Repeal of Caymans' Anti-Gay Laws Strains 'Partnership' With Britain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was nothing subtle about the pink pamphlets stacked neatly beside the front door to the Rev. Al Ebanks' modern church in the capital of these idyllic and conservative Caribbean islands.

Homosexuals, they claimed, quoting 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, are as "wicked" as thieves, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers and the greedy, and they most certainly shall not "inherit the kingdom of God."

The issue behind the church tract, entitled "Sexual Sins"--and a separate, church-sponsored petition to Her Majesty's Government in London--is a complex testimonial to the culture of these islands: self-contained, God-fearing and traditionally steadfast for dependence on Britain through an era of independence movements worldwide.

The British government, after nearly a decade of cajoling, unilaterally repealed local laws against homosexuality here and in its other dependent overseas territories of Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands, effective Jan. 1.

Now, for the first time in more than a century, it is legal to engage in homosexual acts here. And the response from church leaders and some of their flock has been nothing short of a mini-Crusade.

Britain, which has the final say over local issues that affect foreign policy, said it had to comply with the gay rights provisions of European human rights declarations it has signed through the years.

Never mind that no one can remember the last time the islands enforced their laws. For London and the islanders alike, the fundamental fact is that they were on the books--and that they are no more.

"If there is a law that legitimizes a lifestyle that is contrary to the beliefs and principles of society as a whole, then you create a problem," said Ebanks, the nondenominational president of the Cayman Ministers Assn. and leader of the petition drive against the British decision.

"They are, in my opinion, removing a pillar of stability that has maintained the ethical and moral values of our culture. And when that happens, you weaken the fabric of a society."

For some, like Ebanks and other religious leaders, the issue has forced a rethinking of their whole relationship with Mother England and its Foreign Office, which issued a lengthy white paper last year describing the colonial relationship as a "partnership."

"One of the most critical things is: What else lies in wait for us in the future if we don't do what they want us to do in matters that are really culturally sensitive?" Ebanks asked. "It all seems to render 'partnership' a moot point."

Even now, nary a soul advocates independence in this pristine territory, which ranks among the world's richest per capita and draws more than 1.2 million tourists a year--80% of them Americans.

"The benefits of dependence far outweigh the disadvantages," concluded Tourism Minister McKeeva Bush, the top vote-getter in November's elections to the Caymanian legislative council, which governs all issues except defense and international affairs.

"The British have told us that any time we want to go, it would take six to nine months. But they're not pushing us. And there's never been a serious move on our parts toward moving away."

Negative examples that deter them from seeking independence, most Caymanians agree, are all around them.

Neighboring Jamaica, which once governed the Caymans as a sub-colony, is awash with guns, violence, murder and drugs. Its political parties are armed to the teeth. Other former British colonies in the eastern Caribbean are struggling with similar issues, as well as political and internal instability.

But on the Caymans, three islands with a land mass roughly the size of Washington, D.C., political parties are banned, elections are folksy affairs, and crime is rare. There are no hustlers on the beaches, no pickpockets on the streets. Literacy is 98%, life expectancy more than 76 years, unemployment 5% and the per-capita purchasing power more than $24,500 a year.

Religious and social leaders in this territory of some 35,000 citizens and 52 churches attribute much of that success to a deep-rooted moral conservatism. And Britain's lifting of the ban has resounded throughout these islands far more than it has in the less conservative British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and Montserrat, which is preoccupied with a volcano that has consumed two-thirds of its land.

"A tremendous amount of the people were against this move by Britain," Bush said. "But then, I would say there's probably an equal amount saying, 'Look, what people do in private, that's their business.' "

The Rev. Nicholas Sykes, a British Anglican priest who has served 15 years here and 20 in Jamaica, conceded that the petition drive is likely to fall short of the Ministers Assn.'s stated goal of 10,000 signatures.

"I think most people are just saying, 'They've done a number on us. We don't like what Britain has done, but there's nothing we can do about it. Why not just go with the times?'

"But the answer to that is in the ethics of it," Sykes continued, arguing that the new law, in effect, tells people that homosexual and heterosexual acts are equal.

Sykes and other religious leaders fear that the next step will be mandatory sex education in school that includes detailed descriptions of homosexuality and, ultimately, the forced legalization of gay marriages.

"It's the thin edge of a wedge" capable of splintering the Caymans' bedrock institution--families, Sykes insisted. He cited figures that out-of-wedlock births in Britain have soared from 2% when homosexuality was legalized there in 1967 to 20% today.

Both Ebanks and Sykes said they do not expect a sudden gay influx to the islands, where the ministers organized a mass rally three years ago that helped block a visit by a cruise ship sponsored by gay travel agencies--an event that put the Caymans on gay tourism's no-go list.

They also concurred that the petition drive, which London has agreed to accept and consider, is equally unlikely to change Britain's stance.

"Really, at the end of the day, we're just David fighting Goliath," Sykes concluded. "You can't do much with a slingshot and stones. Nonetheless, you've got to try."

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