Thursday, 20 August 2009

Trinidad: CAISO – seeking equal rights for gays, lesbians

Source: Trinidad + Tobago's Newsday


For those who know the anguish, shame and self-loathing that goes with caging your identity in the closet, the organisation Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) has emerged with the hopes of educating policymakers and pushing for policy reform. CAISO is of the view that the goal of Vision 2020 is obsolete if the Government continues to turn a blind eye to issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.

CAISO which was formed a month ago, is one of the many incarnations of organisations representing members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community in the country. Existing members of Friends for Life, 4 Change, Velvet Underground, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) and the Trinidad and Tobago Anti-Violence Project made a collective decision to come together and lobby for the GLBT community to be included in the National Gender Policy.

The group was formed as a reaction to the unsettling statements made by the Minister of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs, Marlene McDonald, expressing her ambivalence to GLBT people of Trinidad and Tobago. Speaking at a post-Cabinet press conference about the draft document for the National Gender Policy and Action Plan, Minister McDonald declared: “We are not dealing with any issues related to...same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation.”

CAISO was appalled by the archaic approach to dealing with the issues of sexual orientation and are actively campaigning for acceptance and equality. David DK Soomarie told Sunday Newsday: “The Minister’s statement was sadly, sadly 1919. Saying that you are not dealing with your own citizens is the kind of power-drunk thinking that we expect from unaccountable governments in places like Iran and Zimbabwe, not here in Trinidad and Tobago. Our vision is to build Trinidad and Tobago into a developed nation in its treatment of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Local poet Jaase wondered: “When will the government show its commitment to the citizenship and human rights of the GLBT people, who are the fabric of our nation, if they won’t do so in the National Gender Policy.” While Pride Month marks the 15th anniversary since the first GLBT event, CAISO representatives explained that their community has been around and active a lot longer than that. Kerwyn Jordan said that many other groups, although somewhat inactive now, have been in existence for years. The Gay Enhancement Association of Trinidad and Tobago (GETT) and Artists Against Aids, for example, have been trying to build activism and advocacy around issues that oppress and discriminate against persons with alternative sexual orientations.

These groups have been collaborating closely with the University of the West Indies, the Rape Crisis Society, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Family Planning Association and international research, advocacy and human rights groups. According to Soomarie: “CAISO recognises that if we are going to be successful in getting our message out there, then we have to work with other lobby groups so we can create supportive partnerships that are mutually beneficial.”

He added that the CAISO is bringing the GLBT community together to foster a safe and nurturing environment that offers sound advice: “Many of the groups have been trying to do in their own way, to try to create spaces for the community to interact together. Because it is important that we are connected. Particularly for people who are now coming out, they don’t feel like they have any support.”

CAISO aims to establish a more organic relationship among members of the GLBT community because they recognise the isolation, limitations and possible dangers of operating exclusively in cyberspace. “Because we are underground, there have been many instances where people in our community engage in risky behaviour including dating online and meeting potential mates and then are taken advantage of.”

Many gay men been subjected to taunting, beatings, rape and even blackmail, CAISO members noted, and most of these crimes remain unreported because of the apathetic attitude of police officers. According to the group many uninformed officers ridicule the victims instead of seeking out the perpetrators. Collin Robinson described how one homosexual male was violated and threatened and left for dead: “An intelligent, middle-class gay guy from a good family background who is working in the human services. He met someone online and after chatting on the internet for a while and talking on the phone for a while, they decided to meet in person. When they are all alone and getting intimate, the guy locks his neck and ties him up. Two other men arrive and beat and then gang rape him. They then took his ATM card and tried to withdraw money, but they realised he gave them the wrong PIN number. So they came back and beat him again. They took a picture of him and threatened to expose him, if he went to the authorities. After the ordeal, they dropped him off somewhere. He never bothered to go to the police or even meet with us and accept any help or medical attention.”

CAISO aims to dispel homophobic beliefs, but said that the laws and those who enforce them need to protect the GLBT community from sexual and gender-based violence. Soomarie stated: “We cannot continue to operate in a society that allows that kind of injustice to happen to anyone, especially to the most vulnerable person. We have figured out it is wrong to do it against disabled persons. Its wrong to do it to elderly people. Why is it right to do it homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender persons? Why are we any different? At the end of the day we are human beings and we are entitled to our rights as well.”

Jordan explained that CAISO represents all those silent voices within the community who want to let the public know that they are here and eventually have equal status. He said in most cases the finger of blame is pointed to the victim, a gay man, for supposedly forcing himself on the accused and, therefore, asking for trouble.

CAISO holds regular monthly meetings, discussion forums as well as social mixers and fund-raising events. At Alice Yard in Woodbrook recently, CAISO organised a calypso event which celebrated the artform and the imaginative ways artistes have treated homosexuality.

The group wants to meet with Minister McDonald to discuss the concerns of the GLBT community. Robinson said that this is a good opportunity to open up the floor for discussion: “This is an invitation to the Minister to come to the table and sit down and talk about what needs to happen. We were intentionally written out of the Equal Opportunities Act. So if you are not putting us in the Gender Policy, then where are you putting us?”


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