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UNDER ATTACK

Published: 
Sunday, January 7, 2018
LGBTQI community in T&T
Flashback: Akil Thomas at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital in 2014 recovering from injuries sustained during a stabbing attack. Photo by:Rhondor Dowlat

On his birthday in 2014, Akil Thomas was stabbed 13 times by a man he met on Facebook and left for dead.

Thomas, who openly belonged to this country's lesbian, gay, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community, was lured to the attack by a man who befriended him online a year earlier.

They got to know each other online but had never actually met in person.

Then on Thomas' 26th birthday the man invited him to a night time beach lime.

Around 8.30 pm, while they were chatting on the shore, the duo were ambushed by a group of men.

Thomas ran into the water and began to swim in an attempt to escape the attack.

He remembered the man, who he considered a friend, that he left on the shore and looked back for him.

Then he realised the men and the attackers were all accomplices.

Realising he was set-up, Thomas began to panic.

The men chased and caught him, and then beat, robbed and stabbed him.

The man who he thought was his friend participated in the attack.

The reason for the attack was Thomas' sexuality.

Thomas was stabbed six times to the back, two to the chest, two in the arms, two in the neck and one on the right side of his head, close to the temple.

One of the stabs punctured his lungs.

Thomas played dead and the men left.

He managed to make his way to a major roadway and was assisted to a nearby hospital by a passer-by.

Thomas survived the attack and reported the matter to the police.

The perpetrators were arrested and taken before the court.

However, when the main suspect was granted bail he would further terrorise Thomas by standing opposite his workplace and just stare at him without saying a word.

Thomas feared for his life.

He fled the country and sought asylum elsewhere.

Seeking asylum in another country is an option that several members of this country's LGBTQI community have sought because the fear of attack is a reality that many of them face.

Victims of homophobic violence on a daily basis

According to recent research conducted by the Friends For Life (FFL) group, 100 per cent of respondents to a survey stated that they or people close to them were victims of homophobic violence on at least one occasion.

That homophobic violence included being raped, robbed, verbally abused or physically attacked, FFL stated.

For the last 20 years, FFL has offered friendship, support and counselling to LGBTQI people in this country.

The Sunday Guardian visited the group's office in Belmont on Friday to discuss the issues affecting the LGBTQI community here.

Inside the building was the LGBTQI pride flag.

There we met Luke Sinnette, Eswick Padmore and Kerwyn Jordan.

Last year, FFL embarked on a project to compile data on the issues which affect the daily lives on the LGBTQI population in T&T.

"The objectives of the study were to understand the daily experiences of the LGBTQI community in Trinidad and Tobago," Sinnette said.

Sinnette, a social worker, said all the information that was accessible before was from the "global north" and therefore not specific to the region or the country.

"To give a reasonable example, the theories on coming out in most global north cases, the theory is a personal progression of coming out, where you have to feel a certain way and you want to tell somebody and then you live your life out and you feel comfortable," he said.

"In very many cases in the Caribbean if you move along this progression you will find that you will end up in trouble. You may not want to come out, you may not want to tell this person even if you feel like you really want to. So the counselling that I do is how to not tell certain people."

Targets for attack

So between May to September last year, FFL conducted a community-based participatory research project.

Sinnette said the participatory nature was important as previous research on LGBTQI issues in the Caribbean was done by non-LGBTQI researchers and the data was framed like outsiders looking in through a window on the lives of others.

Sinnette said the study was aimed at determining the extent to which the country's LGBTQI community has been able to access and enjoy the protections and provisions of human rights as enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sinnette said he hopes the research will shed a light to the plight of the LGBTQI community

"In doing so, it was hoped that the research would fuel an understanding of the issues affecting the daily lives of LGBTQI in Trinidad and Tobago and the need to re-examine existing policies which act as structural barriers to LGBTQI accessing human rights protections and provisions," he said.

Sinnette said the violence the LGBTQI faces happens on a daily basis.

"A simple thing like walking down the street, you have to be aware of the surroundings so that if you see someone who you think may be homophobic you may want to cross the street, or do you cross the street and then bring attention to yourself?"

Sinnette said when he was younger there was a man who used to work near to his family's home and would sing "fire bun batty man songs" whenever he was passing.

Batty man is a derogatory term for homosexual men and "fire bun" signifies them being sent to hell for their actions.

"I always felt intimidated and afraid, not just the fact that he was doing that but I was also being outed to a whole bunch of people who you may not want to be outed to," he said.

Sinnette said non gender conforming and transgender people were more targeted for attacks.

Slapped and verbally abused by family members

According to the FFL research, the majority of respondents stated that their family were the ones who perpetrated the attacks against them.

"I didn't think it would be that high but in some cases people said their parents felt they could beat it out of them," he said.

Sinnette said the trauma associated with homophobia has had long term effects.

One of the most recent cases of a LGBTQI person seeking asylum is because they were living in fear that their father would kill them because of their orientation.

"The abuse included being hit and slapped or verbal abuse by relatives such as name-calling both at home and in public spaces such as work and school," the FFL data stated.

In addition to the survey, a qualitative research method of journalling was used which recruited ten self-identified LGBTQIs to complete journals in which they made 20 entries over 20 days reflecting on their day-to-day lives and which provided greater context and detail to the survey findings.

The journals also highlighted participants' experiences of being excluded from family activities such as birthday gatherings, important festivals and celebrations.

According to the FFL survey, 65 per cent of respondents were either victims of intimate partner violence or knew of someone who was LGBTQI and a victim of intimate partner violence.

Sinnette said sometimes the police do not take these reports seriously.

He recounted an incident when a gay man was raped by two men he met at a party.

"The police began victim blaming and the victim was told to go to the hospital, do a medical and then bring the medical and then they would take the police report," he said.

Sinnette said while some people are openly homophobic and make degrading statements there are people who make subtle statements that are just as hurtful.

"We went to a workshop and a heterosexual guy flashed his lighter and everyone reacted to that," Sinnette said.

While the guy thought it was harmless, to the LGBTQI present they felt it was a signal saying "fire bun them".

T&T sued over homophobic laws

In Trinidad and Tobago anal sex is prohibited according to Section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1986.

Anyone found guilty of it can face the possibility of 25 years in prison.

Last year, Trinidad-born gay rights activist Jason Jones sued the State over this country’s homophobic laws.

In the lawsuit, Jones is challenging Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalises buggery and serious indecency even between consenting adults.

In 2016, Jamaican Maurice Tomlinson challenged T&T and Belize’s immigration laws which allow for refusal of entry to regional homosexuals visitors. While the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) dismissed his case, both governments admitted that the laws were not enforced. Section 8 of the Immigration Act bars entry to homosexuals, describing them as a “prohibited class”.

In August 2012, then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar promised to end discrimination against the LGBTQI community in the proposed national gender policy.

Persad-Bissessar made the statement in a private letter to Lance Price, the executive director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, an NGO based in the UK which campaigns globally for LGBTQI rights and diversity.

Persad-Bissessar's letter to Price was in response to one he wrote to her complaining about T&T’s immigration law and the Sexual Offences Act, which he said discriminated against homosexuals.

The matter has not been tackled since then.

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