“No thank you!” CAISO has responded to Government’s proposal the day after Valentine’s Day for a national debate and referendum on same-sex marriage, made by Minister of Planning, Economic & Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs during Senate debate on the Statutory Authorities (Amendment) Bill. That legislation seeks to extend a death benefit available to public servants’ next of kin to the employees of statutory authorities. It goes further, to include in the potential beneficiaries common-law partners of unmarried employees and their children born out of wedlock – but restricts the benefit to only partners “of the opposite sex”. In floor debate, Government Senators defended on “religious” and “cultural” grounds their decision to recognize fornicators, but not sodomites.
Illustrating the circus such a proposed debate would be, Leader of Government Business in the Senate Subhas Panday, a Hindu, interrupted an Independent Senator, Corinne Baptiste-McKnight, as she criticized the bill for “entrenching” this discriminatory provision and bucking where the world was moving, by shouting a reference to an imaginary verse of Leviticus: 52. (Leviticus has only 27 chapters.) CAISO doesn’t trust that this debate proposal won’t simply take Trinidad & Tobago down the same path of national conflict and global embarrassment as Uganda, ironically as we too chair the Commonwealth of Nations. Holding a popular “referendum” (the word the Government used) on whether citizens who are a minority group have equal rights would also make the nation a laughingstock in the international community.
The proposal is a distraction, Government clearly isn’t listening, and has its priorities on GLBT issues wrong. CAISO has consistently given the Government six politically feasible national priorities for action; and same-sex unions or debate on them was never one. We’ve written the Prime Minister, and we met with Minister King early in the new administration to share these six items.
Three of them address responses to areas where social vulnerability is highest for members of the GLBT community, none requiring legislation or referenda:
We also advocated that Min. King build her own Ministry’s capacity to support the Government with planning, policy and programme development related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), through staffing, and government-to-government technical assistance; and we submitted an FY2011 citizen’s budget proposal for a SOGI desk in the Ministry.
Most important, we asked the Government to take action to protect us from the discrimination and violence we face on a daily basis because of who we are, discrimination that is fuelled when national leaders speak of us on television and radio from the chambers of Parliament, not as citizens who have sex in our bedrooms with other adults and party and form organizations and love each other and voted for them, but as people who are controversial and sensitive and connected to illegality and whose rights and relationships require debate.
The Equal Opportunity Act, a brainchild of the UNC Government, which has just entered its second decade, is an ideal vehicle to enact those discrimination protections. (The Catholic Commission on Social Justice, which opposed the 2004 Gender Policy, agrees that we ought to be so protected.) There is furthermore measurable national consensus in Trinidad & Tobago on protecting people from discrimination in basic walks of life, regardless to their sexuality. The Equal Opportunity Commission the Act established is also an ideal vehicle to take the national look at equality, sexual orientation and discrimination, and needed responses, that Min. King is concerned with – in a sober, deliberate and apolitical fashion. In the functions the Act assigns the Commission, it provides for it to review emerging questions of discrimination, conduct research and make recommendations.
In explaining why the Government had specifically excluded unmarried same-sex partners from the bill, Minister of Public Administration Sen. Rudrawatee Nan Gosine-Ramgoolam admitted she was not a legal expert but went ahead to conclude same-sex relations were illegal. As a result, she argued (before correcting herself), Government “can’t put the horse before the cart”. This seems sadly true. Protecting GLBT citizens from discrimination and violence is the political horse our Government should be riding, not flogging gay marriage.
Finally, CAISO has repeatedly asked the Government to exercise leadership and speak out boldly against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression, and we congratulated the Prime Minister because she did so at the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha just days after the election. She has also done so on HIV. We have also acknowledged the Government for its bipartisan work on strengthening the right to privacy.
Furthermore, we have persistently asked Government to listen and to consult, and offered our help and partnership with building a nation for everyone. But our Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CAISO the reason they abstained on two UN votes late last year was because Government does not have a position on whether gay people have a right to life. Young people are still being beaten by their families and bullied in school. Crime victims of anti-gay violence are taunted as bullers by police officers. A dozen 20-something-year-olds, many of whom have nowhere to go because of who they are and who are unsafe in the shelter, were recently charged for loitering. And our humanity is seen by the Government as in need of debate.
We salute Independent Senators James Armstrong, Corinne Baptiste-McKnight, and notably Helen Drayton who hammered away at the Government. They all assailed the restrictive common-law provision in the bill as antiquated and inconsistent with state obligations of equal treatment. And PNM Senators Pennelope Beckles-Robinson and Terrence Deyalsingh showed welcome compassion on the issue. Sen. Beckles-Robinson, the Opposition Leader in the Senate, proposed to Government a modest amendment, which Sen. Panday rejected, that would have avoided enshrining in law new discriminatory language and simply have the bill reference the Cohabitational Relationships Act. What these Senators displayed was that many good people in Trinidad & Tobago of different political persuasions are more than ready to end the ways in which our laws and public policy discriminate unnecessarily against gay and lesbian people. They also displayed that those who do so are in the highest office, and that they are unafraid to speak out publicly. We also saw the sad display of how politicians who defend intolerance on religious grounds often can’t even cite the scriptures they are hiding their personal prejudice behind.
16 February, 2011
Sen. Hon. Mary King
Minister of Planning, Economic & Social Restructuring & Gender Affairs
Level 14, Eric Williams Financial Complex
Independence Square, Port of Spain
Dear Minister King:
I am writing, in the wake of yesterday’s Senate debate on the Statutory Authorities (Amendment) bill, to ask you to meet again with me and other representatives of our Coalition at the earliest opportunity. We would like to discuss:
Government Senators’ conduct and remarks during the debate, including your own, and the damage we believe they risk doing to the cause of equality
the status of the community listening forum proposed in our July 8, 2010 meeting and discussions with you, MP Ramdial and other Government officials;
an alternative or complementary approach to the political referendum you proposed yesterday for achieving national engagement with human rights questions of sexual orientation, gender identity and discrimination, involving the Equal Opportunity Commission