This summer, Floridian ports will be jam packed with visitors from around the world eager to hit the seas and head to the Caribbean.
In this region, chock-full of beaches, outdoor adventures, luxury hotels, and bars, the LGBT community is rising up for equality.
“You can't quantify the entire region with one brushstroke, and have to look at it country by country,” said John Tanzella, the president and CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the region saw the highest rate of tourism since records were kept, with 29.3 million visitors. The number shows a 4.2 percent increase from 2015. People also spent more money during their visit, increasing 3.5 percent to $35.5 billion.
Most of the increase in visitors came from Europe, especially German and British travelers, according to the organizations.
The Caribbean consists of 36 vastly different countries, varying in their treatment of LGBT people. Some are still territories of other nations, such as St. Martin or the British Virgin Islands, and some are more religious than others.
In Curaçao, a small island in the Southern Caribbean near the Venezuelan coast, same-sex marriage cannot be performed, but the government recognizes marriage certificates of any married couple, including same-sex ones. Over the past several years Curaçao has gained a reputation for its inclusiveness and back in 2004 the local Tourism Board launched GayCuracao.com. The island has also hosted multiple Pride festivals.
In 2016, the Aruban government voted to recognize domestic partnerships. That same year, Belize made headlines when its Supreme Court ruled its anti-sodomy law unconstitutional and also added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination laws.
While things are looking up, there are some countries that have garnered a bad reputation for its treatment of LGBT people.
“Jamaica has at times been described as the most homophobic place on earth. We would not probably call it that, but it certainly has had that reputation over the years,” said Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel at Human Rights First. “I think there’s a lot of positive movement in Jamaica. They’re a really strong civil society of very smart, engaged LGBT leadership and that is, I think, making a big difference in Jamaica.”
In May 2016, two men were shot and killed at a home they were staying at and rumors circulated that the two were gay. In 2015, a video was released of a young gay man tied up as a crowd stoned him to death, all the while yelling homophobic slurs. In 2015, a 16-year-old transgender girl was stabbed, shot, and run over by a car after she attended a party in a dress. She was buried in a suit and tie.
Kenita Placide, the Caribbean adviser for OutRight Action International, who is based in St. Lucia, explained that many English-speaking nations in the region still have outdated British buggery laws. Homosexuality itself is not outlawed, but sodomy is. In some countries, this also includes sodomy between heterosexual partners.
“For us in the Caribbean, first we have to change the narrative of being the most homophobic place, like Jamaica,” she said, adding that creating safety nets and support systems for LGBT people is vital.
And it’s working.
Even with the news coming out of Jamaica, the island hosted its first pride parade in 2015, which was even endorsed by the mayor of Kingston. The American ambassador, Wally Brewster, to the Dominican Republic was the first openly gay ambassador, giving much hope to LGBT people there. He resigned and Brewster and his husband returned to the United States when President Donald Trump took office.
So what is the ethical thing for tourists to do?
All three organizations the Mirror spoke to were against boycotting Caribbean travel, basing their stance on what they were hearing from activists on the ground. For one, it could create a backlash, Placide explained, as it could lead to “LGBT people being blamed for lack of tourism, and tourism in this region is one of the major priorities for lots of countries.”
Also, many LGBT people are employed in the tourism industry, and it may be one of the safer industries for them to work in, Gaylord said.
“LGBT people could be directly impacted by such a boycott,” he continued. “The LGBT community in these countries are saying this would not help our efforts.”
Tanzella said it’s a “personal choice.”
“Some travelers would never visit a country with anti-LGBT laws and others would never allow their orientation to prevent them from seeing the world. It's a personal choice,” he explained. “It's always best to be an informed traveler and to understand the laws and culture of the countries you visit, whether you are gay or straight.”
This includes things as simple as public displays of affection, Placide said. As the Caribbean is predominantly Christian and Catholic, many populations are very conservative and are uncomfortable with PDA even between heterosexual couples. Throw in two men kissing or holding hands, there’s “zero tolerance.”
For those wanting to know what to expect before traveling, Tanzella said the State Department has a wealth of information online: travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/go/lgbt.html
So what can help?
Participate in LGBT tourism, whether it’s visiting a pride group and taking part in an event they’re hosting, whether it’s a pride celebration or a boat trip.
Also, Gaylord said, the American dollar can go far in the Caribbean, so monetary donations are always welcomed.
“People can get an understanding and can see people for people, and not because of their sexuality,” Placide said. “I think that the more they see and normalize LGBT persons as people, as family, the more they get exposed to it, I think the better we are able to actually normalize LGBT persons as citizens in society.”