Motherhood and courage

Candace, a young woman I know, just came out nationally as lesbian.

It’s one of the most powerful things that’s happened in the work I do on sexual diversity, more important than anything I’ve accomplished. Her mother Suzette came out to the nation too—as having HIV.

When I congratulated Suzette, who now directs a global NGO of people living with HIV, she described her daughter as “the reason I do what I do,” saying:

“When I want to just give up, thoughts of her keep me going.”

In a nation where I tell my international colleagues the primary form of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people happens not in the streets (like we see in Jamaica), but in our families, Suzette is a “throat-lumping” profile in motherhood.

Since our historic election of a woman as the nation’s Prime Minister, we’ve heard a lot of political talk about motherhood and grandmotherhood. I don’t belong to any political party, but I and a group of LGBTI leaders walked the clogged road from Couva junction to Rienzi Complex on election night in 2010. It wasn’t for the open bar Jack Warner promised, nor only to celebrate the end of the hubris and homophobia of the Manning regime. I genuinely thought ovarian fortitude in the Office of the Prime Minister was going to be good for the nation.

But having Kamla as Prime Minister hasn’t resulted in courageous leadership on issues that matter to girls and boys, and certainly not the boys, girls and young adults—like Candace—with whom I spend most of my time. Motherhood has been turned into a political device, while doing little to shape political practice or policy.

In 2011, T&T stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the old queen, claiming Commonwealth leadership in ending child marriage globally. But laws that allow 12-year-old girls and boys at 16 to be married off by their parents and priests will be left untouched by the Children Act, even when it’s eventually proclaimed. It’s what the (step)fathers of Keyana Cumberbatch and Jacob Monroe are charged with, not the politics of motherhood, that’s made child abuse a momentary national priority, 14 years after Akiel Chambers failed to.

What I desperately dream mothering leadership can do is create a new world for Candace, and for the nation’s other daughters and sons, who life or God or genetics has destined to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex; the kind of world Suzette is creating for young people who might get HIV.

That leadership takes courage; courage that often only women or mothers have. Courage to stand between the cultural tide of homophobia and the futures of a generation of boys and girls. Courage the Prime Minister flashed briefly at a Maha Sabha Arrival Day function days after election, when she asked her base to open up seats at the table for other victims of discrimination, including sexual orientation. A fellow Rienzi traveller, not much older than Candace, pulled off the road breathless when he heard her words on the radio.

Lesbian and gay people and family members spoke last year at five or more consultations held by a constitutional reform commission, on which no young people served, and I think only one mother. After leaks to the media, its report was published last week, and recognises Trinbagonians suffer discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation. But both in the leaks and in their recommendations, commissioners seem afraid to protect LGBTI citizens’ equality constitutionally— because others might disagree. South African apartheid was at least more straightforward about different tiers of citizenship.

Protecting vulnerable people ought to be the most motherly instinct. Wielding the power to do so in policy, in law, in the Constitution, is what I thought would be the fruits of motherly leadership. Kamla could be remembered for generations for doing the most powerful and motherly thing any Caribbean politician could for our young LGBTI citizens.

Last October, at Kamla’s UWI Cave Hill address about leadership and social change, a Barbadian lesbian around Candace’s age asked for her leadership in protecting her rights. The mother and PM dismissed the request as “politically charged,” rebutting: “We cannot do anything until the people are in agreement.” But the people already are, and the Government knows it. A well-known pollster has shown Trinbagonians may disapprove of homosexuality, but only 15 per cent support discrimination based on sexual orientation. The young Barbadian wrote her own prime minister, a man, and got a much more promising response about human rights.

In 2012, this paper’s headlines revealed an official letter the Prime Minister had written a foreigner promising to enrol Marlene Coudray (a mother who knows what it means to lose a child to violence) to “put an end to all discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.” The letter suggested the Government was more interested in looking good for foreigners than replying to the motley group of LGBTI voters who had made that trek to Rienzi with me. So I swallowed hard, and called up the gay people who get Obama to do things and all the other international folks I know, and urged them to shower the PM with praise if she and Marlene took action. They never did.

Suzette says being a mother makes her brave. But I am losing faith that motherhood produces any political courage.

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