Well, here we are… In two television interviews earlier in the election campaign, she had hedged her answers somewhat, but last night People’s National Movement Gender Minister Marlene McDonald used the party’s Women’s Platform to state “quite categorically” that her Party does not support policy measures dealing with or relating to the issues of same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation – and that will not change if they return to government after May 24th.
In a half-hour address on the evening of May 19th on the People’s National Movement Women’s Platform at Bournes Rd., St. James, a sweating Marlene McDonald joined other speakers in burnishing the party’s conservative stance on sexual and reproductive rights. She called the Opposition [08:17] “a sorry bunch of mamapoules”, and claimed the PNM is [09:18] “the only political party that respects and cares for…all the citizens in Trinidad & Tobago”.
Moments after noting [11:14] “I am proud to say that our policy is much more comprehensive and far-reaching and cuts across every facet of national life”, she made crystal clear that [11:40] “Our draft National Policy on Gender and Development is also unique in one particular way – that is, it does not support measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation. The Opposition may flirt with these ideas if they wish, but this PNM government will not. We have stated our case quite categorically. This nation has always been and will continue to be guided by the highest principles and standards of ethical and moral behaviour, and that will not change when the PNM returns to government after May 24th.”
We love you, so we take good care of you – if you’re heterosexual
The overall goal of the policy, she boasted, nonetheless, is [13:14] “to promote gender equity, gender equality, social justice and sustainable development” and “to improve the quality of life of men and women, boys and girls at all levels of society”. And she criticized the opposition’s approach to gender policy as [13:48] “very discriminatory” for not recognising men – inconsistent with a twenty-first century view of gender and “a fundamental flaw in the interpretation of what is gender issue”, she said. She later went on to show off how girls were significantly outperforming boys academically, an issue researchers have linked to homophobia.
Both sides in the election have been engaged in what one PNM candidate (who, despite a progressive record, declined a request by CAISO to offer a vision on GLBT issues to prospective voters) characterised off-the-record as “a posturing competition” that is “not in my view how such a serious matter should be dealt with”. This same PNM Government in which McDonald is Gender Minister has, for example, voluntarily undertaken commitments to protect people from human rights violations and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity in international fora on two separate occasions in the past two years – a record we recently sought to draw attention to, in an attempt to reset the bar and make “the starting point for election campaign debate among the parties…how they will work to fulfil those existing commitments”.
On Tuesday afternoon, TV6 News reported, Opposition People’s Partnership leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar attended a worship session to accept prayers and blessings for the election from the full gospel (“born-again”) Central Ministers’ Fellowship that Carolyn Kissoon of the Express reports included “over 100 leaders…[a]mong them…Pastor Winston Cuffie of Miracle Ministries, Pastor Judy Karim of Greater Love Christian Fellowship and Reverend Keith Ramdass chairman”. “But before she got their blessings”, TV6 reported, “Mrs. Persad-Bissessar was called on to clarify her position on some controversial issues – namely same-sex marriages, the death penalty and abortion. She says these will be determined by the national referendum her Partnership has promised.” With hand on her heart, Persad-Bissessar said:
“With respect to the abortion, the same sex, and the capital punishment, I say this: As far as the law of Trinidad &Tobago stands, we must be bound and guided by the law as it stands on these issues. And if it is that the law is to be changed, then that is not a…decision of Kamla Persad-Bissessar. I share with you the view that life is sacred. But if the people of Trinidad & Tobago want to change the law, then that is why we have advocated that a People’s Partnership government would allow for what is known as a referendum.”
Increasingly hounded by the PNM to declare a stance on abortion (in their attempt to inject and exploit divisive, hot-button sexual issues in the campaign, paint her coalition as having a liberal stance and win religious voters), Persad-Bissessar had staked out this hugely problematic position in a primetime television interview on Monday night, saying in effect that she would subject decisions about a stigmatised minority’s rights to the vote of a majority vote by popular referendum.
And, according to reports by Newsday‘s Richardson Dalai and CNews, the political leader of the United National Congress actually went much further when courting the evangelical endorsement, “saying a People’s Partnership Administration did not have any intention of changing the laws of Trinidad and Tobago including that relating to marriages”, boasting “that it was a UNC Administration which had introduced a ‘faith- based and values-based education’ into the school curriculum. ‘We had begun to put into place that the curriculum should be infused with values based education’” – and appearing to justify the UNC’s exclusion of sexual orientation from discrimination protections in the Equal Opportunity Act when it was introduced in 1999:
“She recalled that while drafting the Equal Opportunities legislation, several groups had lobbied the UNC administration to include provision for same sex marriages but this was not included in the legislation.
‘We did not include that in our equal opportunity legislation. We must be bound by the laws of Trinidad and Tobago as it stands on these issues and if it is that the law is to be changed then that is not a position of Kamla Persad-Bissessar or Jack Warner or any member of the People’s Partnership, that will have to be a decision of the people…’”
We will rise! (You will rise only if we vote for you to)
CAISO feels proud that we’ve succeeded in some small way in making GLBT concerns a legitimate question in this election campaign, especially with the national media, who have raised our issues as policy matters in visible ways with party leaders. There’s no question that we are part of the national community and the electorate. One breathtaking but small symbol of that achievement was Marlene McDonald’s interview with CNews’s Jessie-May Ventour. Responding to Ventour’s question about policy regarding gay and lesbian citizens and repeal of the nation’s discriminatory laws, McDonald began by characterising these as “veeery sensitive issues”. “They’re human rights issues,” Ventour shot back instantly.
We recognised some risk in raising GLBT issues in a high-stakes election: that we might lose, provoke reactionary responses, harden opposition, suffer setbacks. Time will tell. But we also recognise that our intervention has prodded both parties to take positions, define some measure of difference between them; and that may be better than the protracted waffling that had characterised both sides.
The work will continue as GLBT voters gain greater knowledge and courage to raise our issues directly with the individual candidates who want to represent us, as one brave lesbian voter did with both Keith Rowley (PNM) and Rocky Garcia (COP) earlier this week as they visited her home in the Diego Martin West constituency. Both candidates’ responses demonstrate how much work needs to be done. But they also demonstrate that it is possible to start the conversation.
Do you know where your candidates stand? Have you asked?
As Verna St. Rose-Greaves has reminded us each time we have heard her talk about GLBT issues during this election, there is still much figuring out to do regarding how we best conduct this political discourse – how GLBT communities partner with others in contributing to building a new democracy that is respectful of diversity and sexual citizenship – how we avoid the media’s interest in us becoming a two-edged sword – and how we recognise that this project is a long-term, incremental effort, and not only about Monday’s outcome. That was the powerful lesson in what happened last night when Gayelle’s upstart WE News show engaged Keith Rowley with our voter’s story, and he, sadly, called her a liar. If he wins, Dr. Rowley’s will be one of the first doors CAISO knocks on after May 25th.