Thursday, 5 November 2009

Trinidad: ’Civil rights for gays, lesbians 'in the mail'

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Source: Trinidad + Tobago Guardian

By Christopher K Starr

An unexpected document appeared in my mailbox the other day. It was from my old French professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, an outstanding teacher. Given his dress, manner and bachelorhood, we were fairly sure he played for the pink team, but in those days that sort of thing was seldom discussed. He isn’t a bachelor any more. The document was a nicely engraved announcement that he had just married his boyfriend. Well, I thought, this has some juicy shock value, so I showed the announcement to several UWI colleagues. Their response surprised me. “Yeah, so the guy’s got married. Congratulations. What of it?” That sort of attitude, right here in the English-speaking Caribbean. A few days later I was having lunch in a little eatery off the Eastern Main Road when Ellen DeGeneres’ show came on the television. The manager indicated Ellen to me and remarked, “She married a lady.” “That shows good taste,” I quipped. “I’ve married a few ladies, myself.”

I fully expected the manager to retort sharply, “But that’s natural, you and a woman. Two women marrying each other is just plain disgraceful!” But she just looked thoughtful, as if I had made a cogent point or at least that it was no big deal. In the decades since I did French at Carleton, the gay liberation movement has appeared and become generally accepted in much of the world. This trend is not equally well developed in all countries, but it is worldwide, and it will not be reversed. T&T society has its own special features, to be sure, but we do not stand apart from global trends, including this one. On the face of it, our laws would seem to be those of a very homophobic society. The Sexual Offences Act provides for long prison terms for same-sex intimacy among consenting adults. And the Immigration Act lists homosexuals among the “prohibited classes,” on the same line with prostitutes and pimps (, see page 12).

However, as anyone who has lived here for a few days can attest, there is a big difference between legal theory and practice. There is next to no enforcement of that part of the Sexual Offences Act, and I am not aware that anyone has been denied entry for being gay or lesbian. This latter point came forcefully to public attention at the time of Elton John’s visit to Tobago in 2007. Sir Elton makes no secret of his sexual orientation, and the Immigration Act as I read it states that he must be excluded. (Some people tell me the law gives the Government considerable leeway, but that must be in the fine print.) Archdeacon Philip Isaac of the Church of England cracked wise that Sir Elton must be barred because of the risk that he would tempt local people into homosexuality, and he certainly had the law on his side. The law was studiously ignored, though, and the concert went ahead. Whether there followed a spike in homosexuality in Tobago is, alas, not yet on public record. The reason these laws are not enforced is not obscure.

They are badly out of touch with present societal norms. Aside from a few grandstanding churchmen, nobody much cares which way Sir Elton swings, or fears that he will corrupt the youth. And most of us know gays and lesbians who do not hide who they are. (Note: The Sexual Offences Act does not make it illegal to be gay, just to do gay; same difference.) Why, then, do these laws, a lingering embarrassment to today’s society, remain? What would it take for the government to recognise that they are unjust and not respected, and simply repeal them? An uncharitable—and entirely plausible—answer is that it would take some parliamentary backbone. After all, not everyone in T&T is favourably disposed to full civil rights for gays and lesbians, and there are few votes to be lost by leaving the laws on the books. Even so, one should not make too much of the homophobic tendency among us. As we all know, there are countries in which it is truly hazardous to be gay.

Ours is not one of them. Homophobia is rather like racism in T&T. Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians have a persistent dislike for each other—as an outsider to both communities, I am seen as neutral, so that both groups let their bigotry show in my presence—but this does not translate into hate crimes, and the notion of a race riot is utterly un-Trinidadian. Similarly, one hears some very mean talk about “fudge-packers” and such, but physical gay-bashing is almost unknown here. This is not to suggest that non-violent homophobia is something benign that we can just laugh off. It explains some unfortunate things that would seem at first glance to have no particular connection. Many men, for example, feel obliged to play it tough so as not to be regarded as gay. And I suspect that the dreadful problem of violence against women has roots in the same thing. What better way to show that you are a real man and not gay than to beat your wife? Extending the definition of marriage to embrace same-sex couples is not the whole of gay liberation.

It is not even, in my view, a key element, really just a matter of tying up a loose end. However, it is today the signature issue in the broad area of sexual politics. And that is why the bland response to my old professor’s and Ellen DeGeneres’ marriages tells us something important about our society. Civil rights for gays and lesbians will come to these islands. They are in the mail. They won’t be here this year, possibly not for many more years. And when the law finally catches up with the broader society and you read in the paper that it is illegal to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation and that same-sex couples have the same rights to marriage as the rest of us, I know exactly what a great many of you will say. “It took such a long time, but now I really wonder what all the fuss was about.”

Christopher K Starr, now Senior Lecturer in Entomology at UWI, is a lifelong activist against war and imperialism and for civil rights.

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