End 18-year debate on sexual orientation

A member of the COP National Executive observed that we’ve been debating sexual orientation and the Equal Opportunity Act (EOA) since last century—it emerged from a 1996-7 Parliamentary Joint Select Committee.

This week, the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) weighed in, proposing an end to debating—promise it might actually behave like an independent human rights institution. One television newscast called it “An Historic Day”.

A review of two decades of debate yields interesting surprises.

The “controversial” recommendation on homosexuality in Joan Yuille-Williams’s 2004 Gender Policy was never about action, but mere talk: “In keeping with its international legal obligations the state should facilitate public debate on the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms of all persons, irrespective of sexual preference or orientation”.

Debate is very popular. Government’s February 2011 death benefit proposal for statutory authority workers proudly included outside children and partners-in-sin as beneficiaries. But Sens. James Armstrong, Terrence Deyalsingh, Helen Drayton and Corinne Baptiste-McKnight criticised it for limiting the sinners to those of the opposite sex. “The debate must start” on homosexual relationships, Mary King declared, “we must ensure that that debate is taken throughout our country”. But even she anticipated debate ending in Cabinet decisions.

Expecting criticism of our record on homosexuality at our first UN human rights peer review eight months later, Ambassador Dennis Francis glamourised the death benefit debate: “the process of national dialogue has begun”. At the review’s March 2012 conclusion, we were still stuck on debate. Sidestepping recommendations we change our laws to decriminalise consenting sex and protect sexual orientation from discrimination, the Attorney General’s Office wrote:

“The Government seeks to recognise the human rights of all citizens, which includes the LGBT community. The development of law is a dynamic process which adapts to the development of any given society. The issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation is one which remains a matter of concern in the forefront of the minds of the GOTT. Trinidad and Tobago is seen as a leader in the region in relation to the manner in which it addresses the changing needs of its population. While this issue may be the subject of much public debate it is not one which will be ignored. The law must evolve and grow to suit the needs of a continually developing society. In that regard, in recent debates…in Parliament, the GOTT recognised the need for a definitive debate on the protection of same sex couples”.

So, unsurprisingly, last December Government’s Constitution Reform Commission returned to the same formula, moving no further than the PNM a decade earlier: “sexual orientation and same-sex unions ought to be made the subject of further national discussion”.

But politicians are already on the record with clear conclusions on these matters. Here’s former House Speaker Barry Sinanan, then San Fernando West MP, debating the EOA in May 2000: “You know, Mr. Speaker, that in any society you have people who are different from others, so we have homosexuals and we have lesbians and this is a fact that we must recognize in any progressive country. I recall last week—I think it was some hon. Member opposite—speaking about 21st Century legislation; well, in the 21st Century I would think homosexuals and lesbians are asking not to be discriminated against. Here it is we are saying that we want to be a First World nation…”

And the current House Leader of Government Business, and heir-apparent of prime ministerial term limits, promising in April 2007 “When we talk about discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and other disabilities, that may require specific legislative actions, which we must reach and confront. On behalf of the UNC, I can assure this Parliament and the nation that a future UNC government will build on the equality of opportunity legislation, since we do have paternity to this legislation.”

Not to be outdone, Fuad Khan followed: “amend it and put in ‘status’…‘sexual orientation’. When we had the initial drafting of the legislation and the select committee…I will be honest with you because it is in the record, I was the one who said not yet. Why? Because we were not ready for it then. … Since then to now I have had, I do not want to say a change of heart. When you look at it, the world is going in a certain direction…. One has to take into consideration that when we legislate in a Parliament, we do not legislate for ourselves; we legislate for the people outside. You see, Mr. Speaker, once we are here doing the work and the job of the people we are supposed to take into consideration all the people, and we cannot distinguish somebody who is gay or otherwise. They do not look any different; they may act a little different but they do not look any different, and at the end of the day we should not discriminate based on sexual orientation.”

A month earlier COP founder Winston Dookeran had offered “some amendments which include no discrimination based on positive HIV status, political affiliation, sexual orientation and the rehabilitated convicts. There are others. We shall not introduce in this Bill discriminatory measures on any of these grounds…”

If we can term-limit prime ministers, we can end this 18-year debate. Ministers Dookeran, Khan and Moonilal, seven years ahead of the EOC itself, can take the lead.

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

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