Where’s the Gender Policy? And the really scary stuff on homosexuality?

Where’s the Gender Policy?

Wasn’t it two months ago today that Min. Marlene McDonald announced Government’s acceptance of a Draft National Gender Policy and Action Plan “not dealing with any issues related to…same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation”?

The Gender Policy was announced on June 24, in time for Trinidad & Tobago’s hosting of ECLAC’s 43rd Meeting of the Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (a backward sense of priorities that gspottt took note of in an earlier post)—but on July 17, three weeks later, Government missed its own schedule for laying the mystery policy in Parliament, which now stands adjourned till next week. When gspottt requested a copy of the document, we were told it would be released to citizens or stakeholder groups only after it’s laid in Parliament.

So when does the public get to see what’s actually in this much-debated Policy? It’s been five years since a draft with 218 recommendations (developed in an extensive consultation process from 2002 to 2004 that involved several community meetings and scholars at UWI’s gender and development studies unit) was circulated widely for stakeholder input. The Government claims to have spent the past five years having the 2004 document undergo “tweaking” by a Technical Review Committee and “further review and editing” by the Gender Affairs Division. But National Network of NGOs coordinator Hazel Brown says Government “is playing hide and seek with their sanitised version” of the Policy, which “cannot…be hidden from the public view any more. No one knows what was removed or added in…secret. We want to see it. Why are they hiding it?” The Network has called for a user friendly version of the Draft Policy to be published in the papers.

We can’t tell you what’s in the new, “not dealing with” version of the Policy, but we can offer gspottt readers a special preview of all the really scary stuff on homosexuality that’s caused the Policy to turn into such a national mess in the first place.


When the Policy was first released in draft form for public comment in 2004, anti-abortion Christian groups Lawyers for Jesus and Emmanuel Community and the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ), raised a vociferous alarm. One of their key concerns was that the Policy would ease access to abortion as a reproductive choice for pregnant women. Same-sex marriage, something that was mentioned nowhere in the policy, mysteriously became a second lightning rod. Using tactics borrowed from the US Christian Right, the Policy was cast broadly as promoting “new standards that have been set by international bodies insensitive to, and at odds with our varied local cultures, and religious and moral beliefs”, which it was “glaringly evident” would compromise our laws, “Catholic News” wrote.

But what was the language about homosexuality in that 2004 draft that was so frightening or revolutionary as to provoke such sustained controversy? Where are the recommendations with which the document was supposed to be “littered…, many of which are driven by an international agenda, which are not in keeping with the religious doctrine of many of our people in TT”?

They were totally made up! The following five passages are the only ones that CCSJ, by its own admission, has been representing as “an underlying theme running through the draft policy that TT society should legitimise same sex unions/relationships between persons with alternative sexualities”.

Click and read the actual language for yourself!

  1. the Policy, which evolved in large measure as a strategy to address the inconsistencies raised in 2002 by a UN Committee of experts between our constitution, laws and policies and the provisions of the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women that we are bound by as signatories, acknowledges that fact; and it notes that sexual orientation had squarely come up in the Committee’s review: “The Committee further noted that the proposed Equal Opportunities Act (EOA) excluded sexual orientation and placed the issue of discrimination against persons with alternative sexualities firmly on the agenda.” (p. 19)
  2. in the conclusion to the Policy’s situational analysis, it notes that “efforts aimed at transforming the inequitable and counter-productive gender relations” need to address not just macro-level economic and social interventions but “much more challenging and taboo issues”, included among them sexuality, sexual behaviours and homophobia… people’s needs for intimacy and caring and the generalization of an ethic of equity and fairness”; and that “in addition to overall national goals and objectives”, different priorities and strategies” are needed for different groups, communities and geographical areas…in particular, the special needs of persons in rural fishing villages and agricultural communities; special group situations such as that of the disabled, the elderly, vulnerable children, persons with alternative sexualities and the urban and rural poor” (p. 48)
  3. one, 34-word plank of the Policy responds to the exclusion of sexual orientation from the discrimination protections of the EOA (Sex as a ground of discrimination is expressly stated to exclude sexual preference or orientation. As such the Act discriminates against the gay and lesbian community and persons with alternative sexualities.”), and reads: “35. In keeping with its international legal obligations, the state should facilitate public debate on the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms of all persons, irrespective of sexual preference or orientation” (p.61)
  4. the Policy acknowledges that although women are “admittedly more at risk…males are equally targeted” with respect to rape, and advocates that “100. Rape and Sexual Offences in same-sex unions must be brought within the ambit of the [Sexual Offences] Act.” (p. 78)
  5. and the passage that triggered most controversy, in a discussion of masculinity, manhood and criminality, reads: “A National Gender Policy can therefore serve as both ‘corrective’ and ‘rehabilitative’…. If a society aims to empower both sexes to allow freedoms of expression of gender roles and sexual identities, then it must be prepared to incorporate mental shifts which appear antithetical to proscribed rules of religion and culture, recognizing that such rules have themselves been culturally and socially constructed and may also undergo redefinition, and that these same rules have had to be adjusted to changes in social consciousness and social demands on each sex over time.”


“The Government of Trinidad and Tobago is committed to mitigating gendered disadvantages and has taken a number of initiatives to foster a just society in which there is gender equity,” Marlene McDonald addressed the 43rd Meeting of the Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean a week after announcing a new Gender Policy that does not deal with sexual orientation
“The Government of Trinidad & Tobago is committed to mitigating gendered ri.ng.g a.me.s disadvantages and has taken a number of initiatives to foster a just society in which there is gender equity,” Marlene McDonald addressed the 43rd Meeting of the Presiding Officers of the Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean a week after announcing a new Gender Policy that does not deal with sexual orientation


But why does sexual orientation belong in a Gender Policy, anyway?

“Gender” is a set of cultural or societal expectations and opportunities associated with differences in sex (being male or female). In other words, “gender” says that women are expected to appear and behave in certain ways and perform certain roles, and men others; including who it’s appropriate for men and women to be sexual with. So societal expectations about acceptable sexual orientation is an aspect of gender.

Gender policy is a national development strategy to address inequalities and the limiting of opportunity that gender expectations may provoke; and social responses to some sexual orientations clearly provoke such limitations and inequalities.

2 thoughts on “Where’s the Gender Policy? And the really scary stuff on homosexuality?

  1. Hi, David. I don’t think I have a simple answer to your question, but I will e-mail some human rights legal folks and see if they will come on here and join the debate you’ve started. Here’s my stab at a more complicated response, in three parts.

    1. “International obligations”. There’s a growing body of reasoning and rulings by advocates and human rights bodies about how core international conventions on human rights apply to questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Many of these conventions (e.g. the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and its related covenants like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) our state is party to. But the UNC Government withdrew the state from some key ones (like the American Convention on Human Rights) and provisions of others to prevent us being deterred in implementing capital punishment by prisoners’ appeals to international bodies.

    While you won’t find explicit references to sexual orientation in these international agreements, they do encode rights to things like: equal treatment under the law, to life, to freedom from torture, degrading treatment arbitrary arrest and detention, to privacy, family and the practice of religion, to freedom of expression and association, and even to things like physical and mental health and education (which would require being free from homophobic bullying). So you begin to see how these obligations work.

    Trinidad & Tobago has signed on to two OAS resolutions (gspottt cites them in the “Emancipation time” post) adopted unanimously that DO specifically commit the body to addressing violence and human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, a 2008 UN declaration on sexual orientation and human rights has garnered support from only a third of the 192 member states, and no Caribbean territory to date other than Cuba.

    2. “Why international obligations?” What’s the value and experience in turning to international obligations to achieve equality nationally, though? Trinidad & Tobago is a sovereign state, and these “international obligations” we’ve become party to we’ve done voluntarily. And, as in the case of the American Convention, human rights and hanging our citizens, we can change our minds. So the challenge is how international obligations these get enforced in any way differently from the obligations in our own Constitution, for instance. The gspottt post “A more just vision of sexual orientation” cites a 2006 Court of Appeals judgement that says sexual orientation discrimination violates our own Constitution. So why are our international obligations more powerful instruments?

    And although one might conclude otherwise from sanctions against apartheid South Africa, the wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, and international actions in Palestine and much of Africa, the international community doesn’t often do much in response to states breaches of their human rights treaty obligations. Most of the time, the response is “moral suasion” (embarrassment, critical reports, visits, human rights and high level officials making public reprimands, etc.). One of the stimuli for the development of the Gender Policy, for instance, was the critical comments of the UN Committee that reviewed our first report on our compliance with the obligations we entered when signing CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all froms of Discrimination Against Women.

    But then international advocacy can play both ways, in cases like the two recent human rights boycotts of Jamaica to protest state sanctioned homophobia and violence that were called by Canadian and US activists despite the opposition to GLBT Jamaican organizations.

    3. “Local organizing”. My argument, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that while international advocacy can play an important leveraging role (gspoottt talks about how our Government likes to pappyshow internationally), it’s really local organizing that makes change. The recent success in overturning India’s penal code provision criminalizing “unnatural intercourse” in the courts is a powerful example. That campaign took years of persistence and planning and wasn’t just a court case but involved quite a bit of political work. (I think the CAISO Facebook page has an article about the history of campaigns for change in Nepal and India). So I think it’s how we become visible and humanise ourselves as not just a cause but flesh and blood people in every family and walk of life, how we show up and do work withing PNM, UNC and COP structures, get up in the face of our MPs at every turn, and also how we use the T&T courts strategically that will promote lasting equality for same-sex-desiring folks.

  2. THis is a general question for the readers and the author. What are “International Obligations” that T&T are signatory/party to, that promotes the equality for “Same Gender Loving” people?

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