FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
29 June, 2009
GROUPS LABEL GAYS’ EXCLUSION FROM NATIONAL GENDER POLICY “1919” THINKING: LAUNCH NEW COALITION WITH 20/20 VISION OF CITIZENSHIP & SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Gender Minister Marlene McDonald’s comments about government policy and sexual orientation last week, and their timing days before the local GLBT community begins its fifteenth annual celebration of Gay Pride, have motivated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens of Trinidad & Tobago and their organizations to come together to form a new advocacy coalition. The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) aims to educate public decisionmakers about modern understandings of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to help the public embrace the full humanity of Trinidad & Tobago citizens of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. At last Thursday’s press briefing following the acceptance of the new National Gender Policy and Action Plan by Cabinet, Min. McDonald told the media: “We are not dealing with any issues related to…same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation.”
“The Minister’s statement was, sadly, sadly 1919,” said David DK Soomarie. “Saying you ‘are not dealing’ with your own citizens is the kind of power-drunk thinking that we expect from unaccountable governments in places like Iran and Zimbabwe, not here in Trinidad & Tobago. Our vision is to build Trinidad & Tobago into a developed nation in its treatment of sexual orientation and gender identity. GLBT people are fully human, fully citizens. We’re taxpayers. And our country will never achieve developed nation status when our Government leaders can stand up boldly and declare that they intend to leave out and treat as second-class whole groups of citizens.” Soomarie is a leader of 4Change, one of the coalition’s member groups that is named after section 4 (Recognition and Declaration of Rights and Freedoms) of the Trinidad & Tobago Constitution. 4Change formed in 2007 inspired by the successful lawsuit by maxi driver Kennty Mitchell after his humiliation by police officers for being gay.
CAISO’s plans include: a website, monthly meetings, fundraising at home and abroad, educational activities with public and religious officials, and collaboration with local and international research, advocacy and human rights groups. The group also pledged to support efforts to provide affirming opportunities for GLBT people to practise their faiths.
“I just came back all inspired from the Organization of American States General Assembly meeting in Honduras, where our leaders voluntarily put Trinidad & Tobago’s name on a resolution promising to protect us against violence and other human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Angela Francis, beside herself. Trinidad & Tobago also signed on to another, very similar OAS resolution a year ago. “Do we even take these international commitments seriously?” asked Francis, who manages Velvet Underground, a 725-strong online social networking group of lesbians and gay men from 18 to 60, the majority, like her, in their twenties. She represented Trinidad & Tobago at a meeting of a coalition of 17 NGOs across the hemisphere that pressed the OAS General Assembly to unanimously adopt Resolution AG/RES. 2504 (XXXIX-O/09), titled “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” on June 4th.
“What a message to send our communities just as we are about to begin celebrating GLBT Pride next month!” Cyrus Sylvester noted. “We work hard to build our community. Many of us bring the talents and resources we have to that work.” For the past two decades, Sylvester has operated an informal, unfunded GLBT community centre in McDonald’s Port of Spain South constituency. He is one of the coalition’s links to twenty-something small partnerships that create monthly social activities and dance parties for GLBT people at venues around the nation. Their events can attract as many as 900-plus feters; and some serve as fundraising and awareness events for HIV and literacy projects. On July 26th, Sylvester’s and a similar group will team with six-year-old CAISO member MSM: No Political Agenda to produce an annual memorial for GLBT community members lost to HIV or violence. MSMNPA also produces a glossy LGBT-themed and HIV resource magazine that is the only publication of its kind in the region and distributed in 18 Caribbean countries.
Other founding members of the CAISO coalition include Friends for Life, and the Trinidad & Tobago AntiViolence Project. TTAVP arose out of the international movement protesting homophobic violence in Caribbean music, and has built partnerships with the University of the West Indies, Family Planning Association, Rape Crisis Society, YMCA, regional and international partners to strengthen local responses to rising sexual and gender-based violence against men and boys. In March of this year, TTAVP and UWI organized a training on sexual orientation and social work practice for 25 government social workers—“the sort of activity a national gender policy should be mandating,” said its Project Coordinator Colin Robinson.
Friends for Life, which applauded publicly when other leading Government officials recently appeared to call for changes to the nation’s laws that criminalize anal and most non-heterosexual sex, praised the many positive gains for male and female heterosexuals in the Gender Policy. But Luke Sinnette, the social worker who spearheads the 12-year-old NGO’s locally and internationally funded support programmes for men who have sex with men and Transgenders, lamented: “This is such an enormous lost opportunity. Gender policy is one of our most critical tools in fighting HIV. Out of one side of its mouth, Government is saying that we need to change laws that stigmatize gay people for urgent health reasons. And out of the other it sends this powerful message to young gay men that makes us not care about protecting ourselves or others when we see that leaders who look like our mothers do not care about us.” CAISO members are deeply troubled by the implications Min. McDonald’s press announcement has for the Government’s commitment to a multi-sectoral approach to HIV, as it undermines the statements in recent weeks by Social Development Minister Amery Browne and Andrew Fearon, Deputy Director of the Prime Minister’s National AIDS Coordinating Committee suggesting a review of human rights conditions and discriminatory laws affecting homosexuals, which public health experts associate with fuelling the spread of HIV.
“Where will the Government show its commitment to the citizenship and human rights of GLBT people, who are part of the fabric of our nation, if we won’t do so in the National Gender Policy,” asked Jaase, a performer and founder of Woman the Event. Her project uses poetry, art and music to develop creativity and self-expression by women, has attracted women of all ethnicities and sexual orientations, and helped foster understanding and solidarity among participants across sexuality. Because of the demand, Jaase is planning programmes to expand the group’s personal development activities in the Lesbian community. “Even the Chief Justice knows that gender includes sexual orientation,” she noted, referencing the opinion by then Appeals Court Justice Ivor Archie in a case challenging the Equal Opportunity Act. The jurist wrote in 2006 that, based on “the current usage of those expressions, as may be revealed from an examination of any reputable dictionary”, it is “contradictory” for the legislation to cover gender but exclude sexual orientation in its discrimination protections (Suratt v Att Gen CA CIV. 64/2004).