Post 294.

In a society still recovering from the inhumanity of slavery and indentureship, our most important commitment is to non-violence, in all forms and in all relations. Non-violence isn’t just about not beating. It’s far more than refusing physical brutality or harm.

Non-violence is about seeing the God in another, recognizing them as born into the world with their own specific struggles and their own divine breath and heart, just like you. I suppose it’s been better said as, let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone. Therefore, with the same sense of its righteousness, put down your stone.

Each of us carries secret sins that we know would change how others treated us if only they knew. This includes the most pious, who have the hardest to fall and the most to hide, for the only way to distance yourself from the others whose imperfections, mistakes and faults seem so obvious and true, is to cast them as therefore less deserving than you.

What if we started differently? As all deserving equal rights and justice, as all deserving compassion and care, as all deserving the right to be, and to be safe and loved, in the ways which we want for ourselves.

I thought about this hope, and how it will be held aloft as our highest ideal at Saturday’s Pride Parade, which will be held at Nelson Mandela Park in Port of Spain, from 2pm.

At the march in Barbados, which occurred without any violent response, a generation of young people came with their messages. One, by a trans woman, plainly and powerfully said, “reclaiming my humanity”. She’s right, it’s the same thing that protestors are doing in response to unjust police killings. It’s the same thing that’s sought in leaving an abusive partner. It’s the fundamental achievement for enslaved African people that is commemorated on Emancipation Day.

Another poster said “sexual orientation is not a choice”. This is good to remember next time we judge our brother or sister, or son or daughter, and refuse them familial love, because of who they are. I’ve thought about this many times, that the choice is less theirs than it is ours, to refuse to be the sinner who casts that first brimstone, knowing that such violence is only a sign of our own imperfection. Whatever your House of God, you are loved no more or less than folk who are LBGTQ+.

Such recognition should make you sit in your pew, or pray on your knees or perform aarti with a little more humility.  As one sign put it to those living in Barbados, “There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s a lot wrong with the world you live in”.  What’s wrong is that we think a respectable façade gives us enough legitimacy to deny another’s humanity, and to do so violently if we so choose, simply because they don’t maintain the respectable façade we do.

On Saturday, it would be beautiful to see LBGTQ+ people free to be themselves without the condemnation of others who should not cast the first stone. It would be beautiful to see religious folk and leaders march in solidarity because they see the God, and the divine breath and heart, in those it’s easy to hypocritically judge.

You may think that manhood and womanhood are under threat, but it is your own humanity, the God in you, that is at stake. One final sign said, “love thy neighbor as you wish to be loved”. On Saturday, the Pride Parade will express a collective wish simply to see this divine aspiration together achieved.

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Post 290.

Once, Hindus were not allowed to legally marry under Hindu rites because marriage was only legitimate if it was Christian. Spiritual Baptists were not allowed to practice their religion because it was associated with African community and spiritual customs. Muslims could not commemorate Hosay, for the gathering of masses with sticks and drums so threatened authorities that the Muharram massacre of 1884 occurred.

Vagrancy laws were notoriously used to confine indentured Indian workers to sugar plantations, preventing and punishing escape and rebellion. Once, and perhaps still, you could get harassed and locked up just for being Rasta.

These are all struggles which show how violent and oppressive the law and those who enforce it can be, particularly against the poor and those deemed to not fit in or to be out of place. These are all examples of individuals and communities trying to live as they choose, committing no harm to others and being criminalised anyway. Finally, these are all histories of those among us who successfully sought freedom and protection from injustice.

We would be talking history if this wasn’t the story of individuals and groups still dreaming of an equal place in the region, still dreaming of what you may take for granted; the chance to live without threat, discrimination and harm.

Tomorrow, the Caribbean Court of Justice is considering these very dreams of equal belonging. In McEwen et al v The Attorney General of Guyana, a case is being made to strike down as unconstitutional an 1893 law against cross-dressing for an ‘improper purpose’ in public.

In 2009, seven persons were arrested for being ‘males’ wearing ‘female attire’ in a public place for ‘improper purpose’. These were trans or gender non-conforming persons who, not-unusually, pleaded guilty given the small fine and absence of lawyers. They were fined under this 19th century vagrancy law.

‘Females’ appearing in a public place, for a supposedly ‘improper purpose’, in ‘male attire’ can be similarly convicted, which seems excessive, bizarre and outmoded. What is an “improper purpose”? What is “male attire”? It’s not even clear in the law.

This same legislation criminalises practicising witchcraft. In TT, similar summary offences legislation could get you sentenced to imprisonment for a month for pretending to tell fortunes or imprisonment for three months for bathing in the Maraval River. And, God forbid you are found singing or dancing with rogues and vagabonds, a constable has a right to forcibly carry away all gongs, tambours and chac-chacs.

Such loitering or vagrancy laws have also been used against LBGTI persons who are often arrested without being charged or told of the charges or advised of their rights, who have experienced humiliation and violence during detention, and who are convicted of minor offenses for being on the street or dressing how they choose. In other words, simply for being who they are.

It’s like when police rough up fellas on a block who have committed no crime, but are treated as criminals because of their skin colour, hairstyle or clothes, and who could get hard slap for resisting such profiling. Such advantageousness happens to those whose race, class and gender get them cast as illegitimate, threatening, and subordinate.

Curiously, when four of those convicted in 2009 challenged the constitutionality of the 1893 offence, the Acting Chief Justice in 2013 ruled that cross-dressing in Guyana was perfectly legal, just not for an improper purpose. Yet, in 2016 and 2017, after the CJ’s judgment, various trans women were prevented from attending magistrate’s court dressed in ‘female attire’, as if going to court amounts to an ‘improper purpose’.

At the CCJ, McEwan et al will be arguing that that the law is too vague to be valid or applied without enabling dangerous and arbitrary application by police, that their rights to protection of the law, freedom of expression and non-discrimination have been infringed, and that the law therefore violates constitutional and human rights as positively upheld in Guyana. It also exacts conformity as the price of equality, and reproduces both impunity and social exclusion.

Once, colonial powers decided who we should be and punished us for wanting to decide for ourselves. The CCJ judgment will set a precedent for a region rising up against the savings clauses which keep such colonial laws in place and penalise marginalised communities.

There is now none but ourselves to free each other, whether from poverty, stereotyping or an inhumane justice system. Imagine shaking off colonisers’ boots and walking in the footsteps of those who sought inclusion.

Post 289.

US government inhumanity is being broadcast as globally as World Cup soccer. Yet, few are tuned in.

Maybe you’ve seen the anguished images. The US Department of Homeland Security reports that close to 2000 children were separated from their parents in just the six weeks between April 19 and May 31. More than a hundred children separated under this policy were under four years old.

One Honduran woman reported US agents taking away her breast-feeding baby and handcuffing her when she tried to resist. It would be unimaginable if it wasn’t being broadcast as real. The United Nations has called for an end to the deep violation in current Trump policy toward illegal migrants. Humanitarian organisations have called it “willing cruelty”. The American Civil Liberties Union alleged that border patrol agents were kicking, beating and threatening children with sexual abuse.

The words on the Statue of Liberty say, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Yet, this about-face from a country whose majority population are immigrants, and which is ruled by white supremist power established through a history of illegal, violent and genocidal entry, is the height of hypocrisy.

Only those seeking a better future from difficult lives try to irregularly cross borders. From El Salvador and Honduras, migrants are escaping forced recruitment by gangs, extortion of their small businesses, rape of women, and kidnapping of children for the sex industry plus straight-up poverty.

People with wealth, power and opportunity in their own countries don’t experience such desperation and have the resources to legally negotiate migration. Vast class inequality in migrants’ home countries, at the hands of their own governments, cannot be ignored here.

Inequalities among countries are also key. Countries such as Mexico were impoverished by the North American Free Trade Agreement which created higher levels of unemployment, lowered labor rights and reduced environmental rules. Subsidized US corn flooded Mexico’s market leading to some two million being forced to leave their farms. These and other effects of NAFTA have had a direct effect on Mexican migration to the US.

Finally, the facts are that immigrants produce net benefits to the US economy by slowing an aging workforce, slowing the declining birthrate, contributing disproportionately to innovation, filling workforce gaps, and enabling high-skilled Americans, such as working mothers, to maximize employment.

However, more powerful is a language of immigrant-blame which fed Trump’s campaign, his insane call for a border wall, and his ability to rally supporters around zenophobia or hatred of foreigners, as a distraction to his undermining of labour, environmental, health, gender and equitable tax policies.

Once just an administrative process, the new ratched up response is that any migrant family entering the U.S. without a border inspection will be prosecuted for this minor misdemeanor. Parents get incarcerated and children sent to a detention centre or foster care. Parents are having difficulties reuniting with children, and may be deported alone.

Even credible asylum seekers are at risk in this new policy effort. Families are broken up because children cannot be kept in the jail-like immigration detention centres which house parents, but the decision to jail such people who haven’t violated any laws is a choice, not a mandatory or long-established practice.

The Trump regime is now playing politics about an approach that leaves children deeply traumatised. One legitimate, woman asylum seeker in particular, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was separated from her seven year-old daughter for months. Children have been reported to be at risk of running away, self-harm and suicide, and arrive at over-crowded centres thinking their parents are lost or dead.

Commentator Dan Savage’s tweet got it absolutely right: “Reminder that the people currently justifying tearing children away from their parents spend the last twenty years insisting “every child deserves a mother and a father”.”

One on the one hand, “family values” are touted as the basis for Republican undermining of women’s right to safe and legal termination of pregnancies, and undermining of challenges to homophobic laws regarding marriage, adoption and inheritance.

On the other hand, this is a vastly anti-family practice, enacted by almost no other country in the “free world” experiencing such migration. The world should also remember that, despite being a signatory, the USA has never ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, undermining its global accountability for violation of children’s rights.

Even illegally migrating children should not be treated this way. In between football games, join a world closely watching Trump’s border policy foul play.

 

 

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

If I was Prime Minister, I would fearlessly challenge sexism and homophobia.

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Ending both would improve life for everyone, regardless of your sex or sexuality. This is because sexism and homophobia ultimately harm both women and men, both gay folks and straight. These are not minority or special interest issues, these are issues of human rights and equality for all. And, either you are for equality for all or you are not for equality at all.

In the Caribbean, where our historical struggle has precisely been about emancipation, a politics committed to this for all should be the first basis for constituency, community and nation building.

Get my full pitch on youtube. Just type my name and PM, yes, for Prime Minister. If you think you are not hurt by sexism and homophobia or even if you just don’t want to be treated unequally, you might be interested in Caribbean advocacy that bring statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes and performance poetry.

The slide background was the logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk have also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’. They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI ‘Slutwalk’ action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They are involved in creating safe spaces on the UWI campus for LGBT students, finally. These students are also active in the Institute for Gender and Development Studies-led ‘Break the Silence’ campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. Rock on, UWI youth!

Viewers will also see my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my male and female students have done popular actions on women’s rights, in a course first taught in 1982. Students this year were open-minded, thoughtful and courageous about engaging in such movement-building. Those faces are a Caribbean feminist generation nurtured in our own university.

For those in the field of Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. Regardless, I hope the message is clear.

For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, which has buried the National Gender Policy and passed a discriminatory Children’s Act (2012), it’s a must-see. For the PNM, which remains a deeply homophobic party, clueless to the implications for even heterosexual boys and men, it’s also necessary.

If you have homophobic religious beliefs, or you care about children, the economy and creating safe communities, watch it with an eye to the leadership that I think we need beyond 2015.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. All the talks are on youtube. There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. Google them, sit back and tune in.

(This post was originally posted earlier in the year, but revised for later publication in the Trinidad Guardian on February 13, 2014).

(See also Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Why can’t he just be like everyone else?’ It is important that Africa, India, the Caribbean, Latin America and so on lead this struggle, as we have been doing.)