Post 444.

I THINK a lot about our obligation to speak out on matters that impact our society, and how we hold ourselves to account. Public institutions can be our best defence against unfairness, but they have to be held to that potential and to our highest ideals. As my father would often say, “Who will guard the guard?”

The Equal Opportunity Act strengthens our right and ability to guard those highest ideals and hold us all to them. Its value and necessity are so apparent at this time as a progressive piece of legislation that should be protected and can be expanded toward an inclusive vision of equality.

It’s important that we uphold the ideals of the act in guiding decisions of employers, schools, landlords, state boards, medical-care providers and others, and relationships among the public and even among public officials.

The Equal Opportunity Act is empowered through two institutions: the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) and the Equal Opportunity Tribunal (EOT). Despite popular confusion, the two institutions are independent and distinct, having completely different leadership, boards, mandates, staff, budgets, space and purposes.

The tribunal does not provide the broader functions of the EOC, and the two institutions do not function as one. As one example, the EOC and EOT currently hold opposing positions with relation to sexual harassment, with the EOC outlining that it constitutes a form of discrimination on the basis of sex, because the sex of the person is the first and key reason why she or he is harassed by another person (regardless of her or his own sexual orientation).

The EOT disagreed, and the case is currently before the Court of Appeal. It is possible at times for the EOC and the EOT to disagree on interpretation of the act and other viewpoints. Fortunately, the justice system exists to provide checks and balances so that the spirit of the legislation is implemented to promote equality for all.

Guided by the act, the Equal Opportunity Commission represents a belief in freedom from discrimination, through uncompromised and strategic advocacy, civil society solidarity and partnership, public education, and investigation of claims of discrimination toward agreed resolution and redress. It is committed to expanding human rights. It is a people’s institution.

If you are experiencing discrimination based on inherent characteristics that are covered by the act (such as race, ethnicity, disability, marital status, origin including geographic origin and religion), the EOC will assess and establish your case, and can offer conciliation, without charge.

If you are not protected as yet under the act, and should be, the institution fearlessly advocates for inclusion, and supports your community’s organising, leadership and vision for a life without inequality or unfair exclusion.

The Equal Opportunity Tribunal is a court of law and its judge, who also serves as its chairman, is a High Court judge. It determines complaints and, where appropriate, penalises offenders for discrimination, victimisation or offensive conduct in the way of a civil court. Through this judicial function, it is also mandated to promote equal opportunities for people of unequal status.

The last weeks’ widespread public discussion about exclusion and discrimination provides much for us to recognise. The public wants institutions that show they care when it matters. It considers silence in the face of administrative injustice to be complicity, and its disappointment is vicious. We must be very clear where we stand, whether as individuals or an institution, when there is or even appears to be wrong. Public confidence is hard won and easily lost. We must guard ourselves.

The EOC offers much-needed reassurance because of its commitment to the act above all else, particularly when public trust in representatives, leaders and decision-makers feels strained and stretched thin. As a mother and citizen, I’d expect nothing less from such a public institution; a presence that steadies a sense of hope and a voice that continues to be heard.

The EOC’s work and mandate continues, buoyed by a population whose reaction reminds us how much it values fairness, and fearless commitment to human rights. The EOC denounces discrimination, but also calls for protection to LBGT people and on the basis of age and health status, thus broadening our human rights landscape and leading on the basis of the act’s vision.

Meanwhile, as a defender of human rights and with responsibility to a growing generation, I see the current lessons, and what it takes to gain and lose respect and trust from those looking to us from across the nation.

Post 434.

WITH ZI now in the throes of SEA preparation for March 2022, and with us managing all the anxiety which people critique every year, I’ve started thinking about secondary-school choices, what we know about gender and violence in secondary schools, and what would enable her to feel safest and least bullied. 

I’ve also been working on integrating gender-based violence awareness into the health and family life (HFLE) curriculum, and I am deeply aware of how much public advocacy is needed to counter resistance to teaching about gender and sexuality in adolescent lives. Caribbean research can valuably strengthen activist calls for acceptance, support and education that protects adolescents from vulnerability to discrimination, homophobia and sexual violence. 

Just last month, the Silver Lining Foundation (SLFTT) published its 2019 Bullying and Gender-Based Violence in Secondary Schools Report, with support from the European Union Delegation to TT and the Sexual Culture of Justice project. Whether as an activist or parent, there’s much that’s useful in its findings. 

The survey measured the types of bullying to which students are subjected and those they perpetrated, as well as students’ sense of personal safety, self-esteem and empowerment. A total of 2,284 surveys were collected from 42 secondary schools across TT. 

Most of the participating students were in third form and half were from nuclear families. Most identified as Christian, heterosexual and mixed-race (with about 33 per cent of Indian descent and 20 per cent of African descent). Boys and girls were fairly equally represented.

What emerged from this study is that violence perpetration is higher by boys and victimisation is higher among girls. Boys may also be victims and girls perpetrators, but the inequalities we are trying to transform are apparent by adolescence. 

Physical assaults, pushing and hitting were perpetrated and experienced more by boys than girls. Greater percentages of boys than girls reported being touched in private body areas without consent and receiving sexually explicit gestures, although boys also did most of the touching. 

Boys engaged in more teasing and name-calling than girls, based on others’ appearance, race, sexual orientation and religion, and were more often victims of such teasing on the basis of their abilities or inabilities. Boys were more likely to use cell phones and social media for teasing, name-calling and starting rumours, and engaged in ostracism of peers at higher rates than girls.

About two per cent of boys had forced someone to perform sex acts on them or others, and girls were more likely to be forced to perform sexual acts and to experience verbal abuse and insults if they turned down a sexual advance. Girls were slightly more likely to be targets of teasing because of their appearance, and the subject of name-calling and rumours through use of cellphones and social media, and were more often ostracised from social groups. 

Significantly, sexually explicit comments were made at a slightly higher rate online and on phones than in face-to-face contact. 

At least one in five students surveyed reported experiencing physical violence at school and just less than one in three resorted to hitting and pushing others. As well, nearly one in five students teased others because of how they dressed, looked or walked. 

While more than 90 per cent did not perpetrate or experience sexual violence, one in 20 students reported perpetrating sexual violence and one in ten experienced sexual violence. 

These issues are experienced by both girls and boys, though in highly gendered ways. Comprehensive sexuality education would help these students and create peer environments that nurture protection and prevention.

Good news is that homophobia is waning. Students who expressed same-sex desire, bisexuality and queer desire comprised about one-seventh of the surveyed population, but their reporting of these desires means shame and silence are being broken for another generation. 

The majority of students were aware of LBGTQ students at their school and the majority agreed that the LGBTQ people deserved to be treated with respect. Students with positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people were less likely to engage in bullying. 

Ahead of religious leaders, parents and politicians in Cabinet, 64 per cent of students noted the value of sex education for helping them feel prepared for sexual situations and reducing challenges regarding consent. 

As this report shows and as I’ll be writing about again, without comprehensive sexuality education, students rely on peers (46 per cent), media (45 per cent), or pornography (30.7 per cent) to answer questions. 

This kind of data is crucial to understanding how we can and why we should make our children feel safe in schools.i

Post 408.

I’ve delayed this column for a long time, intimidated by the challenge of writing in homage to my long-time friend and ally, Colin Robinson. We don’t always agree, but it’s impossible not to love Colin, his ironic sense of humour and counter-intuitive analyses of jostling over power, his detailed eye for clever strategy, and easy flow of insights and wise words.

More than ten years ago, Colin gave a speech I’ll never forget. It was on reproductive rights, but he somehow wove in Spiritual Baptists, LBGTI folk and others you wouldn’t think share the same cause. If all who understood discrimination or life at the margins of state law and social acceptance were able to connect to each other’s desires for inclusion, then we could strengthen each other’s struggle to equally belong as many different bodies.

In another decade-old memory, I arrived at a UNC rally and was captured by the sight of the CAISO logo flying in the sea of yellow. Colin was there, with CAISO’s “6 in 6” campaign which advocated for six policy and leadership steps on sexual orientation and gender identity in six months after the May 24, 2010, election. It was a bold insertion of a right to citizenship, but a hard day for the young people accompanying Colin who encountered homophobia which he had to mentor them through.

In the decade that has followed, there have been innumerable examples of Colin’s pathbreaking courage and his sensitive mentorship, and his insistence that marginalised people can make “liveable lives” in the Caribbean. He’s kept his eye on key goals, constantly refining language, reach, movement-building, leadership and actions to transform unjust power. There are core values he’s returned to again and again. For me, they are his legacy, the path he’s imagined is our best route. I asked him about them a few months ago.

What follows are excerpts from that conversation, focusing on Colin’s politics of relationship-building and his call for us to be imaginative in the ways we claim and we create ourselves.

In Colin’s words, “If we can build relationships that can be sustained across our differences, we have a basis for sharing the nation. We must show up and earn value among others by being in solidarity. The strategic route to equality and inclusion is not rights claims, which can get you there, but can’t get you there in a sustainable way. When you make a claim, somebody has to lose and that’s the challenge. It’s based on pressure, it’s contingent, it’s not values-driven or sustainable. Rights fulfilment is about focusing on how to sustain the fulfilment of rights and not just the claim. Feminist nationalism, sharinglothe nation, is based on shared values and a different approach to power through listening, seeing yourself in other people’s stories.

“We have to put out values that people find themselves in, practise patience and solidarity and forgiveness that doesn’t enable abuse of power and patriarchy, but cements those relationships. Allies don’t speak for you, they listen to your dreams and concerns. Listening can be transformative. Constant attention to solidarity starts with listening to each other’s dreams of belonging. When you show up in relationships, it is transformative.

“Imagination is as central to liberation as power. If you can’t imagine it, it doesn’t exist. The power of revolution is imagining the world as it doesn’t yet exist. We have to imagine the Caribbean imaginatively. And that’s where we fail, we imagine, but not imaginatively enough. Imagination and innovation are everywhere but not in relation to the most enduring structures of justice in our lives.

“We turn instead to order. Procedural justice and human rights is still a favour, somebody you know, a niceness. It’s not a core vision, there is still a distributive idea that we don’t all get it. We don’t know how to create a system that creates procedural fairness, we cannot imagine systems that enable. Our imaginations are around order, violence and punishment, we value rules above justice. That’s the frustration.

“We have not been able to imagine an economy and structures that are enabling, it’s still outside of the order, in Carnival, at the side of the road. Imagine is the one thing that humans do. The constant turn to authoritarianism is undermining the most valuable resource we have, which is our innovativeness.

“We put things together in a way that they have not been put before. Whether it is in terms of art or technology or society, we innovate. We have an ability to imagine futures that are not the present. It’s also about how to enter the world that way, that political work is about imagination and transformation. Imagine the future you want to create.”

Colin, our gratitude for your dreams and guidance, laughter and words. They enable so many of us to walk a path you’ve imagined, coming closer to achieving relationships of loving freedom with each other, and believing, with optimism and creativity, that it can and will happen.

Post 400.

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has provoked local debate about what constitutes humane state and social policy toward refugees and migrants. It was inhumane to put human beings, including children, to sea in a pirogue. It’s inhumane to deport those who are in the process of resolving refugee claims. It’s inhumane to separate children from parents.

However, the nitty-gritty of a human rights approach across state agencies, the labour market and our communities is much more complex and propels us, a migrant society, to reckon with the contradictory mix of stereotypes, exploitation and sexual violence as well as compassion and opportunity that Venezuelan and other migrants encounter here.

Venezuelans were already migrating to and from Trinidad when First Peoples still called the island Kairi. Indeed, we are a broken fragment from the Venezuelan mainland. We also have a long and embedded history of Spanish-speaking communities.

It’s clear that contemporary capital and elites move across borders with an ease and invisibility that the most poor and vulnerable are inequitably and visibly denied, whether because of their nationality, race, gender, sexuality or disability, or limited formal schooling. Yet, migrants always contribute to economies and societies, particularly when there are legal options for them to integrate, and should never be maligned simply as burden or criminal threat.

There has been and will always be migration, within and across national borders. It is increasing as a result of growing economic inequality and climate change, both of which are linked to political instability. The question is how we choose to understand and manage it. And, we should keep in mind, we may be in the same position one day.

There is Minister Young’s commitment to upholding immigration law combined with the porous reality of our borders, which makes such commitment operate through highly unsystematic policing, often accompanied by an extra-legal male threat, extortion and violence to those entering under the shadows of state oversight.

There is an informal economy that can absorb both documented and undocumented migrants because they can be paid lower wages and their labour can be more greatly exploited, particularly women working in feminised roles as domestics, carers, low-waged employees in supermarkets and factories, and in service jobs in restaurants and bars.

Unclear policy direction has also meant that Venezuelan migrants, especially women and girls, are vulnerable to violence of various kinds, from partners, employers, landlords, immigration officials, and traffickers, and are at risk of deportation if they report any of these crimes. Children of parents without asylum or citizenship status also become stateless, living in countries in which they have no right to education, livelihoods and health. This will certainly become a challenge. Given the numbers of migrant children out of school, it already is.

I’ve been listening a lot. Hearing both heart and help from so many on the ground, and also fear and condemnation, not only of Venezuelans, but migrants overall. As young migration scholar Tivia Collins wrote in her letter to the editor of August 28, “Despite our personal opinions on the circumstances of Venezuelans’ arrival to Trinidad and Tobago, or on the ways we think they live, we have a right to be kind and show empathy to others in need” In their article documenting interviews with Venezuelan migrant women, Collins and Richie Ann Daly recommend that “the Government of Trinidad and Tobago implement a migration policy that guarantees the rights of migrants in vulnerable situations within the country.” They call for “local legislation on asylum seekers and refugees, which would provide a formal system for Venezuelan migrants to legally live and work in Trinidad and Tobago.” Third, they emphasise training for immigration officers and public education to promote empathy.

R4V (Response for Venezuelans), a co-ordination platform for refugees and migrants from Venezuela, additionally calls on Caribbean states to ensure that “returns to Venezuela are not forced.” In its own words, “It is important to note that returning to one’s home country is a human right, and often the most desirable durable solution for many refugees. However…the current conditions in Venezuela remain problematic and not conducive for a dignified and safe return. At this point, returns should continue to be only for those who truly wish to voluntarily return and are not forced…since this would amount to…a serious human right violation”.

Such discrimination and violation are happening here, with tragic impunity. I reflect on this reading the newspapers, reminding myself about justice and kindness, and a nation of migrants yet again struggling to recognise our common humanity.

Post 224.

It isn’t often that Caribbean people who support struggles for equality get good news. On August 10, 2016, the Belize Supreme Court struck down the country’s sodomy law as unconstitutional. This is an historic victory for our region and reflects home-grown leadership and strategizing to secure greater justice through our institutions.

The movement to take a case to the courts was started by UWI Faculty, of whom we should be proud. In 2007, Jamaican legal feminist scholar Tracy Robinson, then at Cave Hill’s Faculty of Law, opened a conversation about litigation as a strategy.

Later discussion with Joel Simpson, then of the Guyanese LBGT organisation SASOD, Douglas Mendes SC, and Godfrey Smith, former Attorney General of Belize, led to the formation of the Lawyers from the UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-Rap). However, U-Rap’s litigation possibilities were first outlined in an UWI LLB research paper by Conway Blake in 2004, and drew on Jamaican lawyer Philip Dayle’s legal assessment of laws criminalising same-sex sex in the Caribbean in 2006.

U-Rap member, Guyanese Arif Bulkan, now at the Law Faculty in St. Augustine, also worked with claimant, Caleb Orozco, a long-time LGBT activist, in this case against Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code. Counsel were Trinidadians Christopher Hamel-Smith and Westmin James, now Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law at Cave Hill.

We need such fearless regionality, which included the community-based strength of Belizean LBGT and HIV Advocacy groups such as UNIBAM (United Belize Advocacy Movement ) and PETAL (Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness for Lesbian and Bisexual women), as well as Caribbean scholars and activists.

Following Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin’s decision, Caleb Orozco is quoted as saying, “This is the first day of my life in which it is legal for me to be me.” I can’t think of a more over-due experience, one which we can imagine enslaved ancestors felt as far back as 1834 when they were first formally recognized as human. We wait to see how this momentous precedent will affect law across the region as the long struggle for full emancipation for all, and recognition of the equal humanity of all, is re-energised with hope.

In another U-Rap case, four transgender women challenged an 1893 law against cross-dressing in Guyana, arguing that it reproduced discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2013, in what LBGT advocates decried as a ‘dubious decision’, the judge ruled that cross-dressing is a criminal offense only if it’s done for an “improper purpose”, which could include prostitution. The law was considered to already allow cross-dressing to express or accentuate one’s sexual orientation. In essence, the law was reinterpreted and upheld instead of being struck down as unconstitutional.

The Belizean case also comes after decades of work by a range of groups, from feminists to scholars to HIV/AIDS activists to public health advocates, to create constitutional reform recommendations, policy positions and OAS resolutions committed to ending discrimination, inequity, stigma, vulnerability and human rights violations on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality.

Indeed, the Belize decision recognized that Section 53 of the Criminal Code, which banned “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” and primarily targeted same-sex sexual activities, denied a right to dignity, privacy, equality and freedom.

Consenting adults of the same sex are now free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy and are due equal protection under the law, meaning simply what everyone else already expects and gets.

Key about the Chief Justice’s ruling was his view that the bill of right’s protection of sex from discrimination includes sexual orientation. This reflects part of a larger, nuanced critique of legislation that polices sexual orientation as fundamentally and unfairly policing how LBGT persons live their own conceptions of sexual rights and human rights as well as manhood and womanhood.

These legal challenges continue, pressing for discriminatory legislation to be taken off the books. Earlier this year, a CCJ ruling made clear that Caribbean homosexuals must be allowed the right of free movement within CARICOM, and that immigration laws banning their entry, for example to Trinidad and Tobago, should be repealed.

Every generation, resistance against unjust laws and policies ignites across the region. That spark burns bright, fed by last week’s decision.

Post 228.

“On behalf of the Government and People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I wish to convey heartfelt condolences to the President of the United States of America and the American People with respect to the unspeakable horrors of the June 12th attack on an Orlando, Florida nightclub, the worst mass shooting in twentieth century US history.

Today, we urge the American people to acknowledge the national and global danger of their pro-gun culture; religiously-legitimized sexism and homophobia; embedded racism and classism against African-descended persons, people of colour and immigrants; and pervasive realities of violence against women. Violence against persons, who do not fit dominant ideals of manhood, womanhood and heterosexuality, profoundly intersects these other issues and experiences. True greatness is showing fearless will to dismantle these points where oppression and fear meet, instead making them meeting points for cross-cutting transformation.

The People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago recognize that members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender communities share the right of all citizens of all nations to live in conditions of safety, respect and equality, and to create spaces for affirmation, empowerment and joy. Members of these communities are part of our nations’ families, civil society organizations, workplaces, religions and schools. We understand that threat to their lives also harms those who know and love them, and whose solidarities are with them.

As the Government and people of the United States of America struggle to come to terms with this terrible tragedy, Trinidad and Tobago is also gripped by shock, sadness and outrage. This strengthens our resolve to collaborate across the region and hemisphere to fulfill the dream of full emancipation born out of the subjugation experienced, refused and resisted by so many of our resilient peoples. The lesson to us is that violence to one constitutes violence to all as it violates the hope of a world of greater justice and peace.

No doubt, members of Trinidad and Tobago’s LBGT community wish to hear even greater government commitment to ending discrimination and criminalization on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, knowing that such laws perpetuate the conditions for many forms of gender based violence, which harm citizens, including children, across all sexualities.

Without commitment behind them, words remain just such. They offer little genuine solace or solidarity on behalf of the nation’s representatives, highlighting above all our own fears of challenging homophobia and surviving in political life.

Acknowledging this vulnerability means being truthful about what it takes for LBGT persons to survive and thrive daily. Therefore, my government takes this moment to conscientiously state its commitment to ending the conditions within which such an American massacre becomes possible. It is not enough to say may it never happen or should never happen in Trinidad and Tobago. True leadership means taking action so that it does not. Prejudice will not keep us from acting, for our watchword of tolerance does not extend to inhumanity and inequity.

Our hearts are also heavy at the loss of so many young, promising lives. We are reminded that protection of children and youth includes those who are lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender, for they face greater vulnerability. As Prime Minister, I assure our own LBGT young people that we honour your need for safe spaces to grow and flourish, whether in schools or other public places.

No nation should ever have to face such tragedy and it is hoped that nothing of this nature will ever befall any nation again. I call on everyone, from religious leaders to teachers, from youth to parliamentarians, to affirm a place for the human rights of all.

Join me in assuring the LGBT community that the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will unite to treat each other as we wish to be treated, to choose compassion instead of conflict, and to tolerate and protect gender and sexual diversity as we do religious and cultural diversity. May we strengthen our resolve to create a nation where each of us is surrounded by love, and safe within our shared home.”

Dr. Gabrielle Hosein for Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley
Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago