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20 May, 2010

The Opposition may flirt with gay rights ideas, but the PNM “quite categorically” will not

Well, here we are… In two television interviews earlier in the election campaign, she had hedged her answers somewhat, but last night People’s National Movement Gender Minister Marlene McDonald used the party’s Women’s Platform to state quite categorically that her Party does not support policy measures dealing with or relating to the issues of same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation – and that will not change if they return to government after May 24th.

In a half-hour address on the evening of May 19th on the People’s National Movement Women’s Platform at Bournes Rd., St. James, a sweating Marlene McDonald joined other speakers in burnishing the party’s conservative stance on sexual and reproductive rights. She called the Opposition [08:17] “a sorry bunch of mamapoules”, and claimed the PNM is [09:18] “the only political party that respects and cares for…all the citizens in Trinidad & Tobago”.

Robert Codallo, Express

Moments after noting [11:14] “I am proud to say that our policy is much more comprehensive and far-reaching and cuts across every facet of national life”, she made crystal clear that [11:40] “Our draft National Policy on Gender and Development is also unique in one particular way – that is, it does not support measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation. The Opposition may flirt with these ideas if they wish, but this PNM government will not. We have stated our case quite categorically. This nation has always been and will continue to be guided by the highest principles and standards of ethical and moral behaviour, and that will not change when the PNM returns to government after May 24th.”

We love you, so we take good care of you – if you’re heterosexual

The overall goal of the policy, she boasted, nonetheless, is [13:14] “to promote gender equity, gender equality, social justice and sustainable development” and “to improve the quality of life of men and women, boys and girls at all levels of society”. And she criticized the opposition’s approach to gender policy as [13:48] “very discriminatory” for not recognising men – inconsistent with a twenty-first century view of gender and “a fundamental flaw in the interpretation of what is gender issue”, she said. She later went on to show off how girls were significantly outperforming boys academically, an issue researchers have linked to homophobia.

Both sides in the election have been engaged in what one PNM candidate (who, despite a progressive record, declined a request by CAISO to offer a vision on GLBT issues to prospective voters) characterised off-the-record as “a posturing competition” that is “not in my view how such a serious matter should be dealt with”. This same PNM Government in which McDonald is Gender Minister has, for example, voluntarily undertaken commitments to protect people from human rights violations and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity in international fora on two separate occasions in the past two yearsa record we recently sought to draw attention to, in an attempt to reset the bar and make “the starting point for election campaign debate among the parties…how they will work to fulfil those existing commitments”.

Pastor Winston Cuffie embraces Kamla (Anil Rampersad, Newsday)

On Tuesday afternoon, TV6 News reported, Opposition People’s Partnership leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar attended a worship session to accept prayers and blessings for the election from the full gospel (“born-again”) Central Ministers’ Fellowship that Carolyn Kissoon of the Express reports included “over 100 leaders…[a]mong them…Pastor Winston Cuffie of Miracle Ministries, Pastor Judy Karim of Greater Love Christian Fellowship and Reverend Keith Ramdass chairman”. “But before she got their blessings”, TV6 reported,  “Mrs. Persad-Bissessar was called on to clarify her position on some controversial issues – namely same-sex marriages, the death penalty and abortion. She says these will be determined by the national referendum her Partnership has promised.” With hand on her heart, Persad-Bissessar said:

“With respect to the abortion, the same sex, and the capital punishment, I say this: As far as the law of Trinidad &Tobago stands, we must be bound and guided by the law as it stands on these issues. And if it is that the law is to be changed, then that is not a…decision of Kamla Persad-Bissessar. I share with you the view that life is sacred. But if the people of Trinidad & Tobago want to change the law, then that is why we have advocated that a People’s Partnership government would allow for what is known as a referendum.”

Innis Francis, Guardian

Increasingly hounded by the PNM to declare a stance on abortion (in their attempt to inject and exploit divisive, hot-button sexual issues in the campaign, paint her coalition as having a liberal stance and win religious voters), Persad-Bissessar had staked out this hugely problematic position in a primetime television interview on Monday night, saying in effect that she would subject decisions about a stigmatised minority’s rights to the vote of a majority vote by popular referendum.

And, according to reports by Newsday‘s Richardson Dalai and CNews, the political leader of the United National Congress actually went much further when courting the evangelical endorsement, “saying a People’s Partnership Administration did not have any intention of changing the laws of Trinidad and Tobago including that relating to marriages”, boasting “that it was a UNC Administration which had introduced a ‘faith- based and values-based education’ into the school curriculum. ‘We had begun to put into place that the curriculum should be infused with values based education’” – and appearing to justify the UNC’s exclusion of sexual orientation from discrimination protections in the Equal Opportunity Act when it was introduced in 1999:

“She recalled that while drafting the Equal Opportunities legislation, several groups had lobbied the UNC administration to include provision for same sex marriages but this was not included in the legislation.

‘We did not include that in our equal opportunity legislation. We must be bound by the laws of Trinidad and Tobago as it stands on these issues and if it is that the law is to be changed then that is not a position of Kamla Persad-Bissessar or Jack Warner or any member of the People’s Partnership, that will have to be a decision of the people…’”

Shastri Boodan, Guardian

We will rise! (You will rise only if we vote for you to)

CAISO feels proud that we’ve succeeded in some small way in making GLBT concerns a legitimate question in this election campaign, especially with the national media, who have raised our issues as policy matters in visible ways with party leaders. There’s no question that we are part of the national community and the electorate. One breathtaking but small symbol of that achievement was Marlene McDonald’s interview with CNews’s Jessie-May Ventour. Responding to Ventour’s question about policy regarding gay and lesbian citizens and repeal of the nation’s discriminatory laws, McDonald began by characterising these as “veeery sensitive issues”. “They’re human rights issues,” Ventour shot back instantly.

We recognised some risk in raising GLBT issues in a high-stakes election: that we might lose, provoke reactionary responses, harden opposition,  suffer setbacks. Time will tell. But we also recognise that our intervention has prodded both parties to take positions, define some measure of difference between them; and that may be better than the protracted waffling that had characterised both sides.

The work will continue as GLBT voters gain greater knowledge and courage to raise our issues directly with the individual candidates who want to represent us, as one brave lesbian voter did with both Keith Rowley (PNM) and Rocky Garcia (COP) earlier this week as they visited her home in the Diego Martin West constituency. Both candidates’ responses demonstrate how much work needs to be done. But they also demonstrate that it is possible to start the conversation.

Do you know where your candidates stand? Have you asked?

As Verna St. Rose-Greaves has reminded us each time we have heard her talk about GLBT issues during this election, there is still much figuring out to do regarding how we best conduct this political discourse – how GLBT communities partner with others in contributing to building a new democracy that is respectful of diversity and sexual citizenship – how we avoid the media’s interest in us becoming a two-edged sword – and how we recognise that this project is a long-term, incremental effort, and not only about Monday’s outcome. That was the powerful lesson in what happened last night when Gayelle’s upstart WE News show engaged Keith Rowley with our voter’s story, and he, sadly, called her a liar. If he wins, Dr. Rowley’s will be one of the first doors CAISO knocks on after May 25th.

Vote your vision this Monday!

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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.

8 April, 2010

RIP George Daniel

On April 7th, CAISO and the nation lost a powerful role model:

“Treeay” interview with Verna St. Rose-Greaves, Gayelle: the Channel, August 2007


Disability rights advocate George Daniel was also an ally on GLBT rights:  Click to watch

23 March, 2010

Sexual rights: protection of sexuality as something good, natural, precious, essential – at the core of human expression…human freedom…human community

“Too often denied and too long neglected, sexual rights deserve our attention and priority. It is time to respect them. It is time to demand them.” – Jacqueline Sharpe, IPPF President

Nine-month-old CAISO was invited by our partner, the 53-year-old Family Planning Association of Trinidad & Tobago (FPATT), to be part of the first Caribbean region launch of Sexual Rights: An IPPF Declaration, a powerful new international human rights document developed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, under the leadership of FPATT’s President Dr. Jacqueline Sharpe.
UNIFEM, UNFPA and IPPF representatives joined CAISO as speakers at the March 22 forum at the Hyatt, and distinguished guests included former First Lady Zalayhar Hassanali, Minister of Social Development Dr. Amery Browne, Opposition Senator Verna St. Rose-Greaves, University of the West Indies-St. Augustine School for Graduate Studies & Research Campus Coordinator Prof. Patricia Mohammed, and several of CAISO’s NGO and government partners, including ASPIRE, CCNAPC, Friends for Life and PANCAP.
It was a wonderful experience of coalition and celebration around the forward-thinking and thoughtfully crafted vision of sexual rights that the Declaration advances. It is a bold and thorough tool that employs human rights to advance sexual autonomy, dignity and pleasure free from discrimination, and to strengthen protections from sexual violation and vulnerability. The 32-page page document is available for download in English and 2o other languages, as are an abridged version and a pocket guide in English. It articulates seven broad principles of sexual rights: sexuality as an integral part of personhood; the balance between the guarantee of protection of the rights of children and their “evolving capacity” to exercise rights on their own behalf; the core role of non-discrimination in human rights; the separability of pleasure from reproduction; the critical role of protection from harm; the relationship of individual rights to the rights of others, and limits on their limitation; and the State’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill sexual rights and freedoms. And it enumerates ten core clusters of sexual rights: equality and equal protection; participation; life, liberty, security and bodily integrity; privacy; autonomy; health; education; choice regarding marriage and reproduction; redress; and a tenth, which CAISO organizer Colin Robinson was asked to reflect on:

Respecting the Right to Freedom of Thought, Opinion and Expression of One’s Sexuality.

https://vimeo.com/41121522 w=727&h=409

These images have repeatedly landed in my e-mail inbox over the past two years, persistently labelled “Gay beating in Laventille”. The tone of the multiple senders who have received them before me (you know those e-mail forwards go…) is usually one of alarm. But occasionally I detect a hint of satisfaction or righteousness.

The images are of a real incident that happened on April 27, 2007. But not in Laventille. In Falmouth, a town a few miles from Usain Bolt’s birthplace in Trelawny, Jamaica. And you breathe a sigh of relief: Oh, Jamaica!

I am honoured that CAISO and I have been asked to join with all of you today in celebrating this wonderful international document, developed under Trinidad & Tobago and Dr. Jacqui Sharpe’s leadership of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, a document which affirms our shared values and beliefs about humanity and sexuality.

I am proud to live in Trinidad and Tobago, and to be part of this wonderful legacy: Of a 53-year-old Family Planning and sexual health movement. Of a feminist movement that has demonstrated leadership on gender and sexuality issues not just for women but for men and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.

I am proud that none of our teenagers were detained last year and put to death by the state after having had homosexual sex, as has happened in Iran. Although, how many teenagers in Cocorite or Ste. Madeleine, D’Abadie or Rockley Vale are isolated, bullied and beat up and taunted every day at school? Or robbed as they make their way home through their neighbourhoods? Because they are seen as gay, regardless to what their actual sexual orientation or experience may be. How many of them have tried to kill themselves? This is what we fight against when we fight together for sexual rights.

I am proud that no one I know of is in hiding from the Islamic police, like one woman in oil-rich Nigeria, threatened with being hauled before a sharia court for lesbianism, and sentenced to stoning. But I can turn on Isaac and other radio stations any day and hear calls from fundamentalist faith leaders for the state to inflict such Biblical and Koranic punishments on people who have sex in private. This is what we fight against when we fight together for sexual rights.

I am proud that we have a forward-thinking Chief Justice willing to stand up to the executive, and who leads a largely independent judiciary – the very conditions in India that led last year to the overturn (in a case defended by their Government) of the use of Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalises “unnatural sex”. One much like our own buggery law, which can send a man to jail for 25 years for having consensual anal sex, not onlywith a man, but also with a woman – in their own home. This is what our fight is about when we fight together for sexual rights.

I am proud that police will not sweep down on the Avenue tonight, as they have in Commonwealth member Cameroon, arrest the patrons of one of our not-at-all-secret gay clubs, ordering them to be anally examined for evidence of homosexual sex. Or will they, if we do not stand together and fight for sexual rights?


I was born one of Her Majesty’s subjects in the province of Trinidad and Tobago at the sunset of that brief and bright imaginary vision of association that was the West Indian Federation. Our nation of Trinidad and Tobago, now heading like me for 50, was forged in the fires of overcoming several forms of domination and repression: Colonialism, that says your land and decisionmaking do not belong to you. Imperialism, that says your resources do not belong to you and you do not think for yourself. Indentureship, that says your labour does not belong to you. And slavery, that says your body does not belong to you. And, as we know well from the history of miscegenation during slavery, when your body does not belong to you, neither do your sexuality nor your reproduction – they belong to the master.

Now that “massa day done”, we cannot replace massa with husbands; or political leaders; or the state; or laws and policies that say: yes you are free, but we will still tell you what you may do with your free body, with your sexuality, with your reproduction. That we decide from which forms of mental slavery you will emancipate yourselves, as Alissa Trotz wrote recently in Guyana’s Stabroek News, commenting on a constitutional suit by four brave Transgender citizens against a law against cross-dressing.

What is the point of a free body if it is not ours to enjoy and to share? of a free mind if we are not free to engage in fantasy and desire? of the lack of bondage if we are not free to come together in ways limited only by imagination, technology, the exercise of choice, and the rights of others. And, of course, by our age and maturity.

(more…)

1 March, 2010

Congratulations, Opposition Senator Verna St. Rose-Greaves!

See how one of T&T’s newest Senators treats with GLBT issues

Pt 1: Verna's Independence 2007 interview with Kennty Mitchell

Pt 2: Verna's Independence 2007 interview with Kennty Mitchell

Click on the links above