Trinidad Happenings: Homophobia, society effects and way forward

By Rajiv Gopie

Concluding this series on homophobia, we will look at the consequences and fallout from pronounced homophobia and ways to deal with homophobia. It is necessary to mention that just last week in Grenada, two adults males were arrested and charged with having consensual sex, a statute dating back to British rule. The island is already facing a potential tourism boycott by the estimated $55 billion dollar gay community as the story has been plastered in many left-leaning websites, blogs and newspapers. This serves as an excellent reminder that in T&T though we may not be perfect we are still much better off as a society compared to our neighbours.
Homophobia, as was discussed last week, is against all of the doctrines and morals of all major religions as they demand respecting the dignity of all human beings. The reality is that homophobia goes much deeper, usually justified by the fig leaf of religion. There is often nothing more than fear of the unknown and plain ignorance that drives people to act in most violent and hateful manners.

This pure hatred and malice has lead to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) teens and youths being five times more likely to commit suicide in the US. I suspect it is lower in T&T but homophobia is a pressing problem and it is just contributing to the violence and lawlessness in our nation’s schools.
Both the perpetrators and the victims may be prone to react violently and, without the services of counsellors and supportive teaching staff, rampant homophobia is being allowed to go unchecked, which may be leading to our youths killing themselves. This should shame us as a nation that we are teaching our children to hate.
One of the greatest fallouts from homophobia well-known to the United Nations and many other multilateral institutions and health organisations is that homophobia forces many gay men to remain closeted or hiding, and live a double life. They, due to societal pressure and homophobia, get married and have children but still continue having same-sex relations outside of marriage. This not only leads to a potential breakdown in family life and unhappy homes, but may encourage the spread of HIV/AIDS to their unsuspecting spouses.
The issue of homophobia being one of the main facilitators of HIV/AIDS is well known and it is indeed quite logical, since due to fear of discrimination, ridicule and shame, many GLBT people do not seek medical help and attention and are not able to access the information and resources such as condoms in order to practice safe sex.

It may seem that I am mixing the two issues, but they are interconnected as homophobia is the force that drives GLBT people to live sham lives or try to live outside the norm and suffer discrimination.
In many ways, homophobia is HIV’s best friend.
A wide host of social problems, including alcohol abuse, drug abuse, high divorce rates, broken homes, family tensions, etc, can be attributed to in some part to homophobia and the ways that its castigates GBLT individuals and forces them to live a lie or be marginalised. It is imperative we deal with homophobia at all levels if we are to afford dignity, respect and tolerance for all of our fellow citizens.
Now data from a national survey seems to suggest there is very little appetite nationally for gay rights, but statistics are misleading and the devil is always in the details.
The bell-weather of social change can always be traced to the attitudes of the intelligentsia and the youth population of any era. Now it seems that support stands around 40 per cent. This may seem worrying, but when looking at the details it is far from discouraging. In our conservative, semi-religious and silent culture, we have levels of support at 40 per cent, which is amazing considering gay rights are not even spoken of.

In liberal America where this issue has been a hot button public debate for decades, support stands at 60 per cent and in some extremely liberal Western European nations, support for gay rights is at 70 per cent, as low estimates. We then are not doing so bad and, as time progresses and our nation continues to interact with the outside world and explore itself, support will increase and the old prejudices will die off, they may linger but they will be relegated to the shadows and the mumblings of unhappy people.
Dealing with homophobia will prove very difficult as it is deeply engrained in some people and the change cannot be forced nor coerced. The change will have to be born in society, amongst the youths and the educated, amongst the free thinking, the returning expatriates and from the political class.

The GBLT community also has a responsibility to help themselves by educating their family members and loved ones that there is nothing to fear from GLBT people.
It is because many GLBT people “came out” and lived openly in Western Europe and the US and people came to realise that their sons and daughters, co-workers, doctors, lawyers, neighbours, grocers, cousins and friends were GLBT, that homophobia was reduced and gay rights were won.

I am not calling for a mass coming out, as “coming out” is a personal thing, but each GBLT person should try to change their loved ones and close friends and a domino effect will occur. There is no policy, no law that can force tolerance. They may help, but they are passed when the groundwork has been done; not before.
Homophobia is not some secondary issue that can be pushed to the back, it warrants the attention of the best and brightest and of all society. It is an issue that has the potential to shame us as a nation or make us feel proud that we come to respect the rights of some of the most marginalised in society.
Trinidad and Tobago has always been a land of equality and dignity. There is no doubt these values will win out in the end.
• Rajiv Gopie won the President’s Medal for business studies/modern studies in 2006. He is an HBA candidate in international studies and social/cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Homosexuality and the law (Trinidad)

By Rajiv Gopie

This week we will continue our discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gendered and queer (LGBTQ) issues, specifically on the nature of laws dealing with homosexuality in T&T and a few other chosen countries.

According to Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, homosexuality by proxy is a crime. Paragraph 8 (1) (e) of the Immigration Act makes entry for LGBTQ individuals into T&T illegal.

Now where does this leave our fair nation? First and foremost laws exists that can be used to persecute a sector of society for the very act of their existence. These laws can be used to bring about terrible and draconian treatments of LGBTQ persons should the state choose to do so. On the other hand the Immigration Act can legally bar from entry some very powerful and important persons including the vice chancellor and foreign affairs minister of Germany who is gay, the lesbian Prime Minister of Iceland, a plethora of US Democratic Congress members and British MPs as well as many others. This piece of legislation was cited by the Anglican Church in 2007 when they sought to have openly gay Elton John barred from entering our country to perform at the Tobago Jazz Festival. They were ignored and the concert went on.

As I have kept on repeating, these laws have not been used or enforced for many years and thus only stand on the books as a cold reminder to LGBTQ persons to stay in the shadows and dare not make themselves public. These laws are a form of control more terrible than most people can imagine. They speak to the very heart of the LGBTQ community that despite all of the progress that have been made around the world in their own homeland, where they have toiled and struggled, they are nothing more than illegal and can at the very whim of the state be arrested.

These laws are a holdover from the colonial era and have all been struck down in the UK, the very country that wrote them. They were based on extremely conservative and homophobic views that characterised the Victorian era and were formulated based on Judeo/Christian views on what was right and moral, views that once authorised slavery amongst real abominations. Since then recognising that these laws are unfair, groundless, discriminatory and plain wrong they have been repealed by legislatures and courts around the world.

Across the globe different levels of acceptance and legislative progress have been made on LGBTQ rights. In many European countries LGBTQ people have been accepted into society and come to form the norm, with many sweeping pieces of legislation such as anti-discrimination laws and gay marriage being legal in Spain, Belgium, Portugal and civil partnerships in others including the UK. Many of these nations are pro-gay and most of their political parties both conservative and liberal are socially progressive and embrace LGBTQ rights. This does not mean that the situation is all rosy in Europe as Eastern Europe is still heavily homophobic with the exception of Prague and a few other cities.

In Canada the situation is quite similar to Europe with a massive LGBTQ community quite active and politically powerful. In the US the fight for LGBTQ rights is one full of triumphs and defeats. A few states including Iowa and Massachusetts have full gay marriage; states like Vermont and New Jersey have civil partnerships, other states have specific bans on gay marriage. Homosexuality is legal in every state.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lie places like Iran, some African countries and much of the Middle East who execute people for being homosexual. A particularly heart- wrenching case that caused international uproar took place in Iran in 2005 when two teenage boys ( 18 and 16 years old) were publicly hanged after enduring days of taunts and ridicule for being gay. These tender youths were mercilessly hanged for the crime of being in love with each other.

T&T does not fall into either ends of the spectrum highlighted above. We have on our books laws that are not being implemented and if they were to be, would generate such a furore that our nation would be shamed. It must be made clear to the current administration that these laws are not viable or justifiable in the modern world. They were based on values and norms that have not kept pace with the times. The state must also be made aware that these laws infringe on the lives and freedoms of their citizens. The state can no longer seek to regulate the lives of consenting adults who seek same-sex relations.

T&T has always exhibited an admiration for first world countries and we try to copy them to the point of young people wearing boots and hoodies in our tropical weather and thousands of person illegally staying in them, yet we have failed to follow their respect for rights and freedoms and their recognition that anti-gay laws are untenable in the modern world.

We are seeking developed nation status yet we have a backward and disconnected way of thinking and retarded perceptions of reality. With First World development must come First World thinking. The sexual offences law is one that is ripe for repeal. Will our government rise to the challenge and do the right thing? Or will they, out of fear of angering religious voting blocs, continue to allow these laws to stand? The courts all over the world have struck down these laws time and time again.

The precedent has been set in the UK, US and most recently in India, as these laws infringe on an individual’s rights and freedoms. What is necessary is for some individual or group to file a challenge of the law and let the judicial process take place. I place absolute faith in our justice system and the Privy Council.

Next Friday: Dispelling Homosexual Myths; Facts and Inconvenient Truths.

• Rajiv Gopie won the President’s Medal 2006. He is a Bachelor of Arts candidate in International Studies and Social/Cultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto


No Place for Discrimination (Trini Watch)

As we continue to pay close attention to LGBTQI issues and related matters on the sister island of Trinidad the developments there are note worthy.

Here is an interesting Editorial from the Trinidad Express Newspaper as appearing in November 8th 2010 edition.

Worth reading.


Last Friday, the people of Trinidad and Tobago celebrated the lovely festival of Divali. No longer confined to the Hindu community, Divali has become both a symbol of the diversity of this country and a unifying event.

Divali demonstrates how this society has increasingly come not merely to tolerate difference, but to appreciate and welcome it. Rightly so, for it is the wide diversity of faiths, customs, histories, ethnicities and talents that has given this country its cultural richness and creativity.

There are blind spots, however, in this inclusive, enlightened outlook.

Last week, at a meeting in St Maarten of the Pan Caribbean Partnerships Against HIV and Aids, Dr Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis, led a call for the removal of laws that discriminate against homosexuality.

These laws are not only significant in the context of HIV/Aids, which for a number of years now has been spreading faster among the heterosexual community.

This society still bears the scars of generations of legal and social discrimination and prejudice against people whose only crime was to have been born black, or Indian, or female, or to have been brought up in a faith other than certain officially approved forms of Christianity. Much of the history of this country is the story of the long, hard-fought struggle against such oppression.

When it comes to those whose sexuality differs from that of the mainstream, however, different rules apply. The Equal Opportunities Act, passed a decade ago, outlawed discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, origin or religion. There is an anomaly, however, which cries out for correction. Parliament explicitly omitted sexual orientation: that is, the lawmakers ruled that it is not illegal to deprive a fellow citizen of his or her fundamental rights if he or she is gay.

More recently, the People’s National Movement government produced a gender policy proposing to liberalise official approaches to sexual orientation, but then withdrew these proposed changes after objections from some religious groups.

It is ironic that some of those who practise faiths which preach brotherly love and compassion should choose at times to turn their backs on this principle and exercise their beliefs selectively.

Earlier this year, however, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa set a godly example for his fellow believers and for humanity when he condemned anti-gay legislation.

“No one,” he said, “should be excluded from our love, our compassion or our concern because of race or gender, faith or ethnicity—or because of their sexual orientation.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu comes from a country that, like this one, learned the hard way what evils arise from the exclusion and injustice once enshrined in its laws. Such discrimination has no place in a society that aims for freedom, equality and fair treatment for all its citizens.