The Prime Minister’s appearance before the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Monday was interesting to say the least.
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Gay rights in spotlight at reform forum
The standout issue at the first public meeting of the Constitutional Reform Commission’s new round of consultations was the failure to address rights and legal protection for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. It was an issue raised by several stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, including those within the LGBT community and outside, social activists, churchgoers and ordinary members of the public on Monday night at the University of the West Indies’ Sports and Physical Education Centre, St Augustine.
The meeting, hosted by radio talk show host Errol Fabien, and chaired by Prakash Ramadhar, Minister of Legal Affairs, was not a Q&A session but rather a forum to hear the views of citizens. The floor was opened up to the public who were each allowed five minutes on the microphone in their first chance to tell the commission what they thought of the draft report published on January 30.
In an impassioned address, Colin Robinson, executive director of CAISO (Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation), said he felt pride that the draft document had addressed the issue of sexual orientation, but shame that “such an august body that understood so clearly these issues would then recognise that simply because some people do not understand the issues, citizens like me should continue to be denied the protection afforded to those people.”
Page 12 of the draft report addresses LGBT rights, noting there is “a high level of violence and abuse” directed against gay people and that “proposals were made that persons should not be fired from their jobs or excluded from employment on the basis of their sexual orientation.” The report, however, stops well short of enshrining full constitutional protection to the gay community, despite demonstrating awareness of the seriousness of the discrimination.
It states: “The commission recognised how divisive these issues were in competing schools of thought,” and that as a result “sexual orientation and same-sex unions ought to be made the subject of further national discussion in the context of public policy.” Robinson described his “heartbreak” that the commission understood the issues so clearly and yet was unwilling to do anything about it.
He said young LGBT people in T&T, as well as those who lacked the support of family and friends, would feel an even profounder sense of shame and disappointment when reading the report. Another speaker, referring to a national poll taken in 2013 in which just 15 per cent of the population said they agreed with discrimination against gays, said that suggested there was in fact consensus on the issue.
He reminded the commission that the PNM's draft policy on gender in 2004 stated there would be further public discussion. “Here we are, ten years later, discussing it some more. I just wonder how long we will continue discussing the matter,” he added.
An eloquent contributer from the floor ended by saying: “The idea that we need to wait on consensus before active leadership is taken on this issue is repugnant to justice and supports the notion that rights can be held hostage to the prejudices of other people until those prejudices change. “What the LGBT community in T&T needs is very firm recommendations that do not facilitate the kind of political cowardice exhibited by the T&T Government in avoiding leadership on the issue of LGBT discrimination.”
The LGBT issue
In a December 2012 letter published in the T&T Guardian, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said her Government were giving the issues due consideration. “I do not support discrimination in any form against any individual, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. I share (the) view that the stigmatisation of homosexuality in T&T is a matter which must be addressed on the grounds of human rights and dignity to which every individual is entitled under international law,” she wrote.
Nothing has emerged since that show of support and many within the LGBT community and outside it voiced their dissatisfaction with the Government's inertia.
Further public meetings will be held as part of the national consultation, open to all who wish to attend today at the Chaguanas Regional Corporation; February 17 at Signal Hill Secondary School, Tobago and February 19 at Paria Suites Hotel, La Romaine.
Other issues brought up
A group of deaf and hearing-impaired people had the discussion signed to them by an interpreter. One deaf man stood and signed his response, which was read out by the interpreter. He said there was “nothing in the document about people with disabilities” and that deaf and blind people had waited long enough for equal rights.
First Peoples’ rights
Roger Belix said the document was an “insult” to the First Peoples, who were “excluded in every part of our country, even the rights to land,” and contravened a UN ruling on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Elected President and Speaker of the House
Reginald Vidale, chairman of the Dr Eric Williams Memorial Committee, said the election of the President and the Speaker of the House should take the form of a national election and they should be “elected by the people, not just by a few.”
Right of recall for MPs
Vidale also told the commission that recall must be a constituent-led mechanism not Parliament-led. He was the only member of the public to address recall.