Debate over LGBTQ rights in the Cayman Islands has reached a boiling point on social media, with comments and accusations turning vitriolic at times.
Governor Martyn Roper weighed in on the increasingly tense issue during Friday’s COVID-19 press briefing, calling on all members of the community to think twice about what they publish online.
While Roper did not directly name the Christian faith-based Cayman Caribbean Cause, he described messages leaked from the group’s WhatsApp chat against LGBTQ people as “irresponsible” and “quite shocking”.
He made a plea for people to treat each other with courtesy, dignity and respect.
“I’ve seen a number of comments made on WhatsApp in recent days about the Civil Partnership Bill that I feel are deeply irresponsible. In fact, I find them quite shocking. The worst ones have been referred to the police to look into,” Roper said.
“I’m not going to single out individuals or organisations but I call on both sides of this debate to lower the temperature and please think twice before posting anything on social media that would offend others in our community.”
The governor added later that complete copies of the leaked WhatsApp messages had been received by Police Commissioner Derek Byrne and were “being looked at” by police.
In contrast, Roper named local Imam Tahir Chaudhry of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community as a leader who has modelled a compassionate demonstration of his faith with regards to LGBTQ people.
“I think the Muslim Imam Mr. Chaudhry in an interview with the Compass yesterday, I thought he put it incredibly well. I found it actually quite inspiring,” Roper said.
“He said he personally doesn’t support homosexuality, but his faith for him means that he loves everybody, he’s compassionate towards everybody and he doesn’t allow any discrimination against anybody in our community. I would urge everybody to approach this issue in those terms.”
Division over same-sex union bill
The governor’s assent to the Civil Partnership Bill in early September moved forward a hard-fought debate that has long divided the islands along moral and religious lines. After the Legislative Assembly failed to implement a legal same-sex union framework, as ordered by the Court of Appeal, Roper used powers reserved to him under Section 81 of the Cayman Islands Constitution to enact the legislation.
“I think the premier had indicated previously that this was likely to be the impact of the Legislative Assembly rejecting civil partnership legislation. The UK needs to be able to exercise its responsibilities and international obligations in an overseas territory,” Roper said.
Fierce opposition to the bill has continued among Cayman’s Christian clergy.
The Cayman Ministers’ Association issued a statement Monday, 14 Sept. reaffirming its stance against same-sex partnerships.
“We believe that the rule of law finds its origin from the Supreme Law Giver as given in the Bible,” the statement read.
Another member of the association, Bishop Nicholas Sykes, described himself to the Compass as “leadership of the Caribbean Cause”. An associated chat group, of which he is part, Cayman Caribbean Cause, was the source of leaked messages that encouraged hanging, banishment and criminalisation of LGBTQ people. Sykes denied knowledge of any of the messages described to him by the Compass.
In a 21 Sept statement* to the Compass he said the chat group is freely sustained by those who participate and that it is “a fine chat group”.
Social media turns tense
Meanwhile, a video from an anti-LGBTQ Muslim fundamentalist group, posted to Facebook by Cayman Caribbean Cause member and former political candidate Dennie Warren, caused significant outrage and speculation online. The video has been shared with Cayman’s Ministry of Education to fact check the claims made in and about the video regarding the sexual education curriculum. The ministry had not responded to a Compass request by press time.
By Friday evening, the post had elicited hundreds of reactions, many of them equating LGBTQ people to deviants and predators. One commenter called on gun owners to “load up” in opposition.
While the widely commented-upon video alleges the UK has enacted compulsory sexual education, it fails to acknowledge that parents maintain the right to opt out. This right is recognised in UK Department of Education guidelines, last updated in July.
“Parents have the right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of statutory RSE [Relationships and Sex Education],” the UK guidelines read.
“Before granting any such request, it would be good practice for the head teacher to discuss the request with parents and, as appropriate, with the child to ensure that their wishes are understood and to clarify the nature and purpose of the curriculum. Schools will want to document this process to ensure a record is kept.”
Christine Rowlands, head of the Governor’s Office in Cayman, confirmed that parents held the right to withdraw their children from such lessons.
“There is no compulsory sex education for primary pupils [in the UK] and parents can ask for their children to be excluded until just before they turn 16 when it becomes the child’s choice,” Rowlands wrote in an email to the Compass.
She added it is up to the Ministry of Education to decide Cayman’s curriculum and is unaware of what the ministry may implement.
Comments on Warren’s post became increasingly antagonistic and hostile throughout the week, prompting Colours Cayman founder Billie Bryan to release a public statement after sparring online with commenters.
Colours Cayman hosts periodic ‘Colour Me Loved’ workshops for youth above age 13, as well as teachers, parents and guardians, to promote education on gender identity, sexual orientation and mental health.
“In light of recent allegations that have been circulating online with regards to the education of children on the topics of gender and sexuality, Colours Cayman would like to remind the public that our organisation’s mission is to foster safe and comfortable social and professional environments for everyone in the Cayman Islands, with our primary focus being on the LGBTQIA+ community,” the Colours statement read.
“We advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights as human rights and promote the inclusion and equality of LGBTQIA+ people in the Cayman Islands. We further our mission in many ways, including hosting educational workshops – as we have for years now – that are designed to educate our youth, teachers, parents and guardians on the sensitive subjects of gender identity, sexual orientation and mental health.”
Bryan apologised for “any lack of clarity” regarding the organisation’s work hosting educational sessions. She added that a lack of awareness about gender and sexuality contributes to increased prevalence of bullying, mental illness and suicide among LGBTQIA+ youth.
“We remain vigilant in our efforts to inform, protect and support our youth and have taken considerable measures to ensure that our members and associates are knowledgeable, sensitive and well trained in these areas,” the statement continued.
“False accusations of LGBTQIA+ communities championing anything that clearly violates human rights are commonplace worldwide and members of our organisation have been met with them numerous times in the past. While we will always deny these false allegations and resist attempts to liken education surrounding gender and sexuality to child abuse or worse, likewise, we will always defend the inalienable right of children to be properly educated.”
Warren issued a Facebook comment, where he tagged government leaders and local media, stating Bryan could not come near his children. In a separate comment, he added no one is to teach his children about LGBTQ issues unless the lessons are taught by him.
Studies have found that LGBTQ youth are frequent subjects of verbal and physical harassment.
A 2011 survey by the US-based Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that 81.9% of LGBTQ students had been verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 63.9% because of their gender expression. More than a third, 38.3%, reported they had been physically harassed, such as pushed or shoved, because of their sexual orientation, and 27.1% because of their gender expression.
The US National Alliance for Mental Illness reported in 2019 that LBGTQ individuals were three times more likely to experience a mental-health disorder like major depression or generalised anxiety disorder.
*Editor’s note: This story has been amended, at the request of Bishop Nicholas Sykes, to reflect his role in the Cayman Caribbean Cause chat group.