Resident Judge Bernie Stephenson at an official function in 2015
Resident Judge Bernie Stephenson at an official function in 2015

A gay man who two years ago sued the government of Dominica in a landmark case challenging the country's laws that criminalise "buggery" and "gross indecency", could soon have his day in court after all.

The Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court has assigned a new judge to the case, paving the way for the lawsuit to proceed, people with interest in the case have told The Sun.

The man, whose name is being withheld for his protection, contends that sections 14 and 16 of the sexual offences act violate multiple fundamental rights of all Dominicans, particularly those of LGBT+ people.

The case was first delayed last September when the Dominica Christian Council applied for and received, the court's permission to intervene. It was further delayed in November after the judge, Birnie Stephenson, recused herself after the Dominica Association of Evangelical Churches asked to be included as a third-party defendant in the suit. Stephenson said at the time that Randy Rodney, the association's president, was her pastor.

"We just got a notification this week that the chief justice has assigned the case to another judge. So, we're waiting to hear [more]," Maurice Tomlinson, a consultant with the Toronto, Canada-based HIV Legal Network, an advocacy organisation that promotes the human rights of people living with, at risk of, or affected by HIV or AIDS, including the LGBTQ community, told The Sun last week. The HIV Legal Network is supporting the lawsuit, which was filed in July 2019.

"It's good news to hear that the Eastern Caribbean court is taking it up and handing it to another judge," added Daryl Phillip, president of Minority Rights Dominica (MiRiDOM). "At least there's movement . . . after two years."

The latest development comes as a new study has found that homophobic laws, like the ones being challenged by the Dominican gay man, are costing Dominica and other English-speaking Caribbean economies as much as US$4.2 billion a year. The report was released last Wednesday by Open for Business (OFB), a coalition of 22 leading companies, including AT&T, Barclays, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Virgin, that advocate for LGBTQ equity globally. It found that the anti-sodomy laws, as well as social stigma and violence against LGBTQ people, affect tourism, productivity, the competitiveness of workers and businesses and the overall economic outlook of the region.

"It doesn't surprise me because in the LGBT+ world the Caribbean has always been known as a very homophobic region. So, I'm not surprised at the fact that studies show that the Caribbean is losing significant amounts of revenue as a result of its position," said Steve Johnson, a former deputy director of tourism for Dominica, who now works with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. "I mean that is clear, that's obvious, that's a given."

The tourism industry is losing between US$435 million and US$689 million each year as both gay and straight travellers boycott the region because of the anti-gay laws, revealed the study, which was conducted in Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

"If we are thinking of developing ourselves for the future, that is Dominica and the Dominica economy, and especially as it relates to tourism, we cannot invite people to make them feel uncomfortably in our country," argued Daryl Phillip, the MiRiDOM head. "It has been pointed out to the government over and over again but yet, I guess because of people's religious blindfolds, they don't see it, or they hide behind the curtain that is really titled, 'because the bible says so,' and it's really holding us back, economically."

Research conducted in December 2019 by Community Marketing & Insights (CMI), a San Francisco, California-based LGBTQ-owned and operated market research firm that has been conducting LGBTQ consumer studies for nearly 30 years, found that 80 per cent of respondents said that in deciding on where to take a holiday, it was very important or important that the destination is LGBTQ-friendly. It was the number one factor for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transsexual people in choosing a destination, followed by whether or not the destination offers natural beauty and whether or not it is safe or has low crime rates.

In addition, the CMI research found that on average, each year LGBTQ travellers take 3.1 leisure trips, 1.5 business trips and 2.2 trips primarily to visit family or friends, thus spending more than the heterosexual traveller.

Curacao, one of the most gay-friendly destinations in the Caribbean, has been attracting its fair share of this market.

"They have always been inclusive in terms of their marketing outreach, as it relates to tourism, of all persons, including the LGBT+ community, and they have active campaigns that focus exclusively on the LGBT+ community," Steve Johnson, the gay Dominican tourism professional, told The Sun. Johnson worked as a marketing consultant with Curacao for two years, from 2008-2010, and, when he was recruited by Thailand nearly eleven years ago, he was tasked with raising the country's profile within the LGBT+ community

"We have done exceptionally well in terms of formalising it. It is not that our efforts reignited LGBTQ+ people travel to Thailand because we have been travelling to Thailand, and to Curacao, and to the Caribbean for 50-plus years, we just formalised it and it opened a floodgate for us in terms of positive press, in terms of increased business," said Johnson.

"My word of advice to the government is giving everyone in Dominica equal rights and give the LGBT+ community in Dominica equal rights, and by allowing equal rights for everyone it opens up Dominica to the LGBT+ community as a safe and free destination that they can visit," he added. .