Aruba: a piece of the Netherlands in the Caribbean. Wikimedia. Public domain.
Author's update: the parliamentary debate and ultimate vote has been postponed to September 8th as the Aruban government considers including regulations addressing same-sex relationships in the country’s civil code.
Tomorrow, the Aruban parliament is expected to vote on a civil law amendment granting civil partnerships to same-sex couples. It was proposed by Desiree Sousa Croes, an openly-gay parliamentarian.
Legalizing civil partnerships will grant registered same-sex couples equal rights as married couples.
Although the Netherlands led the way in legalizing same-sex marriage in 2001, LGBT citizens living in its autonomous territories are still unable to marry. The Dutch Kingdom consists of the Netherlands proper and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten, as well as Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba, known as the BES islands.
The BES islands were incorporated into the Dutch mainland in 2010 and same-sex couples have been able to marry ever since.
However, in Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten, which remain autonomous territories in the Kingdom with their own laws, gay couples cannot marry or enter civil partnerships.
In 2007, following a six-year legal battle, the Dutch Supreme Court obliged overseas territories to recognize marriages conducted in the Netherlands proper. But registering their Dutch marriages does not grant the same social security benefits available to heterosexual couples.
“We already have gay married couples in Aruba. You can go to Bonaire with a 20 minute flight and register in Aruba. But we don’t have the same rights, because our laws don’t give the same rights to our marriage,” Croes told openDemocracy. She and her partner married in Amsterdam in 2012.
The result has been a widely overlooked inequality between Dutch LGBT citizens depending on where they reside, overshadowed by the country’s reputation as the most gay friendly in the world.
“I think it’s outrageous that there is inequality between LGBTs in territories of the same kingdom,” said Koen Van Dijk, who heads the leading Dutch LGBT organization.
“I’m happy that changes are happening on all the islands, but on the other hand, we should respect that the community needs time to embrace change,” he added, stressing the differences between Dutch and Aruban culture.
Unlike the Netherlands, where the public influence of religion has long been limited, Catholicism plays a big role in the Dutch Caribbean. Religious leaders, such as Pastor Daniel Szpila, have led the way in opposing the move in Aruba. Their influence on voters makes it difficult for politicians to tackle the issue.
Public hostility towards same-sex couples on the island is far from novel and violent abuse is often a reality.
Croes said rocks were thrown at her family and her children are often confronted with abusive graffiti targeting their mother.
“Right now, I don’t have a car because they messed up my tires. Every time, my car had dents on it. It’s been very hard on my family, on my sons, on my wife,” she said.
More moderate protesters have said the issue should be taken up in a ‘national dialogue’, or put to a referendum.
Desiree Soesa Croes with members of the LGBT community. Photo provided by author.
“You can be gay, but not in my face. Now that we put it on the table and discussed it, the gay community realized that it was not accepted as an equal,” Croes said.
“That is a realization that was hurtful.”
The Netherlands has repeatedly stressed it cannot force same-sex marriage onto the islands and prefers dialogue to confrontation. In recent years, the government has supported local LGBT groups and had a good level of informal contact about the issue with the Aruban government.
“Aruba is autonomous in her decisions, but we applaud this move,” Dutch government spokesman Michiel Hendrikx told openDemocracy.
Activists in the Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean alike are hopeful that a change in Aruba, the largest and most significant of the overseas territories, could instigate change in Curaçao and Sint Maarten. The legalization of civil partnerships there would mean all Dutch citizens would have equal rights regardless of their sexual preferences.
“If it passes in Aruba, there will be a totally different dynamic. LGBT rights issues have always been framed as a colonial imposition on the island, said Marlon Reina of FOKO, Curaçao’s main LGBT organization.
“The moment another island, like Aruba, and their own parliament accepts the law, it takes away the idea that marriage equality is imposed by the Dutch government,” he added, stressing the cultural and religious similarities between Curaçao and Aruba.
Curaçao will hold parliamentary elections in September. If civil partnerships are legalized in Aruba, LGBT rights could play an important role in the campaign of the PAIS party, a member of the island’s current governing coalition. PAIS has already taken action to implement legal measures against sexual discrimination.
Aruba, with its cultural affinity to Curaçao, is likely to provide a more authentic example to the island than the Netherlands. Reina believes with Aruba as a role model, Curaçaoan parties will have more power in addressing LGBT rights.
But Aruba’s impact could surpass political parties and further advocacy within the LGBT community itself. Lysanne Charles Arrindell, a leading activist from Sint Maarten, said legalization in Aruba could encourage LGBTs in Sint Maarten to advocate for civil partnerships.
With its GDP per capita of 24,000 dollars, Aruba is also the richest island in the Caribbean. Activists believe the island’s leading role make it a likely role model in the wider Caribbean where LGBT rights remains a pressing issue.
If the amendment does not pass, Croes said the issue would be taken up with the European Court of Human Rights. Last summer, the court decided Italy had violated the rights of same-sex couples by failing to offer an alternative to marriage, setting the stage for similar rulings in the future.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, she believes the vote is a big step in achieving full rights for LGBTs.
“This might be a battle we lose, but we will win the war.”