve their Millennium Development Goals.
Placide says this is definitely a step in the right direction but adds that although the issue over changing laws is relevant it is about trying to change what is culturally ingrained in Caribbean people.
“Laws are not what are stigmatizing or making people discriminate against us, although the laws support it,” she said. “We have to be able to educate people who feel like they are empowered by those laws. We need to the government to partner with us on this issue.”
Saint Lucia is among those Caribbean countries that still considers “buggery” a criminal offence. According to Section 133 of Saint Lucia’s Criminal Code, No. 9 of 2004 (Effective 1 January 2005): “1) A person who commits buggery commits an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for –
“a) life, if committed with force and without the consent of the other person
“b) ten years, in any other case.
“2) Any person who attempts to commit buggery, or commits an assault with intent to commit buggery, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for five years.
“3) In this section “buggery” means sexual intercourse per anus by a male person with another male person.”
To those who say that the law in relation to buggery is not enforced, therefore there can be of no harm, Placide says they are not looking at the bigger picture. “It is a dangerous thing. People’s rights are being violated on a daily basis,” she says. “The fact that the law is there, there is no formal redress for homosexuals. It basically means that when you go to the police for something, it exposes you. Right now it is the police officers on their own deciding not to enforce this law. Homosexuals ask themselves, what if the police officers decide to book me because this law exists?”
Placide added that there are attacks that take place in St Lucia that go unnoticed. “Abuses have taken place. We have had deaths of gay men that are still unsolved or unresolved. We had the death of Verne Romulus, the death of Germaine Nestor, the death of Marcellus Augustin, we had the death of Ethelbert ‘Romeo’ Evelyn in Dennery. These were openly gay people and these cases were not cases where they were just killed. These killings were brutal, with multiple stab wounds and beatings. There have been gay people who have been beaten in the street. Society targets the highly effeminate guys and the butch looking women. Some have been raped. They get verbally abused on a daily basis. And what works against them is the fear of reporting these incidents. People are internalizing things, instead of seeking help.”
Placide herself was not alarmed by the statistics that UN AIDS presented about the number of homosexuals that make up the population in the Caribbean. “To every gay guy you know in Saint Lucia you may need to multiply that by ten to 15 brothers who are on the ‘down low.’ It is scary but even scarier that we have a situation where people are being pushed so far to the point that they have to pretend to be “normal”, be it because of family, jobs, prestige . . . You have people who are simply bisexual and even to admit that is hard.
“St Lucia needs to have these conversations on a public scale,” Placide said. “It is really not a matter of what we are ready for, it is what is happening. There are transgender and gay people out there. Although it may seem that you see more gay people out there, there is an undercurrent that says to them ‘don’t push too far.’”
Placide also admitted that there are a number of homosexual St Lucians who simply decide to the flee the country. “People have applied for refugee status in some countries, especially Canada, citing the buggery law of St Lucia and other incidents that have occurred here and the world understands their plight. On the international scene it really harms our image when because people are different they cannot live amongst others.”
Placide is not without her own horror stories. “My life was threatened just because I am an advocate for LGBT rights. I was held up by two guys on the steps by Conway and told that ‘You need to stop talking about these bullahs on TV. We doh promote dem tings and if you continue you will be dead.’ I was in a trance. Then a vehicle pulled up and they were gone.”
It was also a major setback for United & Strong when their new Reduit office was suspiciously burglarized and burnt last year. “We had the space for four months and it burnt one week after we officially launched,” said Placide. “I have not yet gotten a report on the fire or anything from the police or fire service.”
But the setbacks have done little to affect Placide or the effort. “It breaks you down for a little while but then you ask yourself, if you don’t keep going who else will do it. When I feel down I just think about all the people who are constantly being discriminated against just for being themselves. It would only stop you if you don’t believe that what you are doing is right.”
The voice of gay and lesbian rights in St Lucia is a youthful one, admitted Placide. “We are saying that we are here and no matter what, you have to deal with us. We have young women who are butch and because they dress in a certain manner they don’t get certain jobs even though they are skilled. People have to be allowed to be themselves. It changes people, how they view the world when they are asked to do things that are against their nature. You will get rebellion in some form or another.”
The increases in youth crime could very well be tied to young people being unable to resolve their feelings. Placide reminded me of the number of young gay people who have committed suicide in the United States just because they can’t deal with society. “We have had to talk down people in St Lucia from trying to kill themselves. We need to be very careful. Our youth are at risk.”
Placide admits that people are confused about what homosexual people are fighting for.
“It is not about gay rights, it is about equal rights and being treated fairly,” she said.
United & Strong welcomes new members, although Placide admits people feel “outed” once they join the group.
The recent conference held last month in Saint Lucia did wonders Placide said for the movement in Saint Lucia and the country’s image as being gay “unfriendly.”
In March last year the impact of violence against same-sex couples came home to Saint Lucia when three gay men holidaying in Soufriere were robbed at gunpoint and attacked. The attack occurred as the men were showering together at a cottage and the visitors took their story to major news sources in the US. The men said the incident was a hate crime as their attackers hurled discriminatory remarks at them. Online today a search for information on St Lucia still brings up this story.
Placide, however, is optimistic that St Lucia is moving forward. The International Dialogue conference had people from all over the world in St Lucia looking at human and civil rights issues, as well as decriminalization.
Story by Nicole Mc Donald
St Lucia Star
March 8, 2012