If there's one clear indicator of progress in T&T's trek to first-world status, it is the small, but growing confidence and visibility of gay people. More awareness and advocacy groups are forming, and staking their claims and for recognition, rights, and their place in the sun.
A materialisation of this movement was Sexualities in the Tent: Critical Sexualities workshop held at the National Library on July 13.
The workshop was part of a wider programme of activities, which included a four-week course at UWI, St Augustine: Critical Sexuality Studies: Theory and Practice, taught by Prof Alison Donnell of the University of Reading in the UK. The programme was conducted under the auspices of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies of UWI, St Augustine.
The presentations at NALIS on Saturday included academic research, creative work (as in a documentary film), and brief introductions to and from various LBGT advocacy groups in T&T and abroad.
Resource agencies like the International Resource Network (IRN) were introduced and several members of the audience of about 50 took the opportunity to share opinions and personal advocacy experiences.
Jason Jones of the new group I am One, Colin Robinson of Coalition Advocating Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), and Sharon Mottley of the Women's Caucus of T&T (WCTT) all gave presentations on their groups and their activities.
Robinson outlined CAISO's work, which included attempting to have the government recognise the gay community in its legislative agenda. The government, he reported, was less than obliging.
CAISO had attempted to participate in the political process during the 2010 election, but met with a less than receptive political establishment.
They'd also hoped the newly-elected government would bring to Parliament key bits of legislation in its first six months in office, but were disappointed.
Among other things, the government refused to amend the Equal Opportunities Act to include sexual orientation as a category of discrimination. "We learned a lot about politics," said Robinson.
But if CAISO is relatively well-known, not so well-known is WCTT, a lesbian support group, one of whose founders, Sharon Mottley, introduced it.
Mottley said the group was young (though comprised of women of all ages) and met once a month to talk. It was a slow process of formation and self-definition, she said, since many women were not comfortable with identifying themselves as "lesbian," but were in no doubt about their sexual orientation. She told of intriguing "crying sessions," lengthy arguments about the name and logo of the group, and of women who did not want to be associated visibly, but who gave money and invisible support.
Jones spoke of his group's advocacy in training police officers, the media and other social institutions to respond more sensitively to issues involving gay people, like assault and domestic violence.
Jones also revealed outreach activities like organising a family day for members of I Am One and other groups.
I Am One's main issue is making the general public comfortable with the idea of gay people, and overcoming generations of homophobia and stereotypes. The biggest challenge, Jones said, was the ambivalence of high-status closeted gay men, living and dead: "Everybody knew Wayne Berkeley and (a very macho now-dead policeman) were gay," he said, but the stigmatisation and shame continued while they, gay men, consolidated reputations and esteem.
A few academic researchers presented brief abstracts of research on issues affecting the LBGT community. Krystal Ghisyawan, a UWI post-graduate student, offered an entr�e into her work, which attempts to map the "spaces" of lesbians in T&T. She showed a series of map-enneagrams, which illustrated how different women described and perceived their lives.
Some mapped their physical environments, as in their homes; some mapped the country, delineating safe and unsafe spaces; and some mapped their perceptual apprehension of their spaces.
During the lunch break, filmmaker Gabrielle Punch showed her 2006 short film on domestic violence in the gay community (in the US).
Many people were and are surprised to know that the gay community is not immune to domestic violence, and the biggest challenge is to get the police to take it seriously. The film provided an entr�e into the more pressing contemporary social and cultural aspects of LBGT life. Two of these issues were examined by Rosamond King, and Beverley Bain.
King, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, who has a forthcoming book on sexuality and citizenship in the Caribbean, spoke of the treatment of transgender persons by media and law in Guyana and T&T. Her research suggested that gay or transgender people who maintained the media ideal of beauty embodied in fair skin, straight hair, had a much better chance of being accepted.
She contrasted the experiences of Trinidadian Jowelle De Souza in Trinidad in 2001, and several cross-dressers who were arrested and prosecuted in Guyana in 2009. De Souza, because she was fair-skinned and conformed to conventional notions of beauty, was sympathetically treated in the media. However, the dark-skinned Afro and mixed-race Guyanese transgender men were brutalised and ridiculed by the magistrate, and told to "seek Jesus."
Continuing on the theme of social ostracism, Beverley Bain told of the treatment of the black gay community in Toronto's Pride parade. She spoke of the black queer community's organisation of a "blockorama" in Toronto. The event was a place where gay people could come with families and children. As the bloco grew in popularity, it was pushed to the back, and onto the margins by the mainstream gay establishment.
Naturally with all these new and evolving challenges, old problems, like homophobia, persist, especially in the Caribbean. This was the theme of the presentation by Bahamian academic Angelique Nixon of Susquehanna University in the US. Nixon described an ongoing collaborative project on Caribbean homophobia, which examines "the many ways homophobia is experienced." The project is archived online, and links to a variety of academic, creative and journalistic work on homophobia can be found on the Web site www.caribbeanhomopbobias.org.