As we approach Emancipation Day, the international celebration of one of the biggest and longest human rights struggles ever, gspottt turns our attention, in a series of pieces over the next several days, to questions of human rights.
Since late last year, GLBT groups in Trinidad & Tobago have deepened our participation in a coalition of 17 Latin American and Caribbean organizations and networks that since 2007 has been working on gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation issues in the Inter-American Human Rights system, in partnership with Global Rights, a human rights advocacy group in Washington DC. Next weekend we will update you on our participation in the OAS (Organization of American States) 39th General Assembly meeting in Honduras last month, and what the T&T Government promised to do there.
Through this Latin American coalition and another, Commonwealth-focused one, Trinidad & Tobago citizens and our organizations are part of ongoing collaborative efforts to advance human rights for GLBT people and address the ways in which the criminalization of same-sex intimacy in our laws violates those rights.
On October 24 of last year, the Latin American and Caribbean coalition was granted a hearing by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the first time in its history that the Commission (which has been in the news here of late) held a thematic hearing on human rights violations related to gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation. The specific focus of the hearing was on the intersections between discrimination and violence based on gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, and other forms of intolerance, namely those based on gender, age, socio-economic status and race/ethnicity.
The presentation to the Commission on the Anglophone Caribbean by human rights lawyer (and former T&T resident) Joel Simpson focused on the region’s sodomy laws and their impact on human rights. The violence many in the gay community here are aware has happened, largely unchecked, to many local users of a well-known website was raised before this international forum in order to illustrate how in Trinidad & Tobago these laws prevent victims from seeking justice. The presentation also drew attention to the intersection between our sodomy laws and access to health.
T&T Police and Ministry of National Security officials had no response when the pattern of attacks was brought to their attention in January 2008.
2. English-speaking Caribbean: intersectionality of forms of discrimination and the impact of sodomy laws
In the Anglophone Caribbean, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender often intersect with other socio-economic conditions. Post-colonial, English-speaking Caribbean countries still have laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy on their statute books. These statutes contravene international human rights law, as consistently reflected by international and regional jurisprudence. Poverty, and socio-economic disadvantage, is a major factor in human rights violations against LGBT people in the Caribbean where discriminatory laws trigger dynamics of socio-cultural exclusion for persons based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity. Here, examples from four Anglo-Caribbean countries will be highlighted: Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana.
Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago is widely viewed as the society in the independent Anglo- Caribbean most tolerant and inclusive of same-sex desire. Yet, in 2007, several men in same-sex practicing networks in Trinidad who sought sexual partners on a very popular internet site began to fall victim to a pattern of crimes that continues to occur. In the worst instances they were kidnapped, tortured, robbed, anally gang-raped and threatened with blackmail if they reported the crimes. The Trinidad and Tobago Anti-Violence Project (TTAVP) has documented a number of these assaults by interviewing victims. Only one of these has pursued police action. None of the rape victims interviewed pursued medical attention.
Additionally, TTAVP has received a number of reports from advocates for victims of sexual violence occurring in robberies of gay and bisexual men in North and Central Trinidad. These attacks, in addition to reported assaults, robberies and carjackings that occurred without any sexual violence, have generally occurred close in proximity to GLBT social spaces.
This incidence of attacks and the victims’ responses to them, their refusal of help, and the limited community mobilisation in response illuminate the profound social vulnerability and marginalisation of same-sex practicing men even in a tolerant society like Northern Trinidad. Here again, laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy in Trinidad and Tobago play a role in institutionalizing social exclusion and vulnerability. Because the sexual expression of same-sex desire is treated as criminal in law, and by extension the state, these men are forced into hiding when they become the victims of opportunistic crimes in sexual situations.
Deep-seated, socially and structurally mediated stigma and a vexing sense of shame and worthlessness are paralyzing homosexuals from self-efficacy even when it comes to powerful matters of health and justice. TTAVP reports that:
“These men’s narratives illustrate their sense that they have no confidence that health care providers, protective services, or even NGOs specialising in support for victims of sexual violence will not simply revictimise them. They refused to accept TTAVP’s offers of peer and professional counseling services, free medical examination, STI screening and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV.”
Indeed, stigma and marginalization, social judgment and discrimination and consequently lack of access to healthcare, prevention and information, are well recognized as critical aspects of the HIV epidemic in the Caribbean, but they are only beginning to be understood in dominant discourse as not just effects of HIV infection but causes of susceptibility to acquiring HIV infection, especially given the backdrop of the already elevated HIV prevalence.
Click here to watch the hearing testimony in its original languages or here to listen to audio only at the IACHR website (Simpson’s presentation, in English, begins at 19:17, and its T&T section at 24:49). To access a PDF report in Spanish on the hearing, including the full presentations to the Commission in their original language, visit the website of Simpson’s organization in Guyana, SASOD (the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination).