Stirrings of a new LGBT movement

November 23, 2010

Anthony Morris and Judea Beatrice, study abroad students in Trinidad and Tobago, report on two LGBT rights protests and the potential beginnings of a new movement.

WHEN WE got to Trinidad and Tobago, we immediately noticed the ubiquitous culture of homophobia. Hanging out with about 10 students, nobody questions the student who conversationally remarks, "I don't think there can be any such thing as a lesbian." Typically, someone else adds something like, "I wouldn't want any lesbian friends."

Even the self-proclaimed "tolerant" say that, "Gay people are long as they don't bring it to me"--fearful that they will be "recruited" by enterprising gays.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there are anti-sodomy laws on the books, and LGBT people are technically not allowed to enter the country unless they are citizens or residents. Police brutality against LGBT people is acknowledged as fairly commonplace, while violence against them is rarely investigated by the cops.

Young LGBT people we have met are generally secretive about their sexuality, mainly because they fear being kicked out of their homes or disowned by their families. Young people also fear violence if they are "too out." However, Trinidad and Tobago is known to be one of the safest and most accepting countries for LGBT people in the Caribbean.

According to Soleil Osterhoudt, a student at the University of the West Indies (UWI):

I am from Jamaica, one of the most homophobic Caribbean societies, where the norm is to hear educated and uneducated people alike wishing to burn people because they are gay...Where does this come from?

Stories that preachers propagate...from stories that are referenced like about Sodom and Gomorrah, to the fact that even police do not punish people who kill homosexuals...Homophobia equals violence.

In 2009, the government of Trinidad and Tobago put forth a gender policy that excludes protections for sexual orientation, even though the original policy from 2004 had included protections for sexual orientation.

The Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) formed in response to the new exclusionary version of the policy. CAISO has since developed a strong Web presence through its blog and Facebook page. The group has been featured in the media and has created safe spaces for LGBT people to practice their faith and discuss issues.

CAISO--which is made up of LGBT individuals and groups, and straight allies--is involved in various political and cultural projects, including recent meetings with the minister of Gender Affairs, collaboration with the Family Planning Association and work with the United Nations Development Program. CAISO is also highlighting the role LGBT people have played in Trinidad and Tobago culture through writing, music, film and oral history.

FROM OCTOBER 22-29, Pastor Phillip Lee from the U.S.-based His Way Out Ministries visited Trinidad and Tobago. Lee is an "ex-gay" minister who travels the world to "heal" the "sexually broken" LGBT community--and spread a healthy dose of bigotry to everyone else.

His speaking events were advertised as "sexual health seminars" to teach the risks of "practicing a homosexual lifestyle." As was expected, he barely touched on reliable medical information, instead taking a biblical approach to condemning homosexuality.

His group is partially funded by the conservative U.S. group Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family has also sponsored hate-mongering in Uganda, through antigay Ugandan groups pushing for an anti-homosexuality bill which, if passed, could punish LGBT people with life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

In light of Lee's intended visit and "sexual health" seminars, there was a call from a University of the West Indies student and CAISO member for young people to respond to Lee's anti-gay message. A demonstration was planned to send a message of inclusion and respect for LGBT people in Trinidad and Tobago. It was loosely planned as a silent protest, and organizers expected about 20 CAISO members to show up in matching pro-gay shirts and ask non-confrontational questions.

Because CAISO was uncomfortable publicly announcing or distributing fliers for the event, news of it was spread by word of mouth and over Facebook. From the beginning, it was understood that many who wanted to come couldn't because of fear or prohibition by parents.

Other CAISO members and LGBT people came to the event as individuals, but did not publicly associate with the group, instead sitting apart and observing.

At the first LGBT protest in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, 35 people showed up at UWI to ride to San Fernando, where Lee was speaking at a church. We just outnumbered those who came to hear Lee, and were the only large group of young people there. Although we were quiet throughout the sermon, the protest culminated during the Q&A session, when several protesters expressed their disagreement with Pastor Lee.

One of the protesters pointed out that it's safer for females to have sex with females than with males and asked if, using Lee's logic, women should practice a lesbian lifestyle. A gay student declared that he is a living testament to the fact that it's impossible (not to mention unnecessary) to change your sexual orientation. We left feeling successful.

THE SECOND protest against Pastor Lee was at UWI, where he came to preach to the school's InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Roughly the same number of protesters came. Notably, a few protesters traveled from various parts of the country to attend this event after seeing it on Facebook--even without personally knowing anyone in the group.

This time, the audience was a lot larger, about 120 students (aside from us), and the stakes were higher, since this was our university community. However, this time, more of our members lined up to speak during the Q&A session. We were more confrontational and, towards the end, we stood up and formed a line along one wall, linking arms.

What surprised us--and all the activists--was that although Trinidad and Tobago can often feel homophobic, once we took a stand against homophobia we found many supporters. For example, as the Q&A session began at the UWI event, the IVCF organizers wanted to make sure each "side" had "fair time" (perhaps nervous about the line of four people in the "homosexual agenda" T-shirts already waiting by the mic to talk).

They announced they would alternate between "us" and "them." The only problem was, there were no "them." The majority of people who spoke spoke brilliantly against Pastor Lee. Those who were not arguing for LGBT rights seemed confused or ambivalent about the issue. By the end, there were maybe 20 people who clapped for Pastor Lee, and only about eight that stood up for him.

The biggest success of the second demonstration was our ability to redefine the discussion, putting Pastor Lee and the other bigots on the defensive. Our comments opened a broader discussion with the whole audience, giving other participants space to express discomfort with Lee's position. For example, two audience members spoke about the tension they felt between the church's anti-LGBT message and their loyalty to gay friends. Our presence allowed ambivalent and LGBT friendly people to express their true views, instead of the status quo of homophobia.

Pastor Lee was also forced to change his message. While he was giving his sermon, his message was, we should accept the LGBT community into the church--to love them into being straight. After a couple comments from our group, his message became, the church should accept LGBT people, even though we don't condone their behavior.

Pastor Lee also became defensive, speaking less and showing irritation when he spoke, eventually asking, "Have I been judged today?"--implying that he was the victim. One UWI professor responded, "You have been judged, but because you have judged."

WITHIN THE movement, there was an obvious divide between activists who don't want to "rock the boat," and those who wanted to sink it.

For example, the event was initially planned to be non-confrontational, silent and thoroughly non-threatening. There was an emphasis on not drawing attention to ourselves, and not antagonizing or creating tension between "us" and "them." At the actual event, however, the atmosphere of fear and nervous excitement turned to unrestrained frustration and militancy, as speakers made passionate and confrontational comments.

Between two such comments, Pastor Lee tried to argue that the gay community wasn't united because many "homosexuals" are trying to leave the "immorality" of the gay lifestyle behind. But as Pastor Lee spewed this nonsense, one man (not a demonstrator) stood up in the audience, and let Pastor Lee have it. He didn't even need a microphone; his booming voice could be heard throughout the room:"We are united!"

But the pivotal moment of the second event that showed how quickly activists are radicalizing was when one by one, demonstrators stood up from throughout the audience to line up against the wall, linking elbows in solidarity.

The audience watched in amazement as a fifth of the people in the room stood against the wall, stretching from the front to the back of the auditorium and wrapping around the back wall--undeniably saying, "Although we are usually silenced, we are part every community, every congregation, and we are finally raising our voices against homophobia."

As we left the event, demonstrators changed back into their street clothes, obviously nervous to wear the CAISO shirts around campus alone. Other demonstrators had chosen not to wear the CAISO shirts at all; some had chosen to sit separately from us; and the vast majority was afraid to be seen in the media--despite the fact that the UWI campus is decidedly more LGBT-friendly than the rest of Trinidad and Tobago society.

The majority of the audience appeared to be conflicted about LGBT rights, as is the majority of the population in the country. This volatile political moment highlights the need for an LGBT movement.

We might be witnessing the birth of a strong grassroots LGBT movement in Trinidad and Tobago, and this is only the beginning.

Brendon O’Brien contributed to this article.

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