T&T’s most read newspaper: excluding sexual orientation from the Equal Opportunity Act is a “most egregious example of official backwardness”

Where does Govt stand on equality?

Express newspaper editorial: Wednesday 23 February 2011 – page 12.

If Trinidad and Tobago’s law on gay rights is finally being brought into the modern world, it would be deeply disappointing to witness any reactionary kicking and screaming by an administration that otherwise projects itself as cutting-edge in policy promptings.

For failure to admit sexual orientation as a ground of discrimination, T&T has been lagging behind the rest of the progressive world which has long been taking this development in stride. Some clarification is due on where this government stands: whether with the scripture-quoting homophobia identified with big names in reggae culture, or with the enlightened consensus holding that all human beings should be treated equally. The clarification is especially necessary in light of the fact that gay rights appeared to be immediately opposed by a Government Senator-Minister invoking, not only religion, but not even his own religion.

The issue reared its head, albeit not for the first time, in the context of an amendment to the Statutory Authorities Act, debated in the Senate last week, that would allow the next-of-kin of public servants to get one month’s salary benefit. Independent senators Corrine Baptiste-McKnight and James Armstrong made an argument that, in respect of persons cohabiting as spouses, the definition should not be restricted to persons of the opposite sex. It was Subhas Panday, Minister in the National Security Ministry and a supposed Hindu, who challenged Senator Baptiste-McKnight on this issue, asking how she would reconcile such a clause with Section 52 in the Book of Leviticus.

In fact, there is no such section, since Leviticus has only 27 chapters but, in any case, policy arguments in a multi-religious society cannot be based on theology. Desirable goals, empirical validation and ethical reasoning must inform effective policy. Besides, T&T has no law against homosexuality per se, but only an antediluvian statute against sodomy which, for obvious reasons, is unenforceable save in cases of rape. And herein lies the point: should the State interfere in sexual relationships between consenting adults?

Most citizens would say No. Yet many hold the view that, when such consent is between two adults of the same sex, the State has the right to deprive such individuals of rights enjoyed by heterosexual adults. This country’s Equal Opportunities Act, which specifically allows discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, is the most egregious example of official backwardness on this issue. Such discrimination flies in the face of the nation’s supreme law, since Section 4 (b) of the Constitution guarantees, “the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law”.

To exclude homosexuals from such protection, even by inaction, makes a mockery of rhetoric about carrying the nation forward.

We don’t need debate on gay marriage, Mary King. We need Government action on violence and discrimination.

“No thank you!” CAISO has responded to Government’s proposal the day after Valentine’s Day for a national debate and referendum on same-sex marriage, made by Minister of Planning, Economic & Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs during Senate debate on the Statutory Authorities (Amendment) Bill. That legislation seeks to extend a death benefit available to public servants’ next of kin to the employees of statutory authorities. It goes further, to include in the potential beneficiaries common-law partners of unmarried employees and their children born out of wedlock – but restricts the benefit to only partners “of the opposite sex”. In floor debate, Government Senators defended on “religious” and “cultural” grounds their decision to recognize fornicators, but not sodomites.

Illustrating the circus such a proposed debate would be, Leader of Government Business in the Senate Subhas Panday, a Hindu, interrupted an Independent Senator, Corinne Baptiste-McKnight, as she criticized the bill for “entrenching” this discriminatory provision and bucking where the world was moving, by shouting a reference to an imaginary verse of Leviticus: 52. (Leviticus has only 27 chapters.) CAISO doesn’t trust that this debate proposal won’t simply take Trinidad & Tobago down the same path of national conflict and global embarrassment as Uganda, ironically as we too chair the Commonwealth of Nations. Holding a popular “referendum” (the word the Government used) on whether citizens who are a minority group have equal rights would also make the nation a laughingstock in the international community.

The proposal is a distraction, Government clearly isn’t listening, and has its priorities on GLBT issues wrong. CAISO has consistently given the Government six politically feasible national priorities for action; and same-sex unions or debate on them was never one. We’ve written the Prime Minister, and we met with Minister King early in the new administration to share these six items.

Three of them address responses to areas where social vulnerability is highest for members of the GLBT community, none requiring legislation or referenda:

We also advocated that Min. King build her own Ministry’s capacity to support the Government with planning, policy and programme development related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), through staffing, and government-to-government technical assistance; and we submitted an FY2011 citizen’s budget proposal for a SOGI desk in the Ministry.

Most important, we asked the Government to take action to protect us from the discrimination and violence we face on a daily basis because of who we are, discrimination that is fuelled when national leaders speak of us on television and radio from the chambers of Parliament, not as citizens who have sex in our bedrooms with other adults and party and form organizations and love each other and voted for them, but as people who are controversial and sensitive and connected to illegality and whose rights and relationships require debate.

The Equal Opportunity Act, a brainchild of the UNC Government, which has just entered its second decade, is an ideal vehicle to enact those discrimination protections. (The Catholic Commission on Social Justice, which opposed the 2004 Gender Policy, agrees that we ought to be so protected.) There is furthermore measurable national consensus in Trinidad & Tobago on protecting people from discrimination in basic walks of life, regardless to their sexuality. The Equal Opportunity Commission the Act established is also an ideal vehicle to take the national look at equality, sexual orientation and discrimination, and needed responses, that Min. King is concerned with – in a sober, deliberate and apolitical fashion. In the functions the Act assigns the Commission, it provides for it to review emerging questions of discrimination, conduct research and make recommendations.

In explaining why the Government had specifically excluded unmarried same-sex partners from the bill, Minister of Public Administration Sen. Rudrawatee Nan Gosine-Ramgoolam admitted she was not a legal expert but went ahead to conclude same-sex relations were illegal. As a result, she argued (before correcting herself), Government “can’t put the horse before the cart”. This seems sadly true. Protecting GLBT citizens from discrimination and violence is the political horse our Government should be riding, not flogging gay marriage.

Finally, CAISO has repeatedly asked the Government to exercise leadership and speak out boldly against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression, and we congratulated the Prime Minister because she did so at the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha just days after the election. She has also done so on HIV. We have also acknowledged the Government for its bipartisan work on strengthening the right to privacy.

Furthermore, we have persistently asked Government to listen and to consult, and offered our help and partnership with building a nation for everyone. But our Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CAISO the reason they abstained on two UN votes late last year was because Government does not have a position on whether gay people have a right to life. Young people are still being beaten by their families and bullied in school. Crime victims of anti-gay violence are taunted as bullers by police officers. A dozen 20-something-year-olds, many of whom have nowhere to go because of who they are and who are unsafe in the shelter, were recently charged for loitering. And our humanity is seen by the Government as in need of debate.

CAISO:

We salute Independent Senators James Armstrong, Corinne Baptiste-McKnight, and notably Helen Drayton who hammered away at the Government. They all assailed the restrictive common-law provision in the bill as antiquated and inconsistent with state obligations of equal treatment. And PNM Senators Pennelope Beckles-Robinson and Terrence Deyalsingh showed welcome compassion on the issue. Sen. Beckles-Robinson, the Opposition Leader in the Senate, proposed to Government a modest amendment, which Sen. Panday rejected, that would have avoided enshrining in law new discriminatory language and simply have the bill reference the Cohabitational Relationships Act. What these Senators displayed was that many good people in Trinidad & Tobago of different political persuasions are more than ready to end the ways in which our laws and public policy discriminate unnecessarily against gay and lesbian people. They also displayed that those who do so are in the highest office, and that they are unafraid to speak out publicly. We also saw the sad display of how politicians who defend intolerance on religious grounds often can’t even cite the scriptures they are hiding their personal prejudice behind.

16 February, 2011 

Sen. Hon. Mary King
Minister of Planning, Economic & Social Restructuring & Gender Affairs
Level 14, Eric Williams Financial Complex
Independence Square, Port of Spain

Dear Minister King:

I am writing, in the wake of yesterday’s Senate debate on the Statutory Authorities (Amendment) bill, to ask you to meet again with me and other representatives of our Coalition at the earliest opportunity. We would like to discuss:

  • Government Senators’ conduct and remarks during the debate, including your own, and the damage we believe they risk doing to the cause of equality
  • the status of the community listening forum proposed in our July 8, 2010 meeting and discussions with you, MP Ramdial and other Government officials;
  • an alternative or complementary approach to the political referendum you proposed yesterday for achieving national engagement with human rights questions of sexual orientation, gender identity and discrimination, involving the Equal Opportunity Commission

Another step in the region towards bodily freedom, in Belize

Why do modern independent Caribbean states, where people have fought for centuries to free our bodies from enslavement, indentureship, control by our husbands, exploitation of our labour, colonial subjection, sexual harassment and prohibtions on dancing still defend laws that say that adults cannot use our bodies in mutually consenting ways with each other sexually in private? Why are only certain forms of sex between consenting adults against the law? Why aren’t other forms of sex, which are just as “unusual”? Or others that are unlikely to produce children, simply pleasure? Why are eating pork and beef and wearing headcoverings and extramarital sex not the subject of our secular laws, but homosexuality is?

Why would anyone committed to liberty deny someone of maturity control over her or his body and sexuality?

Although in many jurisdictions our laws against private sex are only occasionally enforced, they remain on the books and serve to legitimate violence, discrimination and stigma against gay men and lesbians whom they render “unapprehended felons”, as a South African jurist quoted in a judgment overturning that country’s sodomy laws. And their enforcement is technically just one election, or even one enterprising police officer, away.

The first constitutional challenge to the region’s colonially derived laws against sexual activity between consenting adults has been filed, in Belize, targeting a law against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, which in common law means anal sex.

Many of our regional Independence constitutions, through “savings clauses”, hold immune from constitutional challenge any of these archaic laws (like others which PNM MP Colm Imbert mocked recently in Parliament that address wounding pigeons, bathing in the Maraval River and hanging clothes out to dry in the front of a shop) that were  put in force in colonial times; these savings clauses in effect say the colonizers knew best. Belize’s constitution limited that period of immunity to five years. Trinidad & Tobago preserved our savings clause through our 1976 Republican constitution, and in a number of more recent proposals for constitutional “reform”.

We wish our Belizean GLBT counterparts, the community organizers there, and their visionary legal advocates the best success with this landmark lawsuit; and we hope their bravery and jurisprudence will benefit the region as a whole.

Statutory penalties in the Caribbean for consensual sexual activity between two adult human beings; and the most recent date of the law’s enactment
Antigua & Barbuda 1995 15 years sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person
5 years an act, other than sexual intercourse (whether natural or unnatural), by a person involving the use of the genital organ for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire (unless committed in private between a husband and his wife; or a male person and a female person)
Bahamas 1991 20 years any adult male who has sexual intercourse, in a public place
20 years any female adult who has sexual intercourse, in a public place
Barbados 2002 life buggery
10 years an act, whether natural or unnatural by a person involving the use of the genital organs for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire, on or towards another or inciting another to commit that act with the person or with another person
Belize 2000 10 years carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person
Dominica 1998 10 years; psychiatric hospitalization for treatment at the discretion of the Court sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person
4 years; psychiatric hospitalization for treatment at the discretion of the Court attempt to commit sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person
5 years an act other than sexual intercourse (whether natural or unnatural) by a person involving the use of genital organs for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire (unless committed in private between an adult male person and an adult female person)
Grenada 1958 10 years unnatural connexion
Guyana 1893 life buggery with a human being
10 years attempts to commit buggery
2 years any male person, who in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission, or procures or attempts to procure the commission, by any male person, of an act of gross indecency with any other male person
Jamaica 1864 up to 10 years hard labour the abominable crime of buggery with mankind
up to 7 years, with or without hard labour attempt to commit the said abominable crime
up to 2 years, with or without hard labour any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person
St. Kitts-Nevis 1990 up to 10 years, with or without hard labour the abominable crime of buggery
up to 4 years, with or without hard labour attempt to commit the said abominable crime
St. Lucia 2005 5 years; psychiatric hospitalization for treatment at the discretion of the Court attempt to commit sexual intercourse per anus by a male person with a male or by a male person with a female person
10 years (5 years on summary conviction) an act other than sexual intercourse (whether natural or unnatural) by a person involving the use of the genital organs for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire (unless committed in private between an adult male person and an adult female person)
St. Vincent & the Grenadines 1990 10 years commit buggery with any other person; permit any person to commit buggery with him or her
5 years commit an act of gross indecency, in public or private, with another person of the same sex, or procure or attempt to procure another person of the same sex to commit an act of gross indecency with him or her
Trinidad & Tobago 1986 25 years sexual intercourse per anum by a male person with a male person or by a male person with a female person
5 years an act, other than sexual intercourse (whether natural or unnatural), by a person involving the use of the genital organ for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire (unless in private between a husband and his wife; or a male person and a female person)

Who killed David Kato?

On March 5 & 6, 2009 American Christian Right evangelist Scott Lively is a key speaker at an anti-gay conference in Kampala, Uganda and meets with legislators.

On October 14, 2009 Ndorwa West MP David Bahati introduces a private member’s bill in the Uganda Parliament that would institute capital punishment for some homosexual acts.

On January 19, 2010 Pastor Martin Ssempa holds a press conference, one of several public forums, often held in churches, in which he shows pornographic films depicting gay men fisting and rimming to whip up disgust for gay people.

On October 2, 2010 Giles Muhame publishes the following issue of Uganda’s Rolling Stone, featuring activist David Kato in the photograph at left.

On January 3, 2010 Kato and two others win damages (US$650) in a court case that enjoins the paper from further outing. The victory is reported as “Rolling Stone ruling – finally a ray of hope for gay activists in Uganda”.

On January 27, 2011 Kato dies after being bludgeoned in the head at his home. The Uganda police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba says they don’t believe this is a hate crime: “It looks like theft…some things were stolen”.

Who killed David Kato? Val Kalende, Board Chair of Freedom & Roam Uganda thinks “David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by US Evangelicals in 2009. The Ugandan Government and the so-called US Evangelicals must take responsibility for David’s blood!”

Left to right: Kato, Lively, Bahati, Ssempa, Muhame

Who will protect you (2)?

Our new Government is seeking to amend our Constitution. It is not doing so to provide you with stronger guarantees of your rights as people of different sexual orientations. It is not doing so to eliminate the half-century-old provisions in the Constitution that currently insulate the buggery law from legal challenges. It is doing so in large part to make it easier for the State to execute people who have been convicted of murder. It is doing so in order to be (or to be perceived as being) responsive to one of the biggest and most widely shared concerns of voters: the nation’s murder rate, and the ineffectiveness of the State in addressing violent crime.

Their legislative proposal is to add a section of about 2,500 words to our 30,000-word constitution laying out in considerable detail at the constitutional level (vs. in a law) procedures, conditions and stipulations regarding the implementation of capital punishment. The result of this would be to make these provisions unable to be challenged in a court. This would significantly reduce legal challenges to executions; and the proposed amendment specifically seeks to circumvent rulings courts have made previously, which have frustrated many, that provide protections from summary execution for people convicted of murder.

“Hang chi-chi gal wid a long piece a rope / Mek me see di han’ a go up” – Beenie Man

The proposal also seeks to implement within the Constitution a UNC bill passed into law ten years ago to have a three-part framework for offences involving killing someone. Conviction of “Murder 1” would require the death penalty and cover seven types of killing, including intentionally killing someone because of their “race, religion, nationality or country of origin”.

But not their sexual orientation. Or their gender. In fact, last month the Government abstained twice on a UN vote that sought to strengthen international vigilance and responsiveness to murders or summary executions of people based on their sexual orientation.

Here’s how the Government explains the provisions we’re highlighting:

This Bill seeks to amend the Constitution in relation to the implementation of the death penalty.

The Bill seeks to alter the Constitution and, in accordance with section 54(3) of the Constitution, needs to be passed by a special majority of three-fourths of the members of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the members of the Senate in as much as it would amend section 89 of the Constitution.

By clause 2, the proposed Act would come into operation on such date as is fixed by the President by Proclamation.

By clause 3, the proposed Act would be construed as altering the Constitution. Clause 4 would insert into the Constitution a new Part IIA which would make special provisions with respect to capital offences. New sections 6A to 6L contain provisions of the Offence Against the Person (Amendment) Act, 2000 (Act No. 90 of 2000) which has not been brought into force. These provisions pertain to the creation of the categories of murder 1, 2 and 3, the mandatory imposition of the death sentence in relation to murder 1, the circumstances in which the death sentence or life imprisonment may be imposed for murder 2 and other matters connected thereto.

A new section 6M of the Constitution would declare that the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death by a Court or the execution of such a sentence shall not be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of section 4 or 5 of the Constitution. For the removal of doubts, the new section 6M would further declare that on no grounds whatsoever would the execution of a sentence of death be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of section 4 or 5 of the Constitution, including any, or any combination, of the following grounds: (a) a delay in the hearing or determination of a charge for a capital offence; (b) a delay in executing the sentence of death; (c) the conditions or arrangements under which a person is held in prison, or otherwise lawfully detained, pending the execution of the sentence of death; or (d) the effect of reading to a person, more than once, a warrant for the execution of the sentence of death on him.

Read the bill in its entirety for yourself, or follow the debate in Parliament. It requires the votes of 32 members of the House (the People’s Partnership has 29 seats); and 21 members of the Senate (the Government effectively has 15 seats; the Opposition 6; and there are 9 Independent Senators).

I am not only a person living with HIV… Our work in HIV prevention has to…deal with…that… I am first and foremost a citizen of this beloved country

Human Rights and HIV – Living Positively

It is indeed a privilege and an honour to stand before you as a person living with HIV on such an auspicious occasion. I am not only a person living with HIV, but I am currently serving as coordinator of an HIV/AIDS NGO, Community Action Resource, better known as CARe. I  pride myself on saying that I am one of the success stories that have come from this organisation; and it’s an honour to be able to serve the needs of who I fondly call “the community of care”, as I am deeply indebted to this organisation, for when I entered its doors I was literally a “walking dead.”

Since our relocation to our new home in September this year, we have seen a steady increase of newly diagnosed persons accessing our services. Our support group, for example, grew from a number of five to twenty in the space of three months. But, with this success, comes the grim face of reality. Realities of people newly diagnosed which reveal patterns of social and economic inequity. One member lost her job because her workers discovered that she was HIV-positive. Her story indicates that the discrimination began within the health care system – one of the nurses revealed her status to a co-worker, who had come to see her (the member) at the hospital for a totally unrelated illness. The nurse, on seeing the co-worker giving the member a casual goodbye kiss, told the co-worker that she should not have done something like that because the patient has AIDS. The co-worker told the other workers at the member’s workplace, who began to shun her, and in one instance one staff member refused to drink from the same cup as the member did. One day the member called in sick, and the boss called her half-an-hour later letting her know that she was no longer needed. Other members have no steady means of income. Some are unable to have at least one meal a day, much less to ensure that it’s a nutritious one. These issues impact on the individual ability to adhere to their anti-retovirals, as some require that they be taken with a meal.

At CARe, we have made a conscious decision to not play the victim role, but we see ourselves as a community that seeks to deepen its relationships with key stakeholders in order to ensure greater access and decrease levels of economic and social and gender inequity. We are not just a support group, but one that seeks to empower people living with HIV who can demonstrate leadership at any and at all levels of society. It cannot be underscored the value of this work and the need for it to be sustained and supported.

Indeed we are becoming more intuitive and responsive to the society we live in. We understand that we are all in this together – regardless of race, age, class, gender, and sexual identity.

David Soomarie, Coordinator, Community Action Resource (CARe) - Photo: UNAIDS

I am also a member of another community. A community that for far too long have been misunderstood, judged, stifled, or to put it simply: oppressed. A community that, despite its oppression, has managed to contribute to the rich tapestry of a nation’s identity through art, culture, media, and fashion. A community that diligently works in all sectors of labour, be it industry or commerce. A community oppressed by ignorance and religious bigotry. A community labelled outlaws who have no “equal opportunity” in a nation that has written in its national anthem “Here every creed and race find an equal place.”

I speak of those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Our archaic laws have driven the lifestyle and culture of these groups underground, forcing many to engage in risky sexual practices, forcing others to lead double lives. Our work in HIV prevention has to move beyond short-term interventions and condom distribution. It has to deal with issues of internalised stigma and shame that one feels living a lifestyle that is “different.”  It requires a reengineering, a deeper understanding of the many sub-cultures that constitute these marginalised groups. It demands a stronger partnering with members of civil society who engage meaningfully with these communities; and a clear demonstration of leadership from the powers that govern us.

In closing, I am not limited by my HIV status or my sexual identity, nor should i be judged by it. I am first and foremost a citizen of this beloved country, one who is passionate about equality, justice, community and country. I long for the day when I can truly believe in those words “here every creed and race find an equal place.” I thank you.

Soomarie shared the panel with Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Hon. Rodger Samuel

Justice for all children: Will you march under CAISO’s banner?

CAISO has been invited to bring our banner and march with others for justice for children next week Saturday. Will you say yes, and march as CAISO? Originally organized as a march for justice in the unsolved case of Akiel Chambers (an 11-year-old boy found dead and sexually abused in an affluent neighbourhood in 1998), the Domestic Violence Coalition, ChildLine and UWI Gender Studies have now joined the Jericho Project to: raise awareness of the prevalence of child abuse in T&T; lobby for justice in several unresolved cases; and advocate for a modern and effective child welfare system.

Will you march? Let us know: 758-7676 ♦ caisott@gmail.com