April 9, 2014 at 11:20 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Dennis, Judy Shepard push human rights in Caribbean
Judy Shepard, Cokie Roberts, gay news, Matthew Shepard, Washington Blade

Judy Shepard, on right, with Cokie Roberts, at an event unrelated to the Shepards’ Caribbean visit. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Dennis and Judy Shepard are in the Caribbean this week to meet with LGBT rights advocates, parents and other officials.

They met with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago on Monday upon their arrival in the country. The Shepards later that day attended a reception at an art gallery in Port of Spain, the Caribbean nation’s capital.

The couple also met with a group of parents and attended a forum at the University of the West Indies. The Shepards were also scheduled to attend a screening of “The Laramie Project” at the University of Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday.

The couple is slated to meet with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica and Jamaican LGBT and human rights advocates upon their arrival in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, later this week. Nearly 200 people are also scheduled to attend a screening of “The Laramie Project.”

Judy Shepard told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from Port of Spain that she and her husband received an invitation to travel to Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.

“We always take advantage to talk about the human rights agenda,” she said.

“We’re going again to talk about human rights and equal rights throughout these countries at the behest of organizations and human rights activists within those countries and with the support of our own government,” added Dennis Shepard. “If Matt was alive, we wouldn’t be doing this. It would be him.”

The Shepards’ visit to Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica is their fourth trip abroad with the U.S. State Department.

The couple traveled to Singapore, Taiwan and Sweden late last year. The Shepards visited Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Hungary in September 2012.

“What the rest of the world is experiencing also reflects back into the U.S.,” Judy Shepard told the Blade, referring to marriage rights for same-sex couples and other global advances in LGBT rights. “It sets an example for everybody else.”

Colin Robinson of CAISO, a Trinidadian LGBT advocacy organization, met the Shepards on Monday during the Port of Spain reception.

“For folks here it was exciting and inspiring meeting parents who have been able to take that role after their son’s death and who are taking leadership in creating space for equality, for LGBTI people,” he told the Blade on Tuesday during an interview from his home outside the Trinidadian capital. “The biggest impact of the visit may be inspiring people who are struggling and organizing here to make change that there are people like the Shepards who can and will join the fight.”

Robinson said two government officials attended the Monday reception, but it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar met with the Shepards. Vice President Biden met with the her last May while he was in Trinidad and Tobago to meet with other Caribbean leaders.

Dane Lewis, executive director of Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, told the Blade he and his colleagues are scheduled to meet with the Shepards on Friday.

“We feel that it is timely, what with the reality being faced by many LGBT youth and their families struggling to deal with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.

Rampant anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica has garnered headlines around the world.

A group of partygoers stabbed Dwayne Brown to death near Montego Bay last July after someone at the gathering realized the teenager was cross-dressing.

A Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays report said the organization knows of at least 30 gay men who have been murdered in Jamaica between 1997 and 2004. These include Brian Williamson, the organization’s co-founder who was stabbed to death inside his Kingston home in 2004.

Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica are among the English-speaking Caribbean countries in which homosexuality remains criminalized.

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said shortly before her Dec. 2011 election that her government would review the country’s anti-sodomy law under which those who are convicted face up to 10 years in prison with hard labor. It has yet to do so, but the Jamaica Supreme Court last June heard a lawsuit that challenges the colonial-era statute.

Robinson noted his country recently had a “discussion around sexual orientation and citizenship” within the context of constitutional reforms.

“There’s no political leadership on this issue,” he told the Blade. “There is a climate where it would be very easy for politicians to take leadership… but they won’t.”

Robinson acknowledged anti-LGBT violence in Jamaica is “real” and “worse objectively” than what he said occurs in his own nation. He added he feels the country has seen some progress on LGBT-specific issues that has yet to occur in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Our violence happens in homes,” said Robinson. “Homophobic violence is by parents and relatives and not mobs. Looking in it’s very eager to see the Caribbean as this place of backwardness and horror where terrible things happen, but there have also been changes that we admire in Jamaica that haven’t happened here.”

Robinson added he feels the Shepards’ trip will have what he described as a largely “domestic” impact in the sense that it will inspire Trinidadian advocates to continue to seek progress on LGBT-specific issues.

“It’s really important to us here to domesticate these issues,” said Robinson. “That is the only way progress will happen. It won’t happen through U.S. imports. International media will help, but it will really happen when people perhaps inspired by the Shepards – parents, ordinary heterosexual people, those of us who are trying to build a movement.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael //

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