Like Helen Whitener, the St. George’s College girl from St. Augustine who came home as a US state trial judge with her wife (a retired US Army command sergeant major) this week, I too left Trinidad for America in my teens 35 years ago. Unlike her, I was coming back. But facing that prospect, as a young gay man whose partial-training in anthropology didn’t quite match 1980s job opportunities, I didn’t.
I finally got legal, thanks to one of several LGBTI groups that employed me, and was able to start making annual Carnival hajj, after over a decade of exile in Brooklyn’s dewy panyards and chipping amid the half-baked mas, T-shirt bands and gunfire of Eastern Parkway. I could travel, too, to several Caribbean places I hadn’t while living here.
I found a regional gay/lesbian movement firmly focused on the idea of foreigners shaking a big stick at our political leaders to rescue us from their abuse and neglect—this was what we thought human rights meant. Nowhere in our imagination was that we could do exactly what our counterparts in the countries we were looking to had years before—respond to the same conditions we found ourselves in by engaging in domestic political action and organizing. When anti-same-sex marriage referenda passed in state after state, when Matthew Shepard hung pilloried on a Wyoming fencepost, when their Supreme Court upheld sodomy laws as constitutional, Americans didn’t turn to Holland or the new South African state with sexual-orientation protections in its Constitution. They turned to themselves.
When I had the chance another decade later to leverage US government and foundation money to strengthen organisations and create employment for myself and others in T&T, I invested in building a local gay movement around a core sense of nationalism—in firm resistance to prescriptions and hegemonies from folks I’d lived amongst abroad. Europe and North America’s LGBTI movements, with major victories in recognition and inclusion as citizens, now urgently need new territory to conquer, new currency in which to continue to hold politicians accountable. Increasingly, that coin is not what their politicians are doing there, but in places like here.
In a now famous essay in the Commonwealth’s Opinion series, I shared my determination that, however much foreigners might help push or fuel the car, it’s we who ought to be driving it, deciding the strategy and politics of change; and our car and route should look distinctly Trinbagonian—more like a original Crix than some cookie cutter recipe.
I’ve met with considerable resistance—here and abroad. Gay Australian Judge Michael Kirby wrote a rejoinder, and my publishers pulled my essay back to re-edit it more closely.
Naming our group after a national artform, LGBTI Trinbagonians set out over the last few years to reshape consciousness and discourse about indigenous sexual/gender diversity, and talk about building a nation where we and everyone could live safely and prosper. Child of the early 1960s like Whitener (who quoted Eric Williams a bit too much this week), I’ve always understood the project and vision of nation to include me—that it was meant to include everyone. I firmly believed there was progress in wrapping ourselves in its symbols, which would make a difference where threatened boycotts, shaming human rights reviews and bans of our culture didn’t quite appear to be working.
That was how, as I’ve confessed, friends and I came to be in Rienzi Complex on election night five years ago, trusting that sweeping Patrick Manning’s homophobia and hubris out of office would open a path to equality for several groups traditionally left out of planning and governance. The People’s Partnership was “the government” to take action on gay rights, a well-known lawyer spoke our minds, at 2013’s International Day Against Homophobia.
Seeing the former PP Attorney General, a former champion of minority rights (whom my group had repeatedly written, along with the Prime Minister, for a meeting, without a response) join the Speaker of the House, Chief Justice and Police Commissioner to watch with two visiting White American parents a well-worn film about the notorious 1990s hate-crime against their gay son I mentioned earlier, I began to question whether Americans might not in fact have a better shot at influencing policy and decisionmakers here than nationalistic appeals.
So when Helen Whitener e-mailed she was coming home, wanted to understand what that would mean, and how she could be an effective voice for justice, I eagerly chatted with her. Here was someone who’d benefitted from the privilege of exile willing to speak up, who could both be native daughter and mirror the Shepards’ impact.
She faced off in the talkradio echo-chamber with folks who think the nation is owned only by them; told a television audience if the nation was inclined to pride in her, that pride needed to also extend of young people living here we’ve tried to stab to death and who’ve killed themselves; that had she not left at 16, she might easily have been one of them. From our chat, I understood this was not just rhetorical.
Well-placed progressives, who like the IDAHO lawyer and other wonderful, smart people I know support my rights, but haven’t tried or managed to do much to advance them formally, held up their national pride on social media by criticising Whitener’s well-meaning, yet not always perfect, interventions.
But I reverted to my old faith that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” when a 78-year-old, mauve-haired Tunapuna resident stood up at Whitener’s UWI forum in front of heterosexual mediaworkers (most of whom had no understanding of the power of the gesture) and said: I am an Anglican, I will die teaching, and we have to accept our daughters.