Remembering our history (Know Your Country)

2010 feels like it will be a historic year. We began by looking forward. Now let’s take a look back. Know Your Country (gspottt’s ongoing effort to document and share a community history of GLBT T&T through monographs and memoirs by diverse Trinbagonians) opens the year with an excerpt of a memoir written for us shortly after CAISO formed by 1940s-born architect and art historian Geoffrey MacLean .

Governor Woodford
Governor Woodford

Historically Trinidad and Tobago has probably always had an active gay community – active in the sense that it has always been there. Its early colonial history is not known, but it can be assumed that it followed the British Victorian pattern – homosexuality was a “gentleman’s vice” that was enjoyed, but not spoken of. And lesbianism was likely considered a curiosity, eccentricity or for male voyeuristic enjoyment.

One of the earliest documents of this history is a reference (in Lionel Mordaunt Fraser’s 1896 History of Trinidad Vol 2: 1814-1839) to the British Governor of Trinidad, Sir Ralph Woodford, who reputedly surrounded himself with “pretty young men”. There have always been rumours about the dallying of our colonial administrators, not to mention their wives, up until Independence.

In the late 1920s, a group calling itself the Society of Trinidad Independents that promoted Trinidad and Tobago’s art and published The Beacon magazine, was noted for its tolerance toward the gay and lesbian

Hugh Stollmeyer (1912-1982) was one of the Independents. They advocated an end to class divisions, capitalism, racism, religious extremism and prejudice against homosexuality.
Hugh Stollmeyer (1912-1982) was one of the Independents. They advocated an end to class divisions, capitalism, racism, religious extremism and prejudice against homosexuality.

community, their leading members being homosexual. Made up of all ethnic and social groups, from French Creole to Black, the group was considered bohemian and condemned as immoral.  Preached against by the church, the Independents were forced by the late 1930s to abandon their outspoken views.

The occupation of Trinidad by American naval and military personnel during the Second World War fuelled the free spirit of both the heterosexual and homosexual seeking to make a living to survive. Our Carnival, of course, has always been an excuse to behave in a manner that on Ash Wednesday we can either forget – “I had too much to drink” is often an adequate excuse – or repent.

Throughout the twentieth century, most gay and lesbian interaction has been through private gatherings, but there has never been a shortage of bars that welcome the GLBT Community “after hours” or those that cater purely to them. In the 1970s and 1980s there was the “Grand Canyon” in Curepe, “Lote’s” on Oxford Street, “The Iron Pot” on Abercromby Street, “The Sidewalk” then “Metal House” on Wrightson Road, “Club Liquid” in Barataria and in the 1990s “After Dark” in St. James and then Corbeaux Town. The ramps of the law courts on Woodford Square, and Murray Street in Woodbrook were, and still are, used for the late night parading of transvestites. Most recently gay clubs have opened in San Fernando, Chaguanas, Arima, St. Augustine and Port of Spain. The popular nightspots, from “J.B.s” in the 1970s and “Just Friends” in the 1980s to “Base” in the 1990s, were gay friendly, and even today “Zen” and most of the bars on Ariapita Avenue welcome gay and lesbian patrons.

And the community knew where to “pick up” as well, Victoria Square in Port of Spain in the 1960s and 1970s being a favourite spot and where one could meet with male prostitutes, other “cruisers” and characters like “Stingy Brim” who would give you a free service.

The 1970s were a very active time with well-known and flamboyant characters within the community: John, Tom, Hal (otherwise known as “The Rocket”), “Carlota”, “Pongin’ Patsy” and several others.

In 1977, 42 males were arrested at a party in Cocoyea Village. These included the nephew of the then Prime Minister. An MP managed to escape by jumping from a first floor window and running into a nearby canefield. There was little to charge the party-goers with and the case was thrown out by the court. Names of all those arrested, however, were published in one of the leading newspapers of the day. Several of the individuals exiled themselves to other countries rather than face the social repercussions.

The 1980s brought the stigma of AIDS to the GLBT Community and the deaths of several of its leading members. It also created an even greater excuse by religious bodies and society to further condemn.  Several insurance companies will still not give life insurance to applicants who admit that they are homosexual.

From 1980 to the present in Trinidad and Tobago there have been approximately twenty murders of gay men.  In most of these cases no one has ever been charged, far less convicted. These also include the celebrated cases of Andrew Romano in 2000 and Christopher Lynch in 2002, in which High Court judges accepted “gay panic” defences from defendants, including admitted male prostitutes, in reducing sentences.

Trinidad and Tobago’s laws are Victorian in origin, but reinforced by subsequent Governments. The Sexual Offences Act, No. 27 of 1986 states that charges can be laid against both homosexual and heterosexual persons under “Buggery” and “Serious Indecency”. Attempts to decriminalize homosexuality by amending the Sexual Offences Act have failed consistently. However, in 2004 the constitutionality of the 2000 Equal Opportunity Act was challenged on several grounds, including the deliberate exclusion of sexual orientation from its grounds for protection from discrimination. A Court of Appeals ruling found the legislation unconstitutional on several grounds, including that one, but the judgment was overturned by the Privy Council in 2007 citing other reasons. Yet, the same UNC Attorney General who cited the existing laws as an excuse not to change the wording of the Equal Opportunity Act invited groups considered to be vulnerable to social abuse, including the homosexual community, to meet with and make representations to a visiting United Nations Human Rights Commissioner in 2000. In two separate cases in 2001 and 2006, a maxi driver, Kennty Mitchell used the High Court to sue policemen for harassment, in one instance winning a $125,000 judgment in 2008.

The Immigration Act Chapter 18.01 also lists classes of persons prohibited from entry into Trinidad and Tobago, including “prostitutes and homosexuals or persons living on the earnings of prostitutes and homosexuals”. There was strong and vocal advocacy by a small segment of the religious community to ban Elton John from entering Tobago for the 2007 Jazz festival under this section of the Act. The resulting international publicity was highly embarrassing to Tobago.

Over the years different groups have promoted and campaigned for equitable treatment and greater understanding, tolerance and inclusion of the gay and lesbian community, e.g.: LAMBDA, GEATT (Gay Empowerment Advocates of T&T), FLAG Trinidad. Tribute must also be paid to the pioneers in the quest for human rights for gays, including the late Geoffrey Stanford and Godfrey Sealy and Sir Andre Froget.

Trinidadians and Tobagonians have been generally tolerant of the GLBT community, and attitudes have been typical of “just don’t let the neighbours see”. However, religious intolerance and the adoption of Jamaican cultural homophobia, particularly present in the lyrics of popular songs, is growing and creating a new wave of hatred, intolerance and social condemnation.

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