Forging the liberty to love

This Independence Day, the Prime Minister will make a lofty speech about equality, diversity, discrimination, inclusion, nation-building and progress.

Two friends of mine, one from Central, one from South, will likely not notice. But they will probably take a bitter moment on August 31st to think about what it means to be a citizen of Trinidad & Tobago. They won’t do so here, but in the Netherlands, where they have become asylees—and perhaps they’ll do so in the company of a growing number of gay, lesbian and trans Trinbagonians who in the past few years have found that foreign nation more responsive to their pleas for inclusion and human rights than the one of their birth. To mark the day with them, I’ve posted online a guerrilla video (in circulation online a couple years ago) that pokes fun at what LGBT people in our nation hear when our Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) talks about equality and inclusion:

Unlike many other Trinbs who’ve successfully sought asylum in Holland, one of the distinct things that strengthened my friends’ claims was that each took a case to the Equal Opportunity Commission, and each was told: Sorry we can’t help you. Armed with that, they got on a plane and said to Dutch authorities: My country’s human rights institutions won’t acknowledge mine; will you? And the Dutch said yes.

I know both their stories well. Neither makes a claim of horrifying violence or unimaginable mistreatment and discrimination. Neither has launched a grand public campaign to cast shame on the country. Each tells an everyday story of being gay or trans in T&T—one different from those who are Parliamentarians or able to drive with tinted windows to private homes—the story of being harassed over and over at work, with employers failing to address the hostility, such that work becomes unbearable; the story of people deciding to make their lives difficult and threatening, of not being safe on the street or being able to just keep to themselves and be left alone; the story of other people, often in the name of some God, deciding to heap moral judgments on them. Each determined that the enduring experience of harassment, indignity and threats, which no authorities took meaningful measures to stop—and the notion of being second class citizens—were something they were not prepared to just grin and bear. They got tired of there being nothing to do about it—the message the EOC sent them.

One, who is also HIV-positive, told his story at a forum at the Ministry of the People & Social Development organized by the United Nations Development Programme just days before he left. Embarrassed ministry officials expressed heartfelt shame and apologies for how the nation had allowed him to be treated. But nothing ensued more than those words.

In both cases, the decision to become refugees came because the Equal Opportunity Commission failed them.

In 2000, towards the end of its first Parliamentary term—during which it recognised common law unions, implemented domestic violence protections, criminalised marital rape, and enacted other social legislation—the UNC passed a bill that extended the reach of legal protection against discrimination beyond that of most Commonwealth Caribbean constitutions. (Until Jamaica’s addition of a Bill for Rights, 50 years after Independence, these instruments were designed to protect citizens against discriminatory action by the state, not private actors.) The Equal Opportunity Act also made redress more accessible for those alleging discrimination, by allowing claims to be brought before an Equal Opportunity Commission and Tribunal instead of having to pay a lawyer and go to the high court. The Commission now has hours in Port of Spain, San Fernando, Sangre Grande and Scarborough. Boldly, disability was included in the statuses protected in the law, as was origin. But, despite a vigorous debate in the Senate and some in the House, sexual orientation was not merely left out of the bill, but explicitly excluded. The PNM abstained when Independent Senators attempted to reverse that exclusion, and the bill passed with no dissents. (There’s a fascinating sequel I don’t have space for where the PNM claimed the law was unconstitutional—in part because sexual orientation was excluded—local courts agreed, and a colleague who’s blind got the Privy Council to reinstate it.)

The Equal Opportunity Act gives the EOC the legal authority to recommend to government ways in which the Act should be modernised. But no Commission has taken the leadership to say publicly that sexual orientation (or gender identity) should be included in it. Four United Nations treaty reviews have, focusing on age and HIV status as well. So the current Partnership government introduced bills to overhaul the Act, and add age, HIV, but not sexual orientation. Staff at the Commission advised: file cases notwithstanding. And its legal officer told the media age had been recommended for addition after five people filed such cases.

My friends filed theirs. The Commission turned them down. It hasn’t proposed adding sexual orientation to the law. And they are marking our national birthday on their way to becoming Dutch. Maybe the new members appointed to the Commission will have bigger hearts and consciences.

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Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith

PS: On October 14th, 2014, Lynette Seebaran-Suite, chair of the Equal Opportunity Commission, announced in the media that the new Commission appointed in August had, as its first policy step, taken a unanimous decision at its first meeting after appointment to recommend to Government the addition of sexual orientation (along with age and HIV status previously recommended by earlier Commissions) to statuses protected by the Equal Opportunity Act. On February 12, 2015, the EOC had Vimeo remove the parody of its promotional video removed from the Vimeo site for alleged copyright infringement.

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