Barbados is a small country that just made a big statement.
In a fiercely fought election this month, voters on the island nation wiped out the governing Democratic Labour Party, leaving them without a single seat. And in their place, they elected Mia Mottley, the longtime opposition leader, who is the first woman to ascend to the country’s top job.
While Mottley does not talk about her sexual orientation in public, she has been subjected to sniggering homophobic attacks throughout her long political career. Those reached a fevered pitch in the days leading up to the vote.
“If she is gay she should come out and say so and let you know what we are getting as a prime minister,” said Michael Carrington, the former speaker of the house.
Minister of the Environment Denis Lowe also attacked Mottley, using homophobic slurs.
“The Barbados Labour Party is led by a self-proclaimed wicker,” he said, using derogatory slang for lesbian. “[She] doesn’t have any liking for men except those men who don’t have balls.”
Political homophobia has become one of the most potent weapons in the demagogue’s arsenal. In countries around the world — whether it’s Malaysia, Nigeria, Gambia, Russia or many others — attacking LGBT people has becoming an effective way to distract citizens from economic stagnation or government corruption.
But voters in Barbados refused to be led down that path. Instead, they punished a government that had been wracked by fiscal mismanagement and an inability to provide basic services like sewage.
That doesn’t mean Barbados is an LGBT paradise. The buggery laws remain on the books, there are no anti-discrimination protections for queer and trans people and homophobic evangelicals continue to make inroads in the country. Gay sex is punishable with lifetime imprisonment.
But Mottley will surely be a greater friend to LGBT people then the previous prime minister Freundel Stuart ever was.
In 2003, when she was attorney general, Mottley spoke in favour of decriminalizing buggery and prostitution. And while her party doesn’t hold any official position on same-sex marriage, its manifesto states that LGBT issues could be dealt with through a referendum.
Last year, I argued that the convergence of an increasingly aggressive evangelical movement with Mottley’s candidacy presented a particularly dangerous moment for LGBT Barbadians.
But the citizens of Barbados proved that they’re more interested in lifting each other up than in attacking their fellow citizens. It’s an example other countries should follow.