A speech made in the Legislative Assembly in August on the topic of same-sex unions sparked a months-long debate that pitted members of the Cayman Islands government against those advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
On Aug. 14, Bodden Town MLA Anthony Eden proposed a private members’ motion to maintain the definition of marriage as it is currently written in the law: a union between a man and a woman.
His presentation on the motion garnered backing from those who support traditional marriages, but upset others who characterized his comments as hate speech.
The motion was made a few weeks after a key judgment from Europe’s highest human rights court, which could force the Cayman Islands to change its stance on same-sex unions.
In July, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights for failing to offer enough legal protections to same-sex couples. Shortly after the European court’s ruling, the Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission issued a statement explaining how it would affect this jurisdiction.
The commission said Cayman should enact legislation to recognize same-sex unions and to provide same-sex couples with the opportunity to access the same rights and obligations that married couples enjoy. In light of the court’s judgment, the Commission said, failure to enact such legislation “is likely to mean that Cayman is in breach of its obligations under the Convention and certainly that it is more vulnerable to a successful challenge in the Court.”
Before any legislation that might expand the rights of same-sex couples was put forward, Mr. Eden made his motion, designed to reinforce the definition of marriage that is already in the law.
Mr. Eden’s presentation on his motion, which he said was “based on Holy Bible evidence,” was not limited to a discussion of the definition of marriage. He also admonished homosexual behavior in general and warned people against “satanic confusion.”
Bodden Town MLA Alva Suckoo, who seconded Mr. Eden’s motion, said that while he did not wish to “launch an assault on homosexuals,” in his Bible, homosexuality is a sin, and he “shouldn’t be expected to support legislation that would allow sin.”
No MLA spoke against the motion, and all members present voted in favor of it.
Following the debate, the Human Rights Commission released a statement characterizing it as “poisonous hate speech” and accused certain MLAs of using their elected positions to “peddle inaccurate, vitriolic and thoroughly hateful misinformation” about the LGBT community.
“Parliamentary privilege is just that – a privilege,” the commission’s statement read. “With it comes great responsibility. It was disappointing to see it so disgracefully abused … It is also a source of particular regret that, apparently, the overwhelming majority of members present at the ‘debate’ did not see fit to challenge these statements in any way.”
Commission Chairman James Austin-Smith also sent a letter to Premier Alden McLaughlin, requesting that he respond to the debate and inviting him to denounce “in the strongest terms” statements that targeted homosexuals, and subjected them to ridicule or even potential abuse in the community. The letter also echoed the commission’s July statement, urging the government to immediately introduce legislation to recognize same-sex unions and outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Mr. Eden responded to the commission’s statement during a personal explanation in the Legislative Assembly on Nov. 19. He said the statement, as well as comments made by others critical of Mr. Eden’s August speech, showed a “total apparent disrespect for the majority of residents in Cayman.”
Mr. Eden “strongly suggested” that government appoint a chairman of the commission “who is not an atheist.” Mr. Austin-Smith has said in previous public appearances that he does not believe in God.
“It is my belief that we do not need an atheist chairing our Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission,” Mr. Eden said. “I am sick and tired of some people disrespecting my Caymanian people.”
A few days later, the Human Rights Commission released a correspondence which contained Mr. McLaughlin’s response to Mr. Austin-Smith’s letter.
“This is an issue which has evoked great passion on both sides of the debate … there should be no surprise that the matter locally has had the debate that it has,” Mr. McLaughlin wrote in a letter dated Oct. 21. “The issue is not made any easier given that the government, even if it was minded to, currently has no mandate to alter the status quo as we have come to know it in the Cayman Islands.”
The premier also said that the government would consider the possibility of adjusting immigration policy to allow homosexual partners to be listed as dependents on work permits, allowing couples to reside together in cases where only one person in the relationship is employed here. Such a request is routinely approved for married couples of a different sex.
Mr. McLaughlin said he was advised that such an approach – adjusting the immigration policy without recognizing same-sex unions – would be compliant with the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment.
In a written response, Mr. Austin-Smith told the premier that the advice he had received on the matter was lacking.
“I have no doubt, particularly in light of the total absence even of any of the rights [currently afforded some same-sex couples in Italy], that the Court would also rule against the Cayman Government if a case were brought today,” Mr. Austin Smith wrote to the premier. “Can I invite you to reconsider the advice that you have been given? There should be no doubt about it – we are in breach of the law.”
Mr. Austin-Smith also disagreed with the premier’s suggestion that the government “has no mandate” to change the law as it relates to same-sex marriage, and noted that the premier had failed to denounce statements made in the Legislative Assembly that “amongst other things,” likened LGBT individuals to “pedophiles and those who practice bestiality,” and described them as “deviants,” “wicked,” “immoral” and “evil.”
“Whatever our differences of opinion on the government’s legal obligations, I hope you can agree with me that this was deeply unpleasant abuse, likely to incite hatred and is worthy of condemnation in the strongest possible terms,” Mr. Austin-Smith wrote to the premier. “I encourage you at the very least to say so publicly.”
On Nov. 26, two days after the exchange between Mr. Austin-Smith and the premier was made public, Mr. McLaughlin announced the government’s intention to change Immigration Law regulations “as a matter of urgency” to allow same-sex partners to remain in Cayman as dependents on their partner’s work permit.
Although the premier said that the change in immigration rules would not “for now” be expanded to a wholesale acceptance of civil unions in the law, the concession did not sit well with Mr. Eden who said it was a “very, very sad day” for Cayman.
Later that day, Mr. Eden announced that he would be leaving the People’s Progressive Movement political party over the issue.
While Mr. Eden considered the immigration announcement as a step too far, others say the policy change does not go far enough.
Human Rights professor Robert Wintemute told the Cayman Compass recently that dealing with the immigration issue would only solve one small part of the problem. Mr. Wintemute, who delivered a critique of the islands’ “out of date” laws on rights for homosexuals during a lecture series at Truman Bodden Law School last spring, said such a change would make no difference for gay Caymanians who mi
ght want their partnerships recognized.
Regardless, Mr. Wintemute said, it is now simply a legal issue, and the U.K. will eventually force Cayman to recognize same-sex unions as it did in 2000 when it decriminalized homosexuality through the Caribbean Territories (Criminal Law) order.
“At this point, it’s just a matter of time.” Mr. Wintemute said.