Sexual rights: protection of sexuality as something good, natural, precious, essential – at the core of human expression…human freedom…human community

“Too often denied and too long neglected, sexual rights deserve our attention and priority. It is time to respect them. It is time to demand them.” – Jacqueline Sharpe, IPPF President
Nine-month-old CAISO was invited by our partner, the 53-year-old Family Planning Association of Trinidad & Tobago (FPATT), to be part of the first Caribbean region launch of Sexual Rights: An IPPF Declaration, a powerful new international human rights document developed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, under the leadership of FPATT’s President Dr. Jacqueline Sharpe.
UNIFEM, UNFPA and IPPF representatives joined CAISO as speakers at the March 22 forum at the Hyatt, and distinguished guests included former First Lady Zalayhar Hassanali, Minister of Social Development Dr. Amery Browne, Opposition Senator Verna St. Rose-Greaves, University of the West Indies-St. Augustine School for Graduate Studies & Research Campus Coordinator Prof. Patricia Mohammed, and several of CAISO’s NGO and government partners, including ASPIRE, CCNAPC, Friends for Life and PANCAP.
It was a wonderful experience of coalition and celebration around the forward-thinking and thoughtfully crafted vision of sexual rights that the Declaration advances. It is a bold and thorough tool that employs human rights to advance sexual autonomy, dignity and pleasure free from discrimination, and to strengthen protections from sexual violation and vulnerability. The 32-page page document is available for download in English and 2o other languages, as are an abridged version and a pocket guide in English. It articulates seven broad principles of sexual rights: sexuality as an integral part of personhood; the balance between the guarantee of protection of the rights of children and their “evolving capacity” to exercise rights on their own behalf; the core role of non-discrimination in human rights; the separability of pleasure from reproduction; the critical role of protection from harm; the relationship of individual rights to the rights of others, and limits on their limitation; and the State’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill sexual rights and freedoms. And it enumerates ten core clusters of sexual rights: equality and equal protection; participation; life, liberty, security and bodily integrity; privacy; autonomy; health; education; choice regarding marriage and reproduction; redress; and a tenth, which CAISO organizer Colin Robinson was asked to reflect on:

Respecting the Right to Freedom of Thought, Opinion and Expression of One’s Sexuality. w=727&h=409

These images have repeatedly landed in my e-mail inbox over the past two years, persistently labelled “Gay beating in Laventille”. The tone of the multiple senders who have received them before me (you know those e-mail forwards go…) is usually one of alarm. But occasionally I detect a hint of satisfaction or righteousness.

The images are of a real incident that happened on April 27, 2007. But not in Laventille. In Falmouth, a town a few miles from Usain Bolt’s birthplace in Trelawny, Jamaica. And you breathe a sigh of relief: Oh, Jamaica!

I am honoured that CAISO and I have been asked to join with all of you today in celebrating this wonderful international document, developed under Trinidad & Tobago and Dr. Jacqui Sharpe’s leadership of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, a document which affirms our shared values and beliefs about humanity and sexuality.

I am proud to live in Trinidad and Tobago, and to be part of this wonderful legacy: Of a 53-year-old Family Planning and sexual health movement. Of a feminist movement that has demonstrated leadership on gender and sexuality issues not just for women but for men and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.

I am proud that none of our teenagers were detained last year and put to death by the state after having had homosexual sex, as has happened in Iran. Although, how many teenagers in Cocorite or Ste. Madeleine, D’Abadie or Rockley Vale are isolated, bullied and beat up and taunted every day at school? Or robbed as they make their way home through their neighbourhoods? Because they are seen as gay, regardless to what their actual sexual orientation or experience may be. How many of them have tried to kill themselves? This is what we fight against when we fight together for sexual rights.

I am proud that no one I know of is in hiding from the Islamic police, like one woman in oil-rich Nigeria, threatened with being hauled before a sharia court for lesbianism, and sentenced to stoning. But I can turn on Isaac and other radio stations any day and hear calls from fundamentalist faith leaders for the state to inflict such Biblical and Koranic punishments on people who have sex in private. This is what we fight against when we fight together for sexual rights.

I am proud that we have a forward-thinking Chief Justice willing to stand up to the executive, and who leads a largely independent judiciary – the very conditions in India that led last year to the overturn (in a case defended by their Government) of the use of Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalises “unnatural sex”. One much like our own buggery law, which can send a man to jail for 25 years for having consensual anal sex, not onlywith a man, but also with a woman – in their own home. This is what our fight is about when we fight together for sexual rights.

I am proud that police will not sweep down on the Avenue tonight, as they have in Commonwealth member Cameroon, arrest the patrons of one of our not-at-all-secret gay clubs, ordering them to be anally examined for evidence of homosexual sex. Or will they, if we do not stand together and fight for sexual rights?

I was born one of Her Majesty’s subjects in the province of Trinidad and Tobago at the sunset of that brief and bright imaginary vision of association that was the West Indian Federation. Our nation of Trinidad and Tobago, now heading like me for 50, was forged in the fires of overcoming several forms of domination and repression: Colonialism, that says your land and decisionmaking do not belong to you. Imperialism, that says your resources do not belong to you and you do not think for yourself. Indentureship, that says your labour does not belong to you. And slavery, that says your body does not belong to you. And, as we know well from the history of miscegenation during slavery, when your body does not belong to you, neither do your sexuality nor your reproduction – they belong to the master.

Now that “massa day done”, we cannot replace massa with husbands; or political leaders; or the state; or laws and policies that say: yes you are free, but we will still tell you what you may do with your free body, with your sexuality, with your reproduction. That we decide from which forms of mental slavery you will emancipate yourselves, as Alissa Trotz wrote recently in Guyana’s Stabroek News, commenting on a constitutional suit by four brave Transgender citizens against a law against cross-dressing.

What is the point of a free body if it is not ours to enjoy and to share? of a free mind if we are not free to engage in fantasy and desire? of the lack of bondage if we are not free to come together in ways limited only by imagination, technology, the exercise of choice, and the rights of others. And, of course, by our age and maturity.

What this document is about is the celebration and protection of sexuality (one of the most fundamental and complex of human drives, profoundly biological and deeply cultural at the same time) as something good and natural and precious and essential, at the core of human expression and human freedom and human community. It is about sexual autonomy and sexual safety as indivisible parts of human rights. It is about a reclamation of sexuality, along with the drum of culture, and the bell of religion, from the bans and the prohibitions, the stigma and the marginalization, the discrimination and the unfairness, the shame and the violence of colonialism and gender inequality. And today is also about a celebration of our association with each other in that work.

Ours has been a series of struggles, first for liberty, and then successively for different liberations: against “illegitimacy”‌…‌for Black Power‌…‌feminism‌…‌multiculturalism‌…‌gender rights‌…‌religious pluralism‌…‌disabilities‌…‌sexual rights‌…‌and so on. Struggles that continue, and that are the work that we continue to do by gathering today. Trinidad and Tobago’s history of such struggles is both long and proud. I am not too much of an historian, so I will mention just a few, that are marked symbolically by our national holidays: The celebration of the freedom of our bodies to come together in spirit possession, our hands in clapping and our voices loud in worship that Shouter Liberation Day mark – the end of that colonial stigma and ban on freedom of association. The memory of indentureship and dispatriation on the one hand, and celebration of cultural resilience, affiliation and pride on the other, that Indian Arrival Day hold. The bloody struggles to win respect and compensation for the value of the efforts of our bodies and the right to come together in union that our unique Labour Day symbolizes, in its commemoration of the 1937 oilfield riots. (Which Spiritual Baptist figure was at the centre of those riots? Uriah Butler – you see how these struggles are indivisible.) Emancipation, which memorialises the triumph of one of the most epic of human rights projects, to restore ownership of our very bodies to ourselves. Independence and Republic Day, that mark our stepwise maturity at political autonomy and self-determination as a people. And Carnival, the mother of national festivals, in which the nation comes together along so many axes in traditions that flow from multiple geographies in a celebration that is so profoundly corporeal.

Robinson, FPATT Exec. Director Dona DaCosta Martinez, FPATT/IPPF President J Sharpe (Photos: A Dior)

So let us be honest. Trinidad and Tobago is not Uganda. No one has been jailed for joining CAISO. Indeed, Government technocrats have been directed to meet with us (though the politicians are still afraid to sit down with us). And our views are often aired fairly in a relatively free press. Our nation is not a place where no sexual rights exist; where a horrible government prevents women from any access to terminating pregnancy; where the draconian Gender Minister has expunged all progressive measures from the Gender Policy; where the government’s approach to all sexual matters is written by a mysterious born-again prophetess. Government has not moved, like the Chinese, to block citizen access to sexual material on the internet.

But the fact that we can imagine many of these things, or something approaching them, is the issue. The concern that some of these things might happen, as with recent legislation in Lithuania, another young state, without vigilance. Rights are responsibilities a country assumes automatically with statehood; but they are not enjoyed without defence. One election won narrowly with the support of fundamentalists may be all that stands between us and any of these things.

As the IPPF declaration makes clear, sexual rights are not just about the freedom of the body. They are also about the freedom of ideas, of fantasy, of beliefs, of expression and of association in sexuality matters – without state interference or arbitrary intrusion, without discriminatory notions of public morality, draconian notions of public health, cultural or political pressure. They are about autonomy of personhood as a sexual being.

How free are we in fact in Trinidad and Tobago to speak our minds or exercise freedom of opinion on sexual matters without fear or risk of stigmatization if our views are not ones in line with conservative ideas? How concerned are we that doing such will harm our professional status? And in a nation of so many faiths, why is Government leaders’ ideology on sexual matters expressed in so Biblical a framework?

How many young people in Trinidad and Tobago are forced to live lives of torture, fear, shame and guilt, based on natural sexual attractions they feel? Or based on sexual violence they experienced as children? How many of them receive destructive counselling by adults in supposed helping roles who should know better? Why can we not create a world where they are free to be who the Creator has chosen them to be, and where they live in families who love them?

Can transgender people live out their identities in “speech, deportment, dress, bodily characteristics, choice of name and other means without restriction”?

Why were the following 33 words removed from the Gender Policy?

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.

Ken “Professor” Philmore serenaded participants in the sexual rights launch

In 2008, I filed an application to begin the process of registering an NGO similar to CAISO. I went down to Registration House on South Quay, and filed paperwork to call it “National Pride: the Trinidad & Tobago Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination” (named after an NGO in Guyana that has led regional organizing on these issues). I went back in the usual few days in which these name reservations are typically approved; and the papers could not be found. I waited a bit longer, and was told it was held up for approval inside. So I went to see the young government lawyer responsible for this administrative decision. Why “National Pride”, she wanted to know? I explained the concept of pride in one’s sexual identity as a deliberate way of overcoming the shame and stigma others attach to sexuality; and that the group’s goal was to bring gay, lesbian, bi and trans people together, along with others, in that exercise. And in expressions of civic engagement and community service that would transform their acceptance by the nation. I couldn’t name any organization anything beginning with National, she advised – and not just me, anyone – however much I might want to cleverly qualify my pride that way.But then she continued. Was our purpose to promote something illegal, she raised. There was the Sexual Offences Act (a copy of which I thought I could see at the top of the file). And then there was the Equal Opportunity Act, which had basically said there was no claim to protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I breathed the steam back in slowly, rehearsed my sense of security in my citizenship, and asked: Wasn’t it legitimate for citizens to form an association to promote tolerance and human rights? And was it illegal to associate to attempt to change the laws of the country?

Many of my associates would have simply chosen a safer name, or waited for attitudes to change with time. Yet others would have backed down, withdrawn the application in intimidation. We removed the word “National”, and the application was approved. The lawyer just didn’t want to be the person who had to make the judgment call that might blow up one way or the other. And it is that particular conservatism on matters of sexual rights we must especially guard against: the preference to do nothing for fear of controversy either way.

We are developing a culture of sexual rights here in Trinidad & Tobago. It is still fragile. But growing public opinion is that people should be in charge of their own bodies. And I feel there is a reasonable social consensus that we should be a place where sexual imagination is also free. We are not yet a place that admits our children will grow into sexual beings, and that our job is to nurture them to do so with the maximal health and freedom attainable.

We also cannot want for ourselves things we would deny Pastor Cuffie or Sat Maharaj. Freedom of expression means freedom for those we disagree with. Freedom of faith means freedom for others to freely hold faith beliefs we despise.

“We are developing a culture of sexual rights here in Trinidad & Tobago. It is still fragile. But growing public opinion is that people should be in charge of their own bodies…and…there is a reasonable social consensus that we should be a place where sexual imagination is also free.”

Our work of sexual citizenship is far from over. Rights require recognition, defence, and promotion by the State. And none of those measures is adequate at present in respect to sexual rights here, which enjoy the barest of respect. And often by being left alone, rather than embraced and protected. Our leaders and systems are ambivalent at best about many questions of sexual freedom. Violations go unpunished. Protections are unchampioned. Most politicians (with the notable exceptions of those present, whose work speaks for itself) are cowards and hypocrites – even when it has no political cost. It is we in civil society who must start the work of building a State that respects sexual rights – in how we vote, in what we say to those we elect, in what we say to those others elect, in how we use the judiciary. In how we stop and take responsibility for making change when we get those images that I showed in an e-mail; instead of simply sending them along for others to see.

Not everyone everywhere, even in our close neighbours, enjoys the freedom of association and opinion we do here in Trinidad and Tobago. Let us use that, not to gloat, but to build a country in which it is increasingly less likely for someone to simply forward that e-mail and believe its caption.

Download a PDF of the remarks

This powerful tool that employs human rights to advance sexual autonomy, dignity and pleasure free from discrimination, and to strengthen protections from sexual violation and vulnerability, was developed under T&T’s leadership of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and will be launched locally on March 22. (An abridged version and a pocket guide are also available.)

4 thoughts on “Sexual rights: protection of sexuality as something good, natural, precious, essential – at the core of human expression…human freedom…human community

  1. Congratulations to Colin Robinson and all those involved in this new move forward in taking care of our “fragile culture of sexual rights.” May it grow from strength to strength.

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