To judge by the energy in the packed ballroom at the Crowne Plaza on Wrightson Rd. tonight, 2010 is off to a promising start. Even before the programme started, the room was filled close to capacity…with men – most of them African, many of them very young. The lobby was full, too, with a crowd browsing the agency tables with materials on men’s health and wellness. (Hmmm: they didn’t invite us to table…)
The fifth? “distinguished lecture” by the Trinidad & Tobago government’s gender ministry focused on masculinity and violence. The grey-bearded 56-year-old Guyanese university professor began his talk, “Abandoning Old Shibboleths of Masculinity in the Struggle against Violence”, by explaining the funny word in the title. He cited the Old Testament’s Judges 12: 5-6, where the term originates, then hauntingly brought the story of the lisp that kills home to Hispaniola in the Caribbean and the 20th-century Parsley Massacre – both cautionary tales of how social groups try to police who does and doesn’t “belong” with violence and with snap judgements about people’s behaviour that don’t always get it right.
Then sociologist Linden Lewis, president of the Caribbean Studies Association, former UWI instructor, international consultant, and current chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bucknell University in the US, addressed another “concept” in his title: violence. He wanted to highlight three aspects of violence – structural violence; symbolic violence; and denial of rights – though he wasn’t saying that these three things were more important than what we normally think about as violence, issues like domestic violence, kidnapping, rape; but they were aspects of violence that don’t usually get talked about. They could offer us different conceptual lenses on violence than the ones we are accustomed to.
He started off reminding us that the explosive Small Arms Survey report was published by an independent research institute in Switzerland and of its statistic that East Port of Spain is more deadly than Baghdad. He recapped the per capita murder rates in Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica. He cited that the Caribbean has three of the top ten rape rates in the world. He noted that prostate cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Trinidad & Tobago – exceeding breast cancer.
Then dry, dry so, according to UWI gender scholar and activist Gabrielle Hosein, the man start talking about homophobia. And talking about homophobia. And talking about homophobia.
That the incidence of prostate cancer is linked to the fact that Caribbean men refuse to undergo rectal exams because they associate a doctor’s finger in their ass with bulling. The story of the 80-year-old blind man who would rather pee on the floor every time than sit down to do so – because if men stoop, the whole ideological infrastructure falls down. Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, a Puerto Rican 19-year-old from Cayey stabbed, decapitated, dismembered and burned by a man who took him home without realizing he was a man. So you get vex; but then you cut off his head and his limbs and you set him on fire… Then he lingered on Jamaica: MP Ernest Smith’s Parliamentary rantings about gays organizing, carrying licensed firearms and serving in the police; PM Bruce Golding’s “Not in my Cabinet” statement on BBC television; still images of the April 2007 mob beating of a Trans person in Falmouth, Trelawny. And then he just let the entire cellphone video of the same noisy attack that had horrified folks around the world play, pointing out at the end how many of the assailants were women, who responded equally to the young victim’s trangression of masculinity with violence.
He then turned to Trinidad & Tobago, talked about “sexuality and citizenship”, and asked whether GLBT citizens were just as “Trini to the bone”, or instead second-class citizens, outside the social order. And then he made the point: that our shibboleth is that the only valid sexuality for men is heterosexuality. Then softly he said: “We must change”. The goal of his talk was not instant conversion, though, he quickly admitted. And abandoning the shibboleths of masculinity was necessary, but not sufficient, to eliminate violence, he cautioned. Nor did the answer to violence lie in more after-school programmes or football teams, but rather in how we spend time with our children, in how leaders set an example, in how we engage in dialogue with each other. In how we and our politicians treat responding to the problem of violence as an urgent and ongoing investment in our future.
The promise of the evening didn’t end there, though. It continued with the handful of audience members who got a chance to speak during the question period. Donald Berment from Men Against Violence Against Women, noting honestly that Lewis’s remarks were not what a number of those seated around him in the room wanted to hear, thanked him by saying “You said what I wanted to hear.” Lewis responded to his comment with curiosity about what it was people wanted to hear and, if they already knew it, why they had come. Brian Bradshaw, identifying himself as a hot-blooded heterosexual, lamented how organized religion sees anything outside traditional masculinity as threatening, that the media are very fond of hypersexual, homophobic masculinity, and how difficult it is for men like him to find space and partners to engage with in alternative practices of masculinity – adding that women, also, make it hard. And the evening ended with Lewis still standing, trapped at the front of a now empty room, with a small group of young men who were fundamentalist believers, continuing to engage them as they struggled with what he had said, and insisting that whatever they believed spiritually, they had to afford GLBT people humanity.
Although neither the minister nor her permanent secretary was there, the programme was sponsored and Lewis was invited by the Ministry of Community Development, Culture & Gender Affairs – the same one Marlene McDonald heads, the same one that developed the Gender Policy, the same one that took any concerns about sexual orientation, homosexuality or same-sex unions out of the Policy just six months ago. Did Lewis know this story, asked Hazel Brown of the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, and one of the most tireless advocates for the Policy. She reminded the audience that Bruce Golding’s Hardtalk comments were preceded by our own Prime Minister’s at a 2006 conference on the 50th anniversary of the PNM: “My religious beliefs do not allow for a flexible definition of gender. A man is a man; a woman is a woman. And whenever the twain meet it is in special circumstances.” Had Lewis read our Gender Policy? Yes, he noted matter-of-factly.
The power of the evening was its focus precisely and calmly on the logic and connections between gender policy and homophobia that were the reasons the drafters of the 2004 document put issues of sexual orientation in there in the first place. It was a surprising and refreshing moment for CAISO and our allies in the room (like ASPIRE, IGDS and MAVAW) – but a moment that is in no small part the product of our work: at this year’s Caribbean Studies Association meeting, where we met Lewis, around the Gender Policy itself, and in building alliances of principle with each other.
It also offers clear hope for what is shaping up to be a packed agenda for CAISO in 2010 (more on this in the coming weeks!); and that, the flawed policy notwithstanding, our gender ministry may in fact take up some of these issues.
Dear Minister McDonald…