T&T is the land of the nine days’ wonder—“media cycle,” modern political strategists call it. Yet, a full month later, reverberations continue from what I spontaneously termed the “baselessness” of social development minister-of-state Vernella Alleyne-Toppin’s bacchanalistically rapeshaming comments about the Opposition Leader and family.
The TOP MP’s verbal-visual display in the Parliamentary no-confidence motion debate elicited deskthumping applause from her People’s Partnership colleagues, an expression of pride by Government Whip Roodal Moonilal, eventual clarification the thrust of her contribution was pre-approved by Cabinet, and empathy from Minister of the People Christine Newallo-Hosein. At a symposium on making T&T safer for women Hosein, describing herself as “a victim of almost rape,” saluted her “junior minister” for “breaking a glass ceiling,” having “a deep, deep passion for women,” and being “real” in ways few people can claim.
No-one should have been surprised by the Member for Tobago-East’s (un)Parliamentary remarks about fellow Tobagonians. A year ago March Mrs. Toppin garrulously shared colourful details of her own and her family’s sexual life, including her ex-husband’s out-of-wedlock child, at a Government HIV awareness activity, where she told mediamembers, “I hope allyuh not putting me on TV, I doesn’t talk thing for TV.” Like her recent forensic psychology findings about Keith Rowley’s temperament, her 2014 conclusions concerned behavioural impacts of sexual immorality—on her and other women victims of “taban-ca…taban-truck…taban-train” because their husband is “everywhere else in the night.”
“We suffer real psychological damage that we pass to our children,” she shared. She also took steps to indigenise her remarks to Tobago. But, unlike her now infamous election-year peroration, her 2014 soliloquy admonished that women “have a responsibility not to undermine and erase and embarrass” each other.
Questions Toppin, in her cloak of parliamentary privilege, and Moonilal in his praise, claimed Rowley “had to answer” seem quite clearly answered now: The Opposition Leader as an unmarried teenaged minor (age of majority was 21 until 1976) conceived a son with a younger teenaged minor who was then over the current age of sexual consent. Of interest, a 2012 law Vernella voted for twice explicitly decriminalises sex between such a couple—most boys/girls 16 to 21 with a girl/boy “less than three years” apart in age. The same law could put me, or a Parliamentary colleague of the Tobago member, in jail for life if we were Rowley’s youthful age back then, and our partner under 18 and of the same sex. Something I am sure I did at that age. That provision is what I have been saying loudly both political benches of Parliament have to answer for (not the Independent Senators—they spoke out and all withheld their votes).
As she did when Keith Rowley (ironically at the same time she was decriminalising the conduct she says he has to answer for) exposed her $68,048.16 in cash withdrawals and other misuses of a government-issued credit card, like PNM planning minister and 2015 Arouca-Maloney candidate Camille Robinson-Regis did in 2007 in larger amounts, the former Tobago Affairs minister has again “unreservedly apologized.” Twice.
First, “unreservedly to everyone who felt uncomfortable or outraged” by parts of her statement, by accusing the media of libel, saying she had not called names, and declaring she would “stand my ground and will insist” Rowley not leave questions unanswered about his “emotional intelligence.”
The second time “sincerely and unreservedly…for the mischaracterization that may have been deduced” from her Parliamentary statements, which she deemed “relevant” to the no-confidence motion, but which “were exploited as an attack on persons who may have been victims” of the “indelicate but pertinent” issues of “domestic violence and other such offences.”
She hasn’t apologized yet for rapeshaming another politician, his parents and childmother.
Another politician told a rapetale recently. Barack Obama. During his Jamaica visit, he opened a packed youth townhall singling out a participant, Angeline Jackson, who was kidnapped and raped—as a way to shame her as a lesbian—at the same age Keith Rowley was in Vernella’s story.
“But instead of remaining silent, she chose to speak out and started her own organisation to advocate for women like her, and get them treatment and get them justice, and push back against stereotypes, and give them some sense of their own power. …she cares about her Jamaica, and making it a place where everybody, no matter their colour, or their class, or their sexual orientation, can live in equality and opportunity,” Obama told a noticeably fidgeting crowd he moments before sent screaming with the salutation, “Greetings massiv. Wha g’waan?” Obama’s rapetelling broke a silence the antigay Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society hoped would surrounded sexual rights during his visit; and in a powerful stroke shifted the LGBTI Caribbean narrative from hopelessness and asylum-seeking to resilience, community- and nation-building.
Most of us in the chattering classes responded to the lady from Government House Rd’s rapetelling with performances of moral outrage, including the claim “Vernella is our ugly.” I think her fable’s greater danger is its signification, like Obama’s, of a shift in narrative. My word “baselessness” didn’t mean the lack of evidentiary merit in Vernella’s commesse and assignation. I meant the political strategy they embody shatters the floor to the depth to which we can reach in 2015’s political propaganda campaign.
Each time I log into Facebook now I enter a world like Winston Smith’s 1984 where political trolls try to undermine commonsense and shout down logic. Government’s unrepentant rapetale is one more tool in this. Erasing it from Hansard would only instantiate the madness. Historians ought to be able to find artefacts of the insanity of this hour.