Fielding a question about our laws (we have four now, only one colonial) criminalising gay and anal sex at a Manhattan event to encourage American business investment here, my PM answered: I can’t do anything about the laws as a politician. The people have to decide; and they can’t do that, because a referendum isn’t legally possible. Then she seemed to say the church had to decide: Every time the Government proposes to, the Catholic church prevents us.
This from a woman who’d just told the nation she was willing to commit political suicide to pass constitutional reform measures that polarised the country like little else has in memory. Who has no problem moving forward the disputed Debe-Mon Desir highway, Wayne Kublalsingh could starve to death.
The answer was a political disaster.
First, she’d missed the point that homophobia isn’t just a religious issue; but a business one too. So she told prospective investors, who include companies who’ve made commitments to shareholders and employees to ensure equality for gay and lesbian people: Oh, we’re very, very homophobic here—so homophobic I can’t even change the law.
Then she hid under the Archbishop’s skirt, singling out for blame the Catholic church—the one denomination that has deliberately softened its position on homosexuality in recent years, both worldwide and locally.
Further, she used a global stage to say our Government here practises human rights by popularity contest. If a minority group is unpopular, they just don’t get to enjoy the protection of the state or the law. She implicated the PNM in this as well. While the Archbishop swiftly labelled “reckless” her characterisation of his church as “leading a campaign for the continuation of discrimination against members of the GLBT community”, Dr. Rowley and Mr. Al Rawi seem fine with theirs.
His Grace returned to the airwaves and removed any doubt the Catholic church “will put up no objections to the decriminalisation of homosexuality…and I will say it again, and any time I am asked I will say it, and we will all say it.” He even said civil same-sex marriage “is a government issue”. The IRO head also spoke out in support of gays.
Far from putting on any back burner T&T’s continued criminalisation of people—young, old, men, women, based on who they love—the PM’s answer ensures the issue will not go away, but haunt her into next year’s election and every time she travels. Inaction and dithering on this admittedly challenging question simply won’t work any more.
But what’s happened? Isn’t political homophobia a surefire rabble-rouser? All over Africa, unaccountable rulers use it with great success to distract from their abuses. Why did it backfire here? For the PNM in the 2010 election. And last week for Kamla.
Even I am somewhat surprised at the outpouring of support, given developments in Belize, Haiti and Jamaica, where evangelical leaders with US funding and messaging have mobilised thousands of Christians and Muslims into the streets praying against the gays, crucifying them in effigy, and attacking a few.
How did the Prime Minister, surrounded by gay people—in her family, office, even her Cabinet—so badly misjudge this?
Even in her 52 months in office, the centre on this issue has shifted measurably. It’s much less a matter of morality or piety for T&T citizens; and more one of justice. But it’s not too hard to figure out if you ask the right questions or people. The PM had wrong answers because she’s done neither.
Polls (something politicians do all the time) by the gay community here, asking nuanced questions, reveal a majority of people aren’t clamouring to remove the unenforced laws—but a mere 15% still think discrimination based on sexual orientation is acceptable. Those data have been in the public domain for a year and a half.
I’d also argue she hasn’t listened. Or respected local gay voices enough to listen. Her public responses on the issue are all to folks in the UK, US, Barbados—not the gay people interested in building the nation she’s leading.
If she had, she’d discover we agree quite a lot. After stumbling to answer in New York, she did end up in the right place, sort of: LGBTI people “should not be discriminated against by reason of their preferences, their sexual orientation”.
Include sexual orientation in the Equal Opportunity Act’s protections: since before she assumed office, this is what leading local gay voices have been saying is the #1 thing the Government should do.
I know where her heart is, Verna would say; and she has occasionally flashed real heart on gay inclusion. For some reason—on this particular issue—her liver won’t follow.
But it can. It doesn’t require much courage, and can appear like a whole lot of leadership. She’s always been politically lucky. She can make this issue go away. Easily. By taking action. Action that would have little political liability—if any at all. In 2000, the UNC deliberately left sexual orientation out of its Equal Opportunity Act. She can put it back in.
No one will march, she’ll be praised right and left. It’s politically smart. And a very, very real way to protect people, including young people, providing legal punishment for discrimination and expanded access to bringing complaints for victims. It’s far more effective (and less controversial) than repealing unused laws. And it doesn’t require that to happen first.
The new Equal Opportunity Commission can help, by urging her to do this. It’s in their statutory remit. John La Guerre was never bold enough to do so publicly. He even deferred to the Government when offered money to study the issue. Maybe the fact there are now women and mothers at the EOC’s helm will help.
People shouldn’t suffer discrimination—but my views aren’t enough, my PM said. Who could disagree? Let’s make it law!
Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith