Rupert Eubanks remembers when a boatload of homosexuals came ashore onto Grand Cayman a decade ago. "It didn't work out well," says this islander who serves as an elder in a Presbyterian Church in America mission church. "They didn't behave themselves. There was kissing and hugging in the street. Many businesses closed their doors."
So when travel agents for Atlantis Events, a tour operator that caters to homosexuals, contacted the planned ports of call for a January cruise, they were told the ship wouldn't be welcomed in the Cayman Islands. And though the government of the Bahamas did welcome the 900 homosexuals aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line vessel Leeward, Bahamian ministers prayed that the group would go away and then celebrated when weather prevented the ship from docking. The ship also bypassed Jamaica.
Members of homosexual advocacy groups in the United States and Britain are furious.
"The Cayman Islands is basically saying an entire class of people is not welcome," says David Smith, spokesman for the U.S.-based Human Rights Campaign. "We think this kind of discrimination is outrageous, particularly in this day and age. Anyone offended by the holding of hands should consider therapy."
But islanders say their concerns are valid; the large groups of homosexuals couldn't be counted on to "uphold standards of appropriate behavior," according to the ministry of tourism. The island, a territory of Great Britain, is a largely conservative and religious community. "I'd say 99 percent of the people here attend church," says Mr. Eubanks. "That doesn't mean 99 percent are Christians, but it's a very religious place."
There are about 30,000 permanent residents on the Cayman Islands and about 1.2 million tourists annually. More than 865,000 of them arrive on cruise ships.
The island even has a law against allowing homosexuals to immigrate there. Mr. Eubanks, a retired immigration official, says the law simply reflects the values of the Cayman Island residents. There are similar laws in other Caribbean countries, though the British government is now being urged to sanction its satellites for their intolerance.
What these broadsides signify is an effort to export tolerance. Homosexual tour groups are said to be the fastest-growing segment in the tourism market, but the destinations they descend upon aren't always ready for the ferries from the anchored ships.
In Belize, the Leeward offloaded more than 700 passengers onto the shore-bound tenders. They were met by ministers, protesters, lines of police, and the press. One Baptist minster preached from the back of a pickup. The London Evening Standard reports that when he ran out of breath, he played what can only be described as Contemporary Christian Reggae through his PA system. Also protesting at the port were Mennonites, whose ancestors immigrated to Belize from Holland 400 years ago.
"A lot of religious groups and other people are against this," Chidi Metu, a Belize resident, told reporters. "I was surprised the government allowed the ship to come, since homosexuality is against the law here."
On Grand Cayman, the predominant denomination is Presbyterian. The United Church of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands is an offshoot of the Church of Scotland. And though some liberalism has crept into official church doctrine, congregants are apt to be a pretty conservative bunch.
"This is, without a doubt, a religious issue," J. Redman, a writer for the Cayman Compass newspaper, told WORLD. "The people here have a serious religious conviction about homosexuality. And they don't want to be forced to accept something they consider wrong."
The predictable call for a boycott has been sounded; the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association is urging its members to spend their vacations and money elsewhere.
But Mr. Redman doubts the tactic will work. Cayman Islanders are by no means solely dependent on tourism. "You have to remember that Grand Cayman is the fifth largest banking center in the world," he says. "There are nearly 600 licensed banks here."
And so far, the island has not suffered for having turned away the Leeward. "We sent a reporter out yesterday to talk with every major tourism firm here," he says. "He could find no one who is feeling any impact. All of the bookings are at predicted levels-well up, in fact, 12 percent higher than in 1996."
Mr. Eubanks, the Presbyterian elder, adds that even if some effects are eventually felt, the islanders will stand firm. "We will because we believe it is right," he says. "We are upholding our standards, and that's more important than economics. But I personally believe that if we lose one customer because of our stand, we will get three in return. And they will be the people we want coming here."