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!
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.”
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.