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social sciences

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Puerto Rico and the Caribbean  
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The Dutch Islands

The Dutch presence in the Caribbean dates back to the 1630s. St. Maarten (the southern portion of the island shared with French St. Martin), St. Eustatius (also known as Statia), and Saba in the Leeward Islands, and Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela are part of the kingdom of the Netherlands. Aruba has been a self-governing autonomous state within the realm since 1986. Residents of the other islands are Dutch citizens.

The Dutch islands are among the more hospitable in the region for glbtq people. Laws do not discriminate between same-sex and opposite-sex relations. The age of consent is sixteen for all.

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Tiny Saba (only five square miles in area) has a gay tourism director and is a popular winter destination for gay men. The scene there is welcoming but often described with terms like "low-key."

German-born Boris Strehlke stated that he and his life partner, Michael Hirner, chose to open their hotel, the Delfina, on St. Maarten after encountering hostility in the British islands. On social life Strehlke commented that "there's no gay bar scene [in St. Maarten]. It's mixed, but no one cares. You can dance with your lover, and nobody cares."

A similar situation obtains on the other Dutch islands, none of which is particularly large or very populous. Of course, not every citizen is free of homophobia, but the prevailing cultural attitude is one of acceptance.

The French Islands

The French settled Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Martin in the 1630s, and St. Barthélemy (also known as St. Barts) a decade later. St. Barthélemy was sold to Sweden in 1784 but reacquired in 1877. All four are now politically part of France, and so French law obtains there. The age of consent for all people is fifteen.

Tourism industry experts consistently tout the French islands as being among the more welcoming to glbtq travelers, but they quickly point out that none of them has much of a local gay scene.

In a recent study conducted in Martinique anthropologist David A.B. Murray learned that gay men found it difficult to come out publicly or even to their families. In the historically Catholic culture there is a strong expectation that both men and women will conform to traditional gender roles.

Murray reported that gay Martinican men often resort to "masking," assuming a heterosexual public persona, not only to protect their own reputation but also that of their family, a serious concern in the small island community.

"Masking" may include marrying or having a girlfriend while meeting with other gay men at private venues. Younger men, perhaps influenced by reports of progress on gay and lesbian rights in other cultures, were less likely to see this as an acceptable solution than older ones. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the glbtq rights movement has yet reached Martinique.

Although the laws are relatively favorable and tourists find acceptance, the conservative culture of the French islands makes it difficult for glbtq citizens to live openly as such.


The French established their first settlement in Haiti in the mid-seventeenth century and ruled the country until it achieved independence through revolution at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

The nation's political history has been one of tumult, repression, and corruption, particularly under the rule of the Duvaliers, François "Papa Doc" and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," which began when the former was elected president in 1957 and ended when the latter fled the country in 1986.

The gulf between the small wealthy elite and the impoverished majority is great. Haiti has the lowest per capita income in the western hemisphere. The country is saddled with enormous debt, much of it incurred through mismanagement and corruption during the Duvalier years. As a result little money has been available to fund important public needs such as infrastructure and health care.

A particularly serious health concern is the AIDS epidemic. As of 2003 some 6.1 percent of adult Haitians had the disease, the highest rate in the Americas. In addition to deficient health care services, lack of education has contributed to the spread of the disease. A low literacy rate has made it hard for agencies to reach people, and since many homes are without electricity, television or radio campaigns are not effective substitutes.

In Haiti, AIDS is not regarded as a "gay male disease." It affects significant numbers of bisexual men and heterosexual men and women as well. Various international organizations have instituted education and treatment programs, but the situation remains grave.

Although same-sex relations are legal and anti-gay violence is relatively rare, there exists no real gay community in Haiti. In the 1980s the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier eliminated the gay bar scene, ostensibly to curb the spread of AIDS but likely doing more harm than good since forcing gay people underground only made education efforts more difficult. The regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, did nothing to improve the lot of Haiti's glbtq population.

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