We take a pride in our liberty

Some dangerously out-of-touch “ex-gay” foreigners think there’s growing tolerance of GLBT people in T&T, so they’re coming here on an evangelical mission Oct. 22-29 to try to turn back the clock. And they’re going after vulnerable young people.

Sexual citizenship & nation-building in T&T. CAISO has been successful in our short year of existence in helping foster openings for inclusion of sexual orientation in many areas of national life in our independent, postcolonial nation of Trinidad & Tobago. Over the past year we have seen such national institutions and leaders as the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, the Elections & Boundaries Commission and the Equal Opportunity Commission, as well as the University of the West Indies, church leaders and the national media, articulate an indigenous vision of equality, citizenship and democracy that includes people of different sexual orientation and raises questions about how we protect such persons from violence and discrimination. Aren’t you proud of your nation? We have also helped promote a robust conversation about how GLBT people here find spaces to practise the faith of their choosing. What has distinguished local engagement with issues of sexual citizenship and faith community from the kinds of advocacy for “gay rights” that take place in many other settings is that ours has been a fundamentally nation-building approach.

US Christian fundamentalists export a toxic gospel overseas. Yet, because of the promise that CAISO and our nation have shown for expanding the embrace of human rights and inclusion, Trinidad & Tobago has become a key target for one of the global anti-gay evangelical ministries whose fundamentalist gospel has become a new export of the United States. Some have compared these Christian Right Wing sects to the proponents of radical Islam, because they both see their mission in terms of a “culture war” against modern developments. “These fundamentalists are no different to the Iranian Ayatollahs”, South African activist Zackie Achmat wrote recently. These evangelizing ministries are deeply focused on regulating sexuality, and they primarily target poor women and GLBT people’s rights by whipping up fears about abortion, same-sex marriage and “same-sex parenting” as threats to the “traditional” family, even in places like Trinidad & Tobago where same-sex marriage is not even being debated. Their danger to the lives of GLBT people is well documented and real. What we’ve seen in Uganda alone, where these ministries have held conferences and trained local pastors and legislators, has been a destructive national campaign of public homophobia that has pitted Ugandans against each other and detracted from other national priorities. They helped draft a stunning piece of legislation that would imprison families for not turning in gay members, execute gay people with HIV for having sex, and also impose a death sentence on people for a second offence of homosexuality, which includes merely touching someone of the same sex in an attempt to become sexual.

His Way Out director Philip Lee received by the Head of State during the group's 2009 Jamaica visit (Photo: Office of the Governor General of Jamaica)

His Way Out targets T&T to turn back social progress. One US anti-gay ministry, His Way Out, based in Bakersfield, California, has set its sights on the Caribbean. After a few visits there, they now claim to have a base in Guyana; and during a high-profile visit to Jamaica in 2009 held a meeting with the head of state, Governor General Patrick Allen. They have publicly announced a mission to our shores from October 22 to 29 because they “believe…it is time to combat what seems to be a growing acceptance of homosexuality in Trinidad”. His Way Out is one a number of troubling ministries arising in the US and Canada that spread a gospel which acknowledges that many people experience same-sex desire, but preaches that such sexuality is disordered, that homosexual acts are unChristian, and that gay people should therefore live lives of self-denial, penitence and prayer “whereby sin’s power is broken”. They typically target young people struggling with their sexuality, and adults who have been hurt by other gay people or who experience deep conflict between their faith and their sexuality. His Way Out is part of the Exodus Global Alliance network, with which they claim to be partnering “in the development of ex-gay ministry in the Caribbean”. They also fundraise aggressively. Their activities here will include a $165 prayer breakfast. Exodus’s mission is to “effectively communicate the message of liberation from homosexuality”, and they believe Christian ministry can effect “reorientation of same sex attraction” and “growth towards Godly heterosexuality”. Prominent leaders of Exodus have since renounced its views, returned to an active gay life, and apologized for the harm they caused.

October 22-29 “sexual health” mission planned. His Way Out Ministries (HWOM) is led by Phillip Lee, a 60-year-old gay, HIV+ man who, by his own testimony, spent the 1970s and ’80s engaging in what he now regrets was destructive sex, partying and drug use, and who is coping with this personal experience by evangelizing others who experience same-sex desire about the unhealthiness and ungodliness of homosexual activity. As they have elsewhere, His Way Out is using a framework of “health” to characterize their messages about sexuality, stigmatizing what they hold out as “gay” sexual practices as unnatural and disease-prone. From November 22nd to 29th, HWOM plans youth-targeted events at Naparima Girls High School, the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, and St. George’s College; media appearances on CNC3, I-95 and other stations; and a meeting with Louis LeeSing, ostensibly in his capacity as Mayor of Port of Spain. One of their advocacy strategies will be to disseminate literature (which, according to HWOM visit organizer Dr. Judith Henry, is being prepared by Dr. Garthlyn Pilgrim) to young people and others, identifying anal intercourse and rimming as gay male sexual behaviours, and linking these to health risks.

Standing up for national values. The visit is an occasion for those of us committed to building a local culture of inclusion and progress in Trinidad & Tobago to stand together and stand up for our values around sexuality and citizenship, and to contrast them with destructive messages being exported by the United States Christian Right in the name of Jesus. The timing of His Way Out Ministries’ visit could also not be more out of touch. It follows a wake of suicides by young people across the US who were made to feel that their sexuality was bad, included among them young people from the Caribbean who moved to the United States. It follows on a high-profile scandal involving Eddie Long, Bishop of the AfricanAmerican New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, one of the largest Christian Right congregations in the US. Long, who runs an ex-gay ministry at his church and organized a public march against gay rights, has been accused of grooming adolescents he recruited from his youth ministry to have sex with him, one a young man of Trini heritage. We are planning at least five responses during the week of the HWOM mission to demonstrate our local values in relationship to sexual inclusion.

Youth voices. Public messages that reinforce stigma against same-sex desire, and that teach that sexuality is pathological, damage young people’s healthy sexual development. “Spiritual violence” is how this shaming is characterized when done with the tools of faith. Public health experts in the region have for years linked stigmatization of same-sex sexuality to the Caribbean’s runaway rates of HIV. Fear- and damnation-based messages are not effective or humane approaches to sexual health education: young people need proven, science-based HFLE methods and compassionate pastoral care that affirms their self-esteem and God-given sexuality. More importantly, there is scientific consensus that young people cannot change their sexual orientation. Young people in Trinidad & Tobago are mobilizing across sexual orientation and faith to provide an alternative, homegrown vision of inclusion and hope to their peers. They will be sharing this vision of human sexuality, and democratically raising questions at HWOM’s youth-targeted events on October 23 and 28, in ways that interrogate the vision and ideology of our foreign visitors. Contact Brandon O’Brien: nova.crux@gmail.com.

Media visibility.Throughout the week of HWOM’s visit, as well as before and after, local advocates of a homegrown, inclusive vision of sexual citizenship will take that message to the media. It is, after all, this proud local culture of inclusion and partnership between GLBT and non-GLBT people that is the real story behind HWOM’s evangelizing mission here to change things. The local goal is also to “change the channel” on a foreign group intent on cynically sowing controversy and division here using the red herring of same-sex marriage, when no such local debate exists.

Accountability. Some local institutions and offices, including ones responsible for the welfare of young people, appear to have readily affiliated themselves with HWOM, their visit and their message – a message whose content has been linked in the United States to teenage suicide as well as to anti-gay bullying and violence by young people, and which seems clearly inconsistent with sound

Photo: Keith Matthews, Guardian

public health practice or the new thrust to aggressively address stigma and discrimination in T&T’s national HIV response. Those associated with the visit include Port of Spain Mayor Louis LeeSing; Naparima Girls High School, a Presbyterian assisted secondary school; St. George’s College, a government secondary school; and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. These institutions and related leaders (Principals Patricia Ramgoolam and James Sammy, and Moderator Elvis Elahie), as well as PNM Political Leader Keith Rowley, Education Minister Tim Gopeesingh, Youth Affairs Minister Anil Roberts, Health Minister Therese Baptiste-Cornelis, Gender Minister Mary King, People & Social Development Minister Glenn Ramadharsingh, National AIDS Coordinating Committee line Minister Rodger Samuel, NACC Chair Angela Lee Loy, and National Parent Teachers Association President Zena Ramatali will be engaged regarding their commitment to protecting young people from harm, to ensuring scientifically sound health, family life and HIV education, and on their understanding and position with respect to the beliefs and practices of HWOM regarding young people and their sexual development. A few prominent local individuals also seem to have been included in the planning of the HWOM visit. It is quite curious whether they would publicly support legislative repeal of sections 8(e) and (f) of the Immigration Act, which prohibit entry into Trinidad & Tobago of Lee and similar homosexuals who are not citizens or residents here.

Public education. Efforts will be made to make available for public viewing dramatic and documentary films that treat in educational and solution-seeking ways with homosexuality, discrimination, mental health and faith. These include “Children of God” by Kareem Mortimer, a Bahamian filmmaker with Trinidadian heritage, which won both major prizes at the recent Trinidad+Tobago Film Festival. The film, set in the Caribbean, dramatizes the violence and hypocrisy of religious homophobia. T-shirts with affirming messages about sexual inclusion and faith are also being produced. Get yours!

Take a pride in your liberty! Get involved in protecting the dignity and respect of all Trinbagonians. Contact us at 758-7676 or caisott@gmail.com, or follow us at www.facebook.com/caiso.

The Opposition may flirt with gay rights ideas, but the PNM “quite categorically” will not

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”.

Robert Codallo, Express

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 yearsa 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”.

Pastor Winston Cuffie embraces Kamla (Anil Rampersad, Newsday)

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.”

Innis Francis, Guardian

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…’”

Shastri Boodan, Guardian

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.

Vote your vision this Monday!

“No, but I do not want to tell people how to live their lives”

“Person in the street” responses to the Express‘s “Big Question” on legalising same-sex marriage illustrate how, notwithstanding their religious teaching, members of the T&T public are fundamentally supportive of gay people’s equality and self-determination.

The results of the text poll are still a mystery, however. On several calls to the Express newsroom, no one, including editors Darren Bahaw and Irving Ward, could provide the results. They’ve promised to look into it, and we’ll keep you posted.

gspotttlight: IRN

IRN website
IRN website

When we launched, CAISO said our plans included “a website, monthly meetings, fundraising at home and abroad, educational activities with public and religious officials, and collaboration with local and international research, advocacy and human rights groups”. In fact, our emergence has been received with quite a bit of excitement within the region and beyond. We’ve been called on by UNAIDS (the UN’s joint programme on HIV, who asked us to share ideas about addressing homophobia and violence); UNDP (the UN’s development programme, through its new, Port of Spain-based initiative on sexual minorities); the regional Coalition for Vulnerable Communities whom we welcome back to Trinidad for a human rights consultation at the end of the month; and CariFLAGS (the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities), a 12-year-old regional GLBT coalition who have asked us to join and, with other partners, sponsored a local community member to attend their groundbreaking Regional Transgender Training and Strategy Consultation two weeks ago. The Commonwealth People’s Forum blog and the blogger portal Global Voices Online have both taken notice of our online work. As evidenced by yesterday’s City University of New York webcast, CAISO is helping strengthen links between Trinidad & Tobago and a range of regional and international work on GLBT issues. As we participate in these regional and international meetings and build relationships with partners, a periodic gspotttlight will try to tell you a bit about those meetings and allies.

launching the Caribbean IRN at the Caribbean Studies Association conference in Kingston
launching the Caribbean IRN at the Caribbean Studies Association conference in Kingston

Vidyartha Kissoon, Caribbean IRN Coordinator, talks about the entity that gave rise to yesterday’s webcast, and its consultation in Jamaica in June that a CAISO member attended.

A gathering of buller, sadamite woman, man-rayal, batty-man, anti-man and dey friend (or, if you want, a gathering of people whose political, creative and scholarly work focuses on genders and sexual minorities in the
Caribbean) meet up in Jamaica in June this year. (Jamaica, you ask? Well Jamaica was the venue for the Caribbean Studies Association conference, which had many discussions on Caribbean sexualities.) The gathering was organized by the Caribbean board of the International Resource Network (IRN). The IRN is a project based at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) of the City University of New York. It is funded by the Ford Foundation and seeks to connect academic and  community-based researchers, artists, and activists around the world in areas related to diverse sexualities and genders. The web platform is at http://www.irnweb.org.

What opportunities does the IRN present for the Caribbean? It provides a mechanism to promote the work being done by groups lIke CAISO and to network across the Caribbean and in the diaspora in a very visible way. The Caribbean is evolving in terms of how the different countries respond to LBGTT citizens and their right to achieve their full potential. The Caribbean IRN web has started to build a listing of related resources – syllabuses, films, books, papers, people. And other activities have started in the background:

Letter to the editor

nd_logoWednesday 30 September 2009; p. 9

Deny it all you like, the Trinbagonian gay community exists. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

Despite all efforts to achieve the goals of Vision 2020 which states ‘Every citizen has equal opportunities to achieve his fullest potential’ and ‘The diversity and creativity of all its people are valued and nurtured’, gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered individuals continue to be ignored and subsequently persecuted in the eyes of the law of our land.

It is quite unfortunate also to note that owing to this ignorant mindset and, might I add, the archaic laws which allow for it, many of our gay, lesbian and transgendered brothers and sisters fall victims to heinous hate crimes that go unreported.

Unsigned

Velvet Underground members can read the full original letter submitted here


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Include a name and where you live, even if you ask that your name not be published. Make it short (one or two paragraphs) and to the point; or it will be edited. Stick to one topic. Don’t be abusive. Bcc us if you’d like.

The Express and Guardian websites also allow you to comment directly on a story, and publish website comments in the following day’s paper.


Take a bow, and press the government even harder

stabroekTrinidad is a “partial exception” to the region’s deadly and fanatical homophobia, Guyana’s Stabroek News suggests, in an editorial yesterday that addresses news reports about a Thai HIV vaccine trial and reflects on the Micah Funk material on the relationship of  homophobia to HIV which has been very visible in the international media this past week. “It is time that we faced…reality” – that Caribbean homophobia “can no longer be seen simply as a cultural quirk, it is an anachronism which is costing lives,” the editorial reads. In the region

with, perhaps, the partial exception of Trinidad, old fashioned ideas about human sexuality need to change quickly…

Well, if you live here, you might not quite agree. And while gspottt has typically tried to show the half-full nature of the glass here (highlighting the forward thinking nature of our Appeals Court, some clergy, brave citizens, the national media, our NGOs and some aspects of our culture), there are few examples of 20/20 thinking about human sexuality on the part of our elected government that account for the Stabroek view. (Sources tell us that the journalists’ views were formed in part by seeing images of our current Queen of Queens pageant displayed online.)

But what the Stabroek editorial, and last week’s Guardian reader poll, do point to is that there is hope for real change here. And that is a tribute to the work each of you has done to make Trinidad and Tobago a place where we can dream of – and work towards – a future where stigma and exclusion based on how people express their sexuality consensually, or their gender, are things in our history.

So stand up, take credit; take a bow. And commit to working harder, and more collaboratively, to press our government to catch up to where you are!