Voices for Equality: Maria Fontenelle
By Shawn M. Gaylord
For the small Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia, tourism is a fundamental aspect of the economy. Roughly 350,000 tourists visit its shores per year. That’s why the local LGBT community hopes to leverage economic interest to achieve inclusion.
Maria Fontenelle of United and Strong Saint Lucia believes that engagement with the island’s tourism industry can reap benefits far beyond the economic sector: “To have employers realize that this [the LGBT community] is not a threat to their business, its an empowerment of society at large.”
Colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexuality contribute to persecution and discrimination against the LGBT community. The so-called “buggery” and “gross indecency” provisions carry ten and five year sentence maximums, respectively. Although rarely enforced, the laws validate homophobia and bias-motivated violence.
“So there’s that sense that being gay is illegal, so then obviously anything we do to you, we’re basically in the right… that concept is something that we need to engage people around a little more, make them understand the concept of human rights itself and then extend that to LGBT persons.” said Fontenelle.
Even in the face of ingrained homophobia, the Saint Lucian LGBT community and its allies believe that change is possible. Estimates indicate that the global spending power of LGBT tourism is more than $140 billion. This purchasing power could be a compelling force for tolerance, which along with greater visibility of LGBT people should lead to respect for the human rights of all.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR U.S. ACTION
· Prioritize the advancement of of the rights of LGBT people, including the abolishment of criminalization laws, within the broader Saint Lucia country strategy.
· The U.S. Department of Justice should strengthen U.S. training for police to increase their capacity to recognize, prevent, and respond to crimes motivated by anti-LGBT bias while preventing violence against LGBT individuals.
· The U.S. Embassy in Barbados, which serves Saint Lucia, should continue its work to increase the ability of civil society and the LGBT movement to influence change in Saint Lucia.
· The U.S. Congress should raise the issue of human rights in Saint Lucia in oversight hearings and support U.S. leadership on human rights and LGBT rights, including through legislation.