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Debunking myths about Caribbean families and homosexuality

Submitted by unaidsadmin on Wed, 2017-05-17 11:15 - 0 Comments

The focus of today's International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) commemorations is the role of families in the well-being of their LGBTI members.We asked Caribbean stakeholders in the spheres of civil society, psychiatry and religion to address families’ most common misgivings when they learn a loved-one isn't straight. 

Myth #1: Homosexuality = dysfunction
The Silver Lining Foundation—a peer support group for young Trinidadians dealing with bullying on the basis of sexual orientation—was formed in response to two teen suicides. Some of the group’s members confess to be tottering on the brink of mental breakdown or experiencing suicidal thoughts. According to Mark, (not his real name) the most frequent complaint is that “they feel they can’t be themselves or trust someone with who they really are”. 

It isn’t the mere fact of same sex attraction that leads to these crises. Professor Gerard Hutchinson, Head of the Clinical Medical Science Department at the University of the West Indies, explains that family rejection, the prejudice sexual minorities face in the wider society and their own uncertainty about how to deal with the situation “have the potential to generate a lot of psychological distress”. Navigating these “social mountains” can fuel anything from self-harm to risk-taking to social withdrawal, the psychiatrist said.

Luke Sinnette is the President of Friends For Life, the region’s oldest organisation serving gay, bisexual and transgender people. He agrees that many of the negative consequences people peg to homosexuality are often the fallout of name-calling, victimisation, violence and secrecy. 

“If you don’t take the time to get the counselling or support that you need, many persons who go through that kind of pressure can develop maladaptive behaviours or begin to elicit responses similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” the social worker explained. There’s an increasing number of non-governmental organisations and mental health professionals who can offer young people and their families help to cope with these issues and—as many do—build balanced, happy lives. 

Myth #2: God wants you to shun your child
Colin Robinson, Executive Director of the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), revealed his same sex attraction to his priest during his first confession.  

“I shared it as a sin,” he remembered. “The priest’s response was that it wasn’t.” 

Akeem came out to the Hindu and Muslim branches of his family when he was 19-years-old. 

“I have friends who can’t tell their parents because they live in strict Muslim households but my grandmother is a staunch Muslim and she accepted me. She kept asking if I was sure and then she said ‘if this is what it is, then all of us have to accept you’,” he recalled. 

Different religions and even adherents within faiths have differing positions on the issue. Anglican Priest, Reverend Shelly Ann Tenia, acknowledges that the Anglican tradition still hasn’t resolved its position on the issue as there are many of its members who object to homosexual practice. But regardless of one's perspective, as a community there are some guidelines about how to treat such persons.

“We affirm that persons who experience their sexuality in same-sex ways are children of God and members of the household of faith,” she explained. “They are to be welcomed into the community and given pastoral care. If you are part of the church it is expected that you would do the same in the home. I advise parents to study the scriptures together with your child. Listen to your child’s experience and respond with compassion.”

Myth #3: The gay can go away
Can certain processes alter a person’s sexual identity or behaviour? Various manifestations of the ex-gay movement say ‘yes’. At last check, the American Psychological Association decided that there is “insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation”. 

“Social forces might coalesce either through therapy or religion to persuade people to change their behaviour. Most of the time those changes are temporary. Essentially, it is a postponement of the inevitable. I am seeing people who have lived the conventional societal life for years, come out and say it’s all a sham,” Professor Hutchinson said.

Families and faith systems sometimes accept people’s sexual orientations but expect them not to act on their attractions. Tenia stressed that there are limits on the prescriptions that we can make for others’ lives

“We can’t decide that someone should not be homosexual. We can prescribe all we want but it is not the reality. We can’t determine people’s sexual expression but we can help them make choices that are consistent with their faiths, respect for their bodies and what they want for their lives,” she stressed. 

Myth #4: My family just can’t cope
“When you are raising your children you don’t know which one is going to be straight or gay,” noted mother and advocate, Nadine Lewis-Agard.

Although not herself the parent of a gay child, she always thought it important to leave no doubt in her children’s minds that they could come to her if they had any questions to ask, or declarations to make, surrounding their sexuality. 

“I wanted to make sure they knew they had a mother who has their back no matter what,” she said. “I’ve seen the pain of some of my friends who couldn’t tell their parents.” 

Hutchinson advises against anger, rejection, violence and “invoking God as a symbol of punishment”. He encourages parents and children to cultivate the open communication that would allow them to confront this and other issues as they journey forward together.

Robinsion reflected that the process toward acceptance can’t be rushed: “I think talking and being committed to the relationship are critical pieces of the puzzle. It’s about valuing and supporting family for who they are and understanding that that is more important than a lot of other competing issues and even competing values. I think the more families talk about their successes and struggles the better we’ll get at pinning down what is most helpful and what works best.” 

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The UNAIDS team offers the Caribbean the broad expertise of cosponsors and other UN organisations in areas such as program development and management, women and child health, education, legal networking, community care initiatives and resource mobilisation. The goal is an expanded response to HIV in the region with the world’s second highest HIV prevalence.