Thursday, 6 June 2013

Assessing Gay Rights in Trinidad and Tobago

by Kwame Weekes

The LGBT community of Trinidad and Tobago is forcing the nation to think deeply about fundamental issues of human rights, the constitutionality of certain laws and the separation of church and State. The community is presently asking for one thing – equality under the law. Unfortunately, the debate has been muddled by the media and politicians in the public sphere so much that the grassroots see a debate about same-sex marriage and are up in arms about such a drastic request. Same-sex marriage is not yet a request of the community because it requires other fundamental changes to legislation that dehumanizes the LGBT community.

The first piece of legislation that affects the community is the Immigration Act of 1969 that lists homosexuals in its nomenclature of the “prohibited class” of persons next to known criminals and “persons who are likely to become charges on public funds.”[i] Next on the list is the Domestic Violence Act of 1999 that offers protection to cohabitating adults, defining a cohabitant as “a person who has lived with or is living with a person of the opposite sex as a husband or wife although not legally married to that person.”[ii] And the one that is all over the media today is the Equal Opportunities Act of 2000 whose intention is to protect persons from being discriminated against in a variety of situations for varying reasons. Discrimination against a person for their sexual orientation, however, is not only excluded but it explicitly states that discrimination on the basis of sex “does not include sexual preference or orientation.”[iii]

This is where Trinidad and Tobago is: legislation that puts homosexuals on the same level as violent criminals and persons carrying infectious diseases, barring them entry into the country; failing to legally protect a homosexual victim of domestic violence if they are in a cohabitating relationship with a person of the same sex; granting legal permission for persons to discriminate against you if you are homosexual under the very Act that is supposed to prevent the same - a travesty of a law.

Now, it is common for legislation to lag behind changes in sociocultural attitudes. I say this because while the law is so explicitly harsh towards homosexuals, a recent study done by Caribbean Development Research Services Inc (CADRES) revealed that 56% of the population were either “accepting” or “tolerant” of gays.[iv] The study also found that women and young people were more likely to be tolerant than others. At the same time, CADRES said that there seemed to be a general misunderstanding regarding whether homosexuality was a choice or not. This general confusion, if cleared up, could make the 56% a bulkier number.

Under local pressure from representative groups like CAISO and internationally from the likes of Kaleidescope, Prime Minister Kamla Persard Bissessar promised Lance Price, Director of Kaleidescope, to give “due consideration” to these issues.[v] The LGBT community held their breaths in hope for five months that change would come only to have their hopes betrayed by the Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development, Marlene Coudray. Coudray made herself out to seem like a puppet of the Interreligious Organisation when she said that “gay rights” were not included in the nation’s gender policy because the IRO would not have it. “It’s not up to me,” she said in an attempt to wash her hands of any responsibility.[vi]

In a letter to the Express editor I argued that the IRO should not have the political clout that they claim to have and are allowed to have by the government.[vii] The IRO uses a “majority rule” argument to justify their power but, as I highlighted in the article, this so-called majority is only a nominal one. According to the Catholic Church’s (the most vocal member of the IRO) own research, 17% of nominal Catholics attend Mass on Sundays, the bare minimum requirement of the faith whose failure is punishable by eternal hell-fire. I speculated based on studies done in Archdioceses around the world that not all Catholics agree with all Church doctrines. Within the 17% are a number of persons who not only disagree with the Church on this particular issue, but are also members of the LGBT community. For the Church – and by extension, the IRO – to use these numbers to bolster their influence is shameful and the government has to answer to the people as to why this group is given so much air-time regarding homosexuality.

Trinidad and Tobago has a history of deflecting certain concerns to the religious community because no other group has offered itself in an approachable way to give insight. In 2012, CNC3 ran a LGBT series that brought the issue to the public while they sat at home watching the news. A bold and progressive move, I thought. Then, I watched the series. The LGBT community was given a famously flambouyant representative in Saucy Pow, who spoke of a history of child molestation and a current occupation as a male prostitute who serviced many men, some of them police officers.[viii] Saucy Pow is a member of the community, but he is by no means a representative of the cross section of the community that is as rich in diversity as the nation itself. The feature only further perpetuated the notion that members of the LGBT community only had these tendencies because of past trauma – a dangerous untruth used by pseudo-psychologists who would rather the World Health Organisation re-install homosexuality on its list of mental illnesses.

Leela Ramdeen
The CNC3 series gave voice to the religious community. Leela Ramdeen of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain gave us a lesson in Catholic theology, that homosexuality – the orientation – wasn’t a sin but that acting on the orientation was. Sat Maharaj, secretary of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha in condescendingly sympathetic tones said that homosexuals were “sexually deformed” likening them to “deformed children” who needed to be loved by the community. The good thing about these two were that they were courteous enough to acknowledge that homosexuality wasn’t a choice unlike Rev. Dr. Ethelbert Charles who said “How could God condemn them if they were born that way? Homosexuality is a choice. Men and women of their own volition, of their own will, choose to take that kind of lifestyle.” He warned that if they continued without repenting and die, they would “definitely split hell wide open.”[ix]

Trinidad and Tobago prides itself on its religious tolerance in the midst of its great ethnic diversity. The IRO is a symbol of this “religious tolerance” but this tolerance has always amused me. In the video alluded to above, we see three persons of different faiths banding together against a common enemy, all justifying their stance using differing theological arguments. What has the LGBT community done to warrant such attention by the religious?

As stated before, they had the audacity to ask to be treated as human beings. This point has been continuously overlooked and it is an outright disrespect to the LGBT community. Is it that the IRO agrees that homosexuals should not be allowed into Trinidad and Tobago? Does the IRO think that homosexuals should not be legally protected against domestic violence? Does Leela Ramdeen believe that homosexuals should be discriminated against because of their homosexuality? The force with which the IRO has responded to the debate would imply that they answer these questions in the affirmative. However, if asked directly, I doubt they would do the same. The media needs to do a better job in fine-tuning the debate to these fundamental issues.

What people are really afraid of is the phantom of gay marriage that is haunting America and spreading across Europe. Leela Ramdeen said it eloquently in a symposium in April:
            “The Catholic Church said...once you change, or enlarge gender, the consequences of        such a new definition would be monumental, as it could change the meaning of thousands       of UN documents and all our laws. Activists could then use this expanded definition in    their respective countries to strike down laws governing such things as heterosexual     marriage and anything that would seem to discriminate against them.”[x]
No argument was given to show why the definition of gender was intrinsically wrong. We were only told, like the animals in Animal Farm, that if we accept this definition, we would go down a “slippery slope.” Interestingly enough, “slippery slope” is its own logical fallacy. One cannot make a statement true by alluding to possible future demise especially when gay marriage is nothing to be feared.

Rev. Shelly Ann Tenia

The religious hold great influence on this matter but it would be unjust of me to not acknowledge those religious who are more compassionate. CNC3 came under attack at the end of their series from the LGBT community for not giving voice to these said persons. CNC3 relented and aired a follow-up segment with Anglican Rev. Shelly Ann Tenia who emphasised her duty as a minister, acknowledging the humanness of persons in the community. She said “there are faithful Christians who are [homosexual] and understand themselves in that way.” It is beautiful that she would call them “faithful Christians” and perhaps her own unconventional role as a female minister allows her to be a more progressive thinker. Catholic cleric Fr. Harvey was also aired and said something I hope the IRO and all the people of Trinidad and Tobago could take note of: “They have challenged us a lot about what does love mean.”[xi]

Father Harvey
No legislative changes have yet come about as a result of LGBT activism and if we are to prophesy the near future based on what Marlene Coudray has said, no change is just around the corner. However, there have been changes in the visibility of the community. Persons have courageously come into the open about their sexual orientations in a charged atmosphere which has brought about a change in the conversation. The more the public saw that homosexuals were real people, the more compassionate their words became; less “fire bun battyman” and more “I don’t agree with their lifestyle but people should be able to do what they want.” If this upward trajectory persists, all that would remain is for the law to reflect the same attitude. 

[v] Prime Minister Kamla Persard Bissessar’s promise to Lance Price
[ix] CNC3 InDepth report. Religious views
[xi] CNC3 InDepth report. Pro-gay religious views