Trinidad-born, US-based Judge G Helen Whitener says the rights of LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) people are human rights and they are asking for respect and the right to be themselves without being persecuted.
Judge Whitener, who is openly gay, sits on the Pierce County Superior Court, the highest trial court in the State of Washington and is the youngest woman of colour to serve in such a position. She attributed her success to the discipline she learned growing up in Trinidad until the age of 16. She visited T&T with her wife, Lynn Rainey, a retired US Army command sergeant-major, at the invitation of the US Embassy, to talk about overcoming intolerance.
There are a number of laws on the books in T&T which affect LGBTQI people negatively, and, speaking at an open forum at UWI on Tuesday, Judge Whitener had a message for legislators: "The time to implement justice is always now, so I ask our Prime Minister to break down these laws, so that people like me, Judge G Helen Whitener and my cousin, Russell Rhodes, who because of Aids can no longer speak, so I can speak for him, that Alex Thomas 'Hevan Leigh' did not have to be stabbed and can receive justice, and so that an organisation such as Silver Linings, where a young gay man had to be killed for this organisation to even be created, would no longer need to exist.
"We are individuals, you cannot praise my accomplishments and forget my brothers and sisters. We are deserving of a seat at the table. You cannot be proud of my accomplishments and not be proud of them. We are one. I am a Trinidadian, I am a Tobagonian and we are one people."
Judge Whitener said she was ready to be arrested when she landed in this country, since the Immigration Act stated that it is illegal for homosexuals to enter T&T. She noted even though Government has stated publicly that this and similar laws are not enforced, there is no guarantee that someone will not randomly decide to do so.
The Judge also spoke about coming out to her parents at the age of 19. She said her father accepted her immediately, while her mother had what she called "a typical Trini reaction, 'Oh Lord, what people goin say?' And my response was...we don't have to speak again–and we didn't for two years."
Her mother, Joyce Pierre, explained her reaction in terms of religion, concern about status and ignorance as to what it meant for someone to be LGBTQI. She called on parents to accept their children, and in turn for children to be patient with their parents who are hurting.
Judge Whitener said in response to those who say society will end if homosexuality is accepted, that no-one was asking them to stop being heterosexual, but to treat LGBTQI people as equals and accept their choices. She said it is important for people to see people as human beings and stop trying to judge others.
She also refuted suggestions that she had politically endorsed the Prime Minister, stating that she admired her for overcoming various gender and racial biases to get to her current position.
A member of the media, who said he was straight, said T&T is very tolerant of LGBTQI people but these events signal to him that we are living in the last days. Judge Whitener stated that they were on the same page as while he had a right to his views and she was willing to listen, and all she wanted was the right to express her views as well.
Executive member of Friends For Life, Luke Sinette, spoke of his experiences with his parents, and Judge Whitener said, looking back, she realised she was also intolerant, because she did not try to help her mother adjust to the change.
Board member of the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, (Caiso), Brendon O'Brien asked how the LGBTQI community could push for legislative reform against strong religious opposition, and the Judge said a good strategy would be to include others who are also adversely affected by the laws.
Lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Gabrielle Hosein, stated that there were extended penalties for same-sex experimentation in the Children's Act.
Judge Whitener asked if there is no legislative change now, when would it happen? She said the country seems to be ready for change.
Hevan Leigh, who was attacked and stabbed for being gay, asked if the judge was only here for publicity reasons.
The Judge said she came to put a face to the issue, and to help people realise that they can lose people of her calibre if the laws are not amended, as they are hypocritical and can be applied arbitrarily. In addition, she said she hoped people would see her and realise that LGBTQI people are regular humans like everyone else.
Michael Francis of the Thusian Seventh Day Adventist Church said the current laws were already enough to protect the LGBTQI community, to which Judge Whitener responded by saying that this was not true, and reminded him that the law was a dynamic structure which adjusted to society.
The Judge called on those LGBTQI community members who are in positions of leadership and authority to support their community, although she did not agree with anyone being 'outed' against their will.
Meanwhile, US Embassy PRO, Stephen Weeks, said the Embassy supported the Judge's visit to Trinidad as part of its continued engagement on LGBT issues.
"So what we want to do is really just continue the conversation and broaden it to include more people, so that the LGBT community can engage with the larger community and T&T can find their own way of making progress on LGBT rights," Weeks said.
�2 Paula Lindo is a feminist and LGBTQI activist and writes a blog on the subject.