CAISO’s first Advocate Award

Something happened in July 2007 that sowed the seeds of an exciting new advocacy movement by gay and lesbian, bi and Trans people in Trinidad and Tobago – a movement that we have seen flourish over the past year. CAISO wants to recognise the person who sowed those seeds, and to acknowledge his role in making history:

On July 4th of 2007, some of us read in our newspapers about a man from Ste. Madeleine who had won a small money judgment against the Government in the courts, because of a violation he suffered from the police some years earlier. The stories told about how he had been detained by the police, stripped naked, ridiculed. Some stories talked about his size. Some of them talked about his sexuality. He wasn’t a posh middle class person with lawyer friends. He hadn’t completed a lot of school. But he was a really determined person: he ran a small business out of his home, he drove a maxi, and he’d done a lot of other things to earn a living. Three weeks later, it got even more amazing: the Saturday Guardian had a picture of the man on its front page leading to a story captioned “Give Gays Equal Rights”.

“At 29 years, Kennty Mitchell seems to have everything going for him. He is a striving entrepreneur, a community activist and is involved in a nine-year ‘common-law’ relationship. Yet, he is put down by society and verbally and physically abused by many, including the police. Why? He is homosexual. Mitchell, however, is determined to keep his head up and refuses to be forced into living his life in secrecy and shame. He has always been open about his sexuality, and now he has decided to speak out publicly. … Mitchell says he’s fed up with being ridiculed and discriminated against, and is calling on the Government to ensure gay people have equal rights. ‘Gay people are people too, they are citizens of T&T and they make a valuable contribution to the country…They should not be treated as though they don’t belong or have no rights,’ he argued. … In his way of marking Gay Pride month (July), Mitchell said he was speaking out for all the gay people without a voice. ‘We might not be able to tip the scale in the next election because we are a minority,’ he said. ‘But we belong to a family, we have friends and they all support us so it will be more than just the gay votes,’ he said.”

The fact that Kennty is a regular fellah isn’t the only remarkable part of the story. What’s equally remarkable is the public’s response: virtually all the people who wrote comments on the Express website sympathised with him, and said: Whatever your sexuality is, you shouldn’t be treated that way. That story transformed the face of GLBT organizing in Trinidad and Tobago. It said powerfully: I can stand up for myself, no matter who I am. I can stand up to the Government. I can stand up to the police. And I can win. And people will support me. And I can be visible. That story inspired gay people to come together across class and gender, race and education, age and nationality in ways we never had before. We first met with Kennty on Emancipation Day 2007; and that same group of us went on to found the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation last year.

Photo courtesy Bohemia

Kennty was harassed by the police again, and he has sued the Government again, and he has won again – $125,000 the last time.

Kennty is not an angel. He is not a perfect person. He is every one of us. He is a perfect example of how every one of us can make change. And that is why he is the recipient of CAISO’s very first Advocate Award.

Proud to tell it: Sean Drakes’s film gets T&T talking about pride

Proud to Tell It was a simple idea. In 2002, Sean Drakes, a self-made lifestyle photojournalist, picked up the new video camera he was teaching himself to use and travelled around the US to four Black Pride celebrations, in Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta. The Black Prides had emerged as ways for African American communities in larger US cities to celebrate GLBT pride on their own cultural terms, often in more inward-focused ways that looked different from the larger, public, White-dominated Pride celebrations that occur around the country every June. Some of the Prides, like L.A.’s, had evolved from a group of friends getting together to throw a beach party.

Drakes had another simple idea earlier this month. In town to photograph Carnival 2010 professionally, he pitched to Bohemia‘s promoters the thought of screening the work-in-progress on the Pride events he had shot in 2002 for community members here in Trinidad. To Drakes’s surprise, within days an ad was up on Facebook, A/V equipment had been ordered, as had stocks for a bar. He pitched in for chairs.

In another seemingly simple gesture, Drakes thought to invite an NGO to facilitate a discussion about the film’s significance for organizing and community in T&T. His idea bounced around CAISO, where one person after another was charged to make it into something grand: tie it into our vision for a project documenting the community’s history? use it to launch a base-building effort that would lead into a campaign for law reform?

We ended up with a really simple discussion. But what a rich discussion it was!

One hundred and twenty people showed up on March 11th. They applauded heartily whenever CAISO was mentioned by name, including when we introduced our logo designer. One person boasted she had supported the group “from Day 1”. Evangelists on Isaac radio, we learned, are still quoting our very first press release.

Parade? A lot of the conversation the film generated was about how ready T&T’s is for the idea of a Pride parade. One participant reminisced back to when Pride in T&T first started 16 years ago (when the idea of march came up and was quickly dismissed), sharing that he never thought he would live to see people think they might be ready to march, as some attendees at the screening clearly felt they were. He noted the positive changes he’s seen over the years – people donating time, people of standing standing up, mainstream hospitality businesses seeing T&T Pride events as a market.

But what’s the right fit for Pride here, several people who spoke asked. Parade of the Bands, one person was convinced: community members should play mas together in the same Carnival band, perhaps in Pride colours; didn’t the GLBT Bajan posse show out here this year? And, although one person warned us to be more modest (Barbados and Suriname may challenge us in that regard), speaker after speaker talked about pride in how far “ahead” of the rest of the region things are for our community in T&T. Aren’t there ways outside of a parade to gain visibility, one person wondered: Why not have winners of the very popular gender illusion pageants appear on TV and do newspaper features.

 

"B. Conduct which adversely affects the USC community: 10. Public or clandestine meetings/relations with members of the same or opposite sex, which may include illicit behaviour such as homosexuality, lesbianism," (p. 48) © University of the Southern Caribbean

CYAISO? Students from UWI, USC and COSTAATT were all present, and shared some amazing efforts, small but brave, that they are undertaking to support each other and make their campuses safer spaces. Some are exploring ways they can share the skills and training they are acquiring with the GLBT community, offering peer counselling as a community service to others struggling with sexual orientation, gender identity and family issues.

What do we want? Nobody at all talked about same-sex marriage. Many people talked about the need to do internal work within the community to build dignity, self-respect and pride as being a priority of the first order. One young man talked about how the gender pageants did that for him. Make activities like Friends for Life’s chatroom happen more regularly, and do better work at publicizing them. Create similar activities for women. Plan workshops during Pride month. Create mentoring programmes. Routinely have information and resource tables set up at community events like the film screening. People talked about the need for legal protections against employment and housing discrimination; about the continued ability of murderers of gay men to successfully use as a defence the assertion that the victim came on to them. People told personal stories about the cost of coming out, being forced to leave home and losing relationships with family. One student shared that her school’s handbook says you can be expelled for being gay. And one person advanced the idea of CAISO forming constituency groups in each of the nation’s 41 constituencies, “like the PNM did in 1956”.

Velvet Underground. Organizer Angela Francis talked at length about the recent growth of her group to close to 1,000 members, and her vision for creating a lounge in the East providing sexual and mental health services, other community supports, and office space – as well as her challenge in getting community members to support the vision. The founder of Queen Mother touted the new blog.

Well-known people were there, and spoke up. The DJ for a controversial radio host promised to back us up with a big truck whenever we were “ready to be serious” about a Pride parade. (So don’t let him off the hook!)

The event worked so well and so simply, we’ve simply decided to do it again. And maybe again and again every month or two.

Look out for notices from us and Bohemia about something in April. Probably Sunday the 11th.


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.

https://vimeo.com/41121522 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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Remembering our history (Know Your Country)”

With boundless faith in our destiny: CAISO 2010

Happy New Year, family! And what a year it will be.

a "1919" vision of sexual orientation

CAISO holds our first meeting of 2010 today. In it we will look back on the magic of the past year: our unplanned formation, our unexpected success, and our unprecedented achievement. On the pleasures and memories that these brought us and many of you.

Stacy, sole survivor from Haitian support group

We will do so chastened: by the lives we lost to violence and illness over that same period; and by the horrible tragedy of Haïti’s earthquake, including the news we received this week that 14 of 15 men attending a support group at our partner organization SEROvie’s office in Port-au-Prince perished together. The sobering idea that everything can crumble in minutes.

Notwithstanding, we look forward with an incredible excitement to the possibility of a new year.

With the inspiration of Linden Lewis’s talk a week ago, and a hope in alliances. With the new vision our work with the international GLBT partners who joined us for CHOGM inspired in us of how our nation is blessed, and of what is possible here.

A vision of a new year that builds on the last one, that builds a bigger base, that builds more focused leadership, that builds more strategic direction, that builds more ambitious projects, that builds better relationships and more pleasure in our work, and that – whatever each of us believes spiritually – builds our faith in our own divine worth and our access to the power to achieve our vision.

A year in which faith will continue to be critical to our work.

We embark on the new year with a new logo that we’ll unveil to you, our community and allies, along with our plans for 2010, in the coming days.

Click and read on as a number of CAISOnians share their visions for the New Year with you. Continue reading “With boundless faith in our destiny: CAISO 2010”

Kennty & Kinno

Kennty
Kennty

October 15th 2009 will mark eleven years of living together with my partner Kinno. I love him very much. He made a huge difference in my life and for that I am grateful. When we met I was 20 and he was 21.

Since my victories in the courts vs. the state I have not yet been awarded any compensation, but the victories were a small satisfaction because it acknowledged my rights as a human being and as a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. My victories have fuelled my ambitions to work harder and to be an example to others who might have experienced similar circumstances or any ill treatment as a result of sexual orientation.

Personally speaking, I feel that the government of Trinidad and Tobago and other leaders would like to make our country a place where equal rights are afforded to everyone regardless of class, religion, race or sexual orientation; besides, it is part and parcel of a developed country that can meet international standards. However, governments of the past and present are afraid to address these matters correctly because of the fear of losing political mileage. They don’t want to be accused of “de-moralizing” society by opposing forces.

I think that society is changing and has become more aware of gender differences and sexual orientation. Crime has plagued our country for some time now and our young people are being taught to hate, discriminate and show little regard for human life. I say this not only because of the action of government on issues of sexual orientation, but also because our radio stations and cable channels are allowed to preach hate music with sexually perverse lyrics and it is being absorbed in the minds of the impressionable. And when these young minds mature, they act on what they were fed as it becomes established in their judgment, hence crime, violence, domestic abuse, drug abuse, AIDS, etc. How many lives must be sacrificed in order to make money?

It seems like there is no limit, since the government is poised to pay me over $150,000 for wrongful arrest and police harassment, rather than to make all citizens safe and protected under the Equal Opportunity Act.

In spite of the so-called homophobic society we live in, I feel a sense of empowerment since my court victories. People within my home and work community who have supported me were very proud of my victories. I feel like I have a responsibility to prove to them that although I am gay I am first a human being and a man who works hard. Never in my life did I ever feel the need to hide or pretend and they all seem to admire me for that. Things are going quite well for me and partner Kinno, and we will continue to fight in the battle for equality.

Two years ago, Guardian journalist Sascha Wilson and Verna St. Rose-Greaves (host of Treeay on Gayelle TV) introduced Trinidad & Tobago to Kennty Mitchell, his partner, and his unique story. gspottt lae.msy.roj.ram Community Voices is proud to feature them telling you their story in their own words.

Kinno
Kinno

From the outside looking in, they call me immoral, they say that I like vice and I have no ambition. How could you live with a man?” they asked me. Others commented, “How long do you think it would last?”

My 10+ years with Kennty were not at all easy, as with all relationships, and just like a heterosexual relationship, there are fears of uncertainty and a number of mental challenges. Imagine me a young man living with another man, afraid of what society may say, afraid to go out, afraid of police harassment. It was not easy. I don’t think that I have one third of the courage that Kennty has. He was mostly a maxi taxi driver. He took care of me and I would play the role of house husband, attending to the special needs of my man. I made some money at home for a while also.

Let’s say that the relationship came to an end. No court in this land that would hear our pleas. All of my inputs, all my contributions, all of my years and tears down the drain. This is another problem faced by many people in same-sex relationships. All of their hard work and money invested, lost. I think that if the law of this land was fair and equal to all, it would allow for gay people to live more meaningfully and, as a result, be able to make more valuable contributions to our country’s development.

My ten years with Kennty have taught me how to be brave, strong and determined.

Looking back at my life now, I can see that we have had a symbiotic relationship. I was never in a relationship before, nor was I a self-confessed homosexual, but from the day I first saw him, I felt an attraction that only he can make me feel. I felt like I needed to show him so much and make his life better. I felt that I needed to take care of him and protect him. But it turned out quite the opposite. I love Kennty very much and I will never forget the day I first met him. We met at a time in my life when I was having difficulty being myself with my family. Kennty is a unique individual and it brings me great joy and satisfaction sharing my life with him. I hate missing a day without just looking at him.

My family has grown to respect our relationship and people within our community admire us for the years spent together. Friends and neighbors often seek us for assistance with many of their varied concerns. I think that the community is aware of the struggle faced by homosexuals and the need to be treated equally. “So what if he gay, as long as he don’t interfere with me,” some would say. And as for them who say “How long you think it would last?”, I am determined to show them.