Erin Greene – “History of Rainbow Alliance Bahamas” – Activist Report

History of Rainbow Alliance in The Bahamas (RAB)
Erin Greene – Activist Report

1. How and why did Rainbow Alliance get started in Nassau? What local/national/global political struggles gave rise to Rainbow Alliance?

The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas (RAB) was a support and advocacy group. The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas was formed in 2003 to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community. RAB was formed as a vehicle to respond to these comments: “if Parliament legalizes gay marriage, I will become the next Guy Fawkes…” made by the then President of the Bahamas Christian Council, Bishop Samuel Greene at the National Independence Church Service in July 2003. At the time, Bishop Greene also sat on the Constitutional Reform Committee that was required to include the issue of sexual orientation and gender discrimination in its “Options for Change.”

The Rainbow Alliance of the Bahamas was formed by members of the Pride Committee, Bahamians Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination (BGLAD), members of the former group Hope TEA and other individuals. At the time of Bishop Greene’s statement, the Pride committee was planning the 3rd Annual Pride Celebrations and decided to postpone the event to focus on the statement and the upcoming constitutional reform exercise.

2. What were the successes and challenges of organizing through Rainbow Alliance?

When formed RAB consisted of a small core group of members, with the intention of adding new members at various levels. Soon after formation, the core group realized that formal membership would be difficult to attract due to the stigma and fear of discrimination and visibility experienced by the LGBT community. After several years of work, it was believed by many Bahamians that RAB had a membership in the thousands. This perception afforded a layer of protection for RAB spokespersons and the LGBT community that continues to this day. (I believe this perception that RAB had thousands of members made individuals think twice before discriminating against members of the community). Unlike many regional LGBT organizations, the Rainbow Alliance had three spokespersons that identified as homosexuals, did not use pseudonyms and made television and radio appearances. This allowed the organization to establish trust with Bahamians at large and the LGBT community in particular. Most members of the core group were already established activists who had worked with other LGBT groups and human rights issues. The Rainbow Alliance was able to attract several heterosexual members and allies who were willing to be visible advocates for the group, including several members of the clergy.

Community visibility was always been a major concern for RAB. Organizing public and private activities was difficult as members of the LGBT community were committed to protecting their privacy at all costs even from other members of the same community. Even though RAB was able to create a community centre and office space, outside of a movie series, informal church services and one major cookout fundraiser, RAB was not able to sustain the community centre and its activities. We were unable to convince the community that the centre was a safe space, and it closed it doors after a year of operation. At this point, several core members left RAB as they had committed to developing the support elements of the organization.

RAB also experienced resistance from a number of owners of LGBT bars and clubs. The community centre was designated a drug and alcohol free space and it was perceived as an attempt to attract customers from the other establishments. In the Bahamas, an individual under the age of eighteen cannot access medical services or health and sexual health information without the consent of a parent or guardian, also homosexual sex is illegal for individuals under the age of eighteen. This prevented RAB from offering programs for LGBT youth, and prevented interaction with members of the community that wanted to volunteer, intern and be involved in the movement generally.

One of the largest challenges faced by RAB was that it was perceived of as a white upper-middle class organization comprised of privileged individuals that had a level of financial security and stability that made it possible for them to maintain a level of visibility that the average homosexual Bahamian could not. Many black working-class Bahamians felt that RAB was asking the LGBT community to face head-on challenges that the core members of the organization did not have to face because of social status and privilege. At the climax of RAB’s work, it was determined that the statutory and legislative framework necessary for LGBT rights and protections were already in placei and the political community was prepared to represent a minority group that was willing to demand representation. Unfortunately during the time of RAB’s organizing work, many in the LGBT community were not willing to assume the visibility necessary to participate in the democratic process.

3. What happened to the organization and how did this affect sexual minority organizing in the Bahamas?

The organization closed its doors in December 2008 after all but one of the core members decided to focus their energies on other human rights issues and personal endeavors. Two of the core members had just been elected to the executive board of Caribbean Forum for Lesbians All-Sexual and Gays (CFLAG) and felt that they could continue their work locally as a part of this regional body. At the time of its closing, RAB was the only LGBT advocacy group in the country. Shortly thereafter, the organization Sexual Addicts Seeking Healing (SASH Bahamas) had completed its transition to Society Against STIs and HIV/AIDS (SASH Bahamas) and became an HIV/AIDS focused action and Gay support group. Transgender and transsexual Bahamians continued to organize within Pageant houses in the absence of RAB. And recently in July 2011, a new sexual minority organization has formed: the Bahamas LGBT Equality Advocates (BLEA) is a non-profit LGBT support and advocacy organization. BLEA stands against homophobia, agitates for the removal of laws that discriminate against LGBT people, and fights stigma and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV status.

4. How did the HIV/AIDS pandemic affect the work of Rainbow Alliance?

The major stakeholders in the HIV/AIDS activist community whether formally or informally decided that it would be more effective strategically to not publicly align with the LGBT rights movement and RAB. RAB presumed that this strategy was aimed at not ostracizing major stakeholders and funders in HIV/AIDS work like the Christian community.

5. How did Rainbow Alliance address language in terms of same-sex relationships and gender variance? To what extent were the terms “lesbian,” “transgender,” “gay,” and “bisexual” used for self-naming?

In its work RAB found that the LGBT community as a whole was resistant to the use of labels and language used to categorize orientation and define behavior. Many members of the community didn’t even feel a need to identify as homosexual, and felt that these terms lesbian and transgender etc. were a part of being visible that they were unwilling to engage.

Even when Bahamians became comfortable with engaging the homosexual community in discourse, they were not prepared to discuss transphobia and transgender issues. RAB made a conscious decision to not focus on transphobia and transgender issues in its media work, but never shied away from the topic if raised in discussion or while addressing specific transgender issues. While RAB did not want to alienate this segment of the LGBT community, it was necessary to maintain a dialogue with a resistant and intolerant wider audience.

6. Did the spread of Western LGBT politics impact your local organizing?

It became apparent that anti-gay proponents in their statements and activities were in the majority of instances responding to events or statements made in North and South America and Europe including the United Kingdom. It is believed that Bishop Greene’s infamous statements were commentary on the movement to legalize same sex marriage and civil unions in The United States. After July 2004, it was assumed by society at large, including the gay community, that the Rainbow Alliance had initiated a campaign to legalize same sex marriage in the Bahamas, like its American counterparts. However, this was not on RAB’s agenda. The assumption was made because RAB organized a counter protest to the protest of Rosie O’Donnell ‘Our Family’ Cruise in July 2004. The local protest called their campaign “Save the Family,” but they were really protesting foreigners who were thought to be flaunting a “lifestyle” (supposedly) abhorred by Bahamians, which in this case had to be endured because of our reliance on tourism. RAB’s counter protest was held not to promote same sex marriage, but rather to show the international community that Bahamian sexual minorities exist and have a presence in The Bahamas.

Many Bahamians questioned the need for LGBT advocacy at all, asserting that the Bahamas is nowhere near as violent as Jamaica or Middle Eastern and certain African States. And although the Bahamas was not a target country in the “StopMurderMusic” Campaign, the Rainbow Alliance observed the disconnect between international activists and activists on the ground in Jamaica, and agreed with Jamaican activists that the resistance from Jamaicans at large and the LGBT community in particular to the campaign was more about sovereignty and post-colonial political and diasporic power dynamics and less to do with homophobia.

International LGBT activists generally disregard the importance of religion and spirituality in Caribbean states and thus alienate the majority of the local LGBT community from their work. RAB found the vast majority of homosexual Bahamians identify as Christian and do not wish to end their relationship with their religious communities, and they prioritize building healthy relationships with religious institutions and encourage dialogue with the Christian community in particular.

7. In what ways have you documented the history of Rainbow Alliance? What would you like fellow Caribbeans to know about the work of Rainbow Alliance?

The work of the Rainbow Alliance is being documented through several archiving projects, including Caribbean IRN. All of the organization’s media appearances can be found in the archives of local print, television, radio and electronic media houses.

i The Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act 1991 (s.5B(1), which speaks specifically to sexual intercourse in a public place, ultimately decriminalized homosexual intercourse for men because it made the colonial sodomy laws null and void, but essentially criminalized homosexual intercourse for women. It is believed that the change in law was argued on the basis of a constitutional right to privacy and that the law itself was intended to monitor behaviour in public places only. Prior to the 2008 amendment to the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act 1991, the age of consent for homosexual intercourse was 18, while the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse remained at 16. And a person found guilty of engaging in homosexual intercourse in a public place was liable to a term of imprisonment for life. After the 2008 amendments to the act, it is unclear what the age of consent is for homosexual intercourse as there is no clear definition of age of consent for “unnatural sex” in the amended act. Also the penalty for engaging in homosexual intercourse in a public space was reduced to a term of imprisonment for two years.