October 31, 2011

Dear Editor,
Trinidad Express Newspaper,

Even after British Empire’s public apologies to people like Oscar Wilde. Even after the insights of people like Alfred Kinsey. Even after decades of peer reviewed, research by respected medical and psychiatric boards around the world that have proven homosexuality is neither a disorder nor danger to society. Even after animal biologists have identified sexual diversity in nature. Even after countless gay and lesbian luminaries have contributed to our society, Trinidad and Tobago remains one of the forty one (41) countries in the Commonwealth that still have the old British Empire law on their books that basically states that anyone caught engaging in homosexual sexual activity or has confessed to being a homosexual is liable to be prosecuted, fined, punished (corporal) and/or imprisoned.

The constitutionality of the Offenses Against the Person Act No. 10 of 1925 and the Sexual Offences Act No. 27 of 1986. have not yet been challenged in the courts and it is overdue for revision. Not just because of foreign pressure, but for our own good.

Since May, 1998, a paper called: Comments on the Equal Opportunity Act was submitted for review to Government, Opposition and Independent Senators, Members of Cabinet, the Attorney General's Office, Ministry of Legal Affairs, Ministers of Government and religious and group leaders. It included peer reviewed Statistics on Homosexuality, Mental Health, Homosexuality and Teen Suicide, Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation, Homosexuality and Child Molestation, The Genetics of Homosexuality, Homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago and Homosexuality and the Law.

Nothing came of it.

Now, Australian Commonwealth delegate Michael Kirby has said that at this Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, the agenda will include a request to scrap anti-gay laws. He told ABC Radio that HIV messages were “very difficult” to get across without removing laws against gay sex. Many representatives of the Commonwealth countries that have repealed their anti-gay laws- UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India, are expressing disappointment with being associated with countries so backward in their human rights record in this day and age. There are even suggestions to attach economic penalties to countries that refuse to abide by the clearly stated human rights principles of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, has written an article in the Nairobi Star and I quote:

“I have consistently made it clear publicly that we deplore hate crimes of any nature and the vilification and targeting of gay and lesbian people runs counter to the fundamental values of the Commonwealth, which include non-discrimination on any grounds.

“I also recognised the Delhi High Court for its landmark decision to decriminalise homosexual acts. This addressed a legal legacy of the British colonial era that continues to affect more than three-quarters of Commonwealth countries long after Britain itself has moved on.”

He continued: “If attitudes are to change, if homophobia is to be challenged – as it should – and if laws on homosexuality are to be reformed the best hope lies in democratic and legal processes.”

Countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe in particular have been downright inhumane to gays and lesbians. Here in the Caribbean, Jamaica leads the field in hate crimes against gays. However in Trinidad and Tobago and other territories like Barbados and Saint Lucia, the law against homosexuality is basically already operationally defunct.

When was the last time you heard of anyone appearing before court being charged with the crime of homosexuality? We go against our laws and allow self-professed homosexuals to come to our shores, Elton John, Tim Gunn, tourists from gay cruise lines and more. The law does not even apply to lesbians! No Magistrate will ever send someone to jail just for being gay and/or having an adult consensual relationship. Nobody of any standing, save the extremely religious, ever wants to be known as THE anti-gay, inhumane, intolerant idiot by the global community. For the story will make international news just as the ridiculous religious protests over Elton John performing in Tobago in 2007, Uganda’s “Kill The Gays” and Jamaica’s homophobic dancehall made international news.

Our Government officials know all the arguements for gay rights and why they should decriminalize. They know fully well the existing laws are outmoded. They have gay and lesbian friends, family, colleagues, admired fashion designers, performers and artists too. They do not want to be seen by the world as ignorant, homophobic and backward. They are just afraid of public disapproval among certain religious circles that may cost them votes.

Why can’t we just admit it? The law is just a legislative wet blanket to existing cultural prejudices, ignorance and religious bias. It can only be enforced by catching two men in flagrante in public, a matter Public Decency Laws should sufficiently address. These laws have nothing to do with protecting consent, children, society or public decency. It is strictly a religious sanction against a group of people.

These outmoded laws have no place in a multi-cultural democracy. Christianity is not the only majority religion represented in our country and even among many Christians, there are differing views. Father Clyde Harvey, parish priest of San Fernando's Cathedral, in his address Youth - "A Force for Change" commented:

“As heterosexual transmission [of HIV] increases, especially among married people, we are forced to consider the injustice of our discrimination and prejudice against HIV+ persons . Indeed, it is the same fear and prejudice which seeks to justify the exclusion of sexual orientation from the Equal Opportunities Bill.”

Anantanand Rambachan, professor of Hindu Studies at St. Olaf College, Minnesota commented:

“One of the fundamental and universally accepted teachings of Hinduism is that God exists equally in all human beings. It is the immanence of the divine which confers value and worth to the human person. Since God exists equally in all human beings, all human beings, without exception, must be regarded with dignity and treated justly. To discriminate against another in the workplace on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation is unacceptable from the Hindu standpoint and symptomatic of a failure to discern the equal presence of God.”

“Tolerance” is one of our motto’s watchwords. We are no longer under a Church/Empire that felt it was their Supreme Right to not only dictate what consenting adults do in private but publically punish even if you did not follow their religion. This is where the un-constitutionality of the Sexual Offenses Act is most glaring. Do you know that same colonial religious bias once forbade beating African drums and Orisha, Shouter Baptists and Hindus their equal right to worship freely as their conscience dictates?

These laws and the supporting culture are also killing us! To be clear, homosexual orientation is not what causes the spread of HIV/AIDS. Irresponsible, promiscuous, unsafe sex does. Living in secrecy and having low self-esteem because of social exclusion and fear of legal harrassment tends to lead to clandestine, fleeting and often risky sexual outlets. It makes education, testing and treatment difficult for our Health Services when gay men don’t come out and/or worse, hide in sham heterosexual relationships.

If you are gay, lesbian or a friend, relative or colleague of gays and lesbians who recognizes that it is time we come out of the dark ages, please sign the petition as I have. It is confidential. Trinidad and Tobago, "forged from the love of liberty" and "where every creed and race find an equal place" is the most culturally diverse, innovative, progressive and creative of the Caribbean Commonwealth Member States. We should already be ahead of the field when it comes to this matter, not be in the same basket with places like Uganda, Zimbabwe, Jamaica and religious dictatorships in the Arab world.


Kei said...

That Xenophobia is used to deny any person or people the rights and liberties of humanity is a universal crime. And for any religion who would like to assert that it is morally and spiritually wrong, allow me to just say that a god who defines man by class, race, creed, sex, or sexuality is not a god but a man considering it is that which is seen he/she considers most.

Abhay Dang said...

Why hasn't the sodomy law been challenged in your courts yet? Sometimes legislative action is not possible (as was the case in India). Is there any precedent of a favorable ruling towards LGBTs from your judiciary?

Jessica said...

In a word, no.

The Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church and various evangelical sects hold sway over our politicians and the people. Trinidad and Tobago also has a very large Hindu population and only recently have they been significantly represented politically. So we actually have a window of opportunity now that The Honorable Kamla Persad Bissessar is in office as there are more tolerant attitudes among the Hindu community.

The problem is, politicians will never do anything to make them unpopular among the electorate. Homophobic attitudes influenced by religion, misinformation and the machismo nature of the culture abound among the working middle, working and lower classes who comprise the largest percentage of the electorate.

The electorate therefore has to change, this means the culture, education, religious views have to change first. Various gay and lesbian groups have attempted to bring about that change but have fizzled out due to lack of funds, international support and fear for safety. It is usually one altruistic person using their own money, starting up support groups, ralling lawyers and trying to get petitions signed. It is not enough.

Abhay Dang said...

In India in 2001 when the petition for decriminalization was first filed, we had a right wing BJP led coalition government at the Centre. They were vehemently opposed to decriminalization. However, the petition started a national dialogue process. It was first dismissed in 2003, then again in 2004 (on technical grounds), then remanded back in 2006. By the time arguments were re-heard in 2008, we had a centrist Congress led coalition government. When the Delhi High Court did decriminalize gay sex in 2009, it was not the government that appealed, rather fringe political parties and some religious groups. Some voices within the ruling Congress and opposition BJP have taken a view in support of LGBT rights, though they haven't taken a national stand yet (to not offend their political constituents i believe). It helps that India also still has communist parties, and they were openly in favor of LGBT rights.

Now appears to be just about the right time to achieve the same in Trinidad and Tobago, since you have a comparatively tolerant government right now. They may not take the first step from their side, but they would be unlikely to oppose.

Jessica said...

I agree 100% that the time is PERFECT. Already there are small fractions where the tolerance level is increasing. I know judges, lawyers, magistrates who would love to reverse the law. However, they will not do it at the expense of their careers because they are also secretly gay.

Harvey Milk said that you cannot be a closeted gay activist. That's the problem, nobody is willing to risk their career, live in poverty (because they might lose their job, position) just to further the cause.

I did it for a time, with a small group of people. We were actually the group that submitted that Comments On The Equal Opportuntiy Bill to Government. The head of the group quit her job as a manager at a top bank to do it.

But eventually, your basic needs start to become glaring and you need to get back into the corporate world to pay your rent etc.

I truly believe that if gay activists in T&T (Trinidad and Tobago) got some international support, they could do public awareness, debate, dialogue, get petitions signed and change the law. I also know that if T&T changes the law, Barbados will soon follow, and there will be a domino effect up the Caribbean chain, because T&T is the richest country in the CARICOM (Caribbean States) and it has economic influence on other islands.

Also, if the Caribbean turns around, Africa will feel even more pressure to change, especailly if we add our voice to the international community. Culturally speaking, the Caribbean has a strong influence on many African societies.

Jean-Paul, Canada said...

This positive and most welcome initiative whereby universal human rights would eventually be extended to all Commonwealth countries from the grass roots up, could not have been possible without the contribution of gay activists like Peter Tatchell to the the recent Summit in Perth, Australia. I am signing the petition.