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15 May, 2010

Candidate for St. Ann’s East: “I don’t want to be popular; but to do what’s right”


Of the almost 100 candidates running to represent the people in Parliament in the May 24th general election, United National Congress (UNC) Senator Verna St. Rose-Greaves, the People’s Partnership candidate for St. Ann’s East, is the only one to date to make positive references to sexual orientation on a campaign platform.

On the People's Partnership Women's Platform in Diamond Vale. PHOTO: SEAN DRAKES/BLUE MANGO

Fielding a question from CAISO at a Congress of the People (COP) forum in March, before the election became a reality, her People’s Partnership colleague and National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) political leader, Makandal Daaga, suggested that he was open to including GLBT people in the vision for national change that led to the formation of the Opposition coalition. But on a political platform on Harris Promenade two months later, in a screeching lament that “every single institution” in the country had failed, Daaga, now COP candidate for Laventille West, listed as his first example of that failure: “Our schools are producing homosexuals”. The People’s National Movement candidate for re-election to her Port of Spain South seat did no better. In two television interviews a day apart, Marlene McDonald, who as Minister of Community Development, Culture & Gender Affairs has managed the contested gender policy for the current government,  squirmed out of any commitments to ensuring full citizenship for gay and lesbian people. But St. Rose-Greaves, UNC-People’s Partnership candidate for St. Ann’s East, is clear where she stands, and unafraid to say so. “I don’t want to be popular, but to do what’s right,” she told CAISO.

On May 4th, CAISO ran into her at Gayelle’s television studios, where she has featured GLBT issues on her show on more than one occasion. We asked her about the People’s Partnership stance on our issues and what would help prompt a positive statement on them from UNC political leader and Partnership Prime Ministerial candidate Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

“Why do you want a campaign promise?” she immediately asked, suggesting that substance and quiet work on our issues might be more strategic than rhetoric. “It tells people they are valuable”, we countered. She was non-committal regarding her party’s leadership. “I’m clear where I stand. I’ll say it”, she declared, got into her trademark yellow car moments later, drove to the Congress of the People rally in West Mall and did just so. On that platform she talked about the election as a “big” one that is about “craft[ing] the kind of country that we want to build”, including a new democracy with a political culture inclusive of sexual orientation. In doing so, she responded to attacks against the viability and integrity of political coalition-building in Trinidad & Tobago across different interests:

“This coalition will work; it can work; and it must work. It depends on every one of us to make it work. This is not about a few people. This is about the country and people who believe in taking this country forward. This coalition or coming together is not just an organization. It is an energy. An energy which cannot be destroyed. It can only change in form. It is us up to you the people to make use of that energy, to build and strengthen and protect this joining of forces across lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, class and religious persuasion. This, my friends, is the beginning of a new order, a new ethic, a new political culture, a new democracy, a dismantling of an oppressive system and an oppressive regime.”

On Friday, in their effort to reach out to various segments of her constituency, her campaign staff contacted CAISO to make sure that the GLBT community knows where she is on our issues. They also drew attention to her record on HIV.

And St. Rose-Greaves herself called this weekend to tell us what she stands for:

Framing at the outset that she did not speak on behalf of the party, she described her own commitment to GLBT issues as grounded in a track record of efforts to preserve people’s rights, and made clear that a rights-based approach cannot be selective as to whose rights it chooses or rejects.

She was quick to admit that she too had more to learn about GLBT issues. So does the nation, she said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about gay rights” that requires education, clarifying, she shared. Homosexuality is wrongly associated with pathology – paedophilia, rape, molestation – with gay people seen in the public eye as both its perpetrators and its victims, instead of merely as humans, citizens who are free to choose and express their sexuality. “Open discussion on these matters is needed”, she urged, including with parents. And “one doesn’t need everybody to go along”.

St. Rose-Greaves shared her sense of the “inordinate amount of courage” it takes to come out in Trinidad & Tobago. She made clear that she was prepared to defend people’s right, as citizens, to choose to do so, and to be respected. She added later: The difficulty of coming out has “too many people…getting into marriages, having children, living unhappily…wives…husbands…the entire family is unhappy, cannot function”.

She also took account of the kinds of support gay people need, in particular young people she’s worked with who are struggling with their sexuality, and who have no facility where they can sort this out. In existing programmes for youth on sexual matters, she observed, facilitators talk to boys about girls, and girls about boys, and “never leave space” for anything else.

When asked whether she would support our “6 in 6” platform (six steps CAISO proposes a new government take in its first six months), and about what she would do “if elected”, she countered that there was no need to predicate anything on being elected, because she would continue to do what she always had: “People know that that is my life’s work. I’ve never been silent. I won’t support people who beat up on people.” And “if I should have a say in any of the ministries, I would continue to treat” with issues in the same manner. Pressed as to whether she found CAISO’s  proposals (which include an amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act and steps for four ministries to take) “reasonable”, she said yes. But she asked whether there “are ways of fighting other than to take on the big bacchanal”, suggesting an approach of “encounters”, as opposed to engagements “where we shout at each other”. “A lot of those fights take away from the substance…you have to be very strategic”, she offered, noting that a sound gender policy should resolve a lot of these questions.

The St. Ann’s East constituency stretches from Maracas and Tyrico Bays on the North Coast of Trinidad, down through the Santa Cruz valley, and back up into Maracas Valley-St. Joseph.

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