As the eldest grandchild, painting his grandmother's nails and helping her wrap her sari to go out became a normal part of Rudolph "Rudy" Hanamji's childhood. Hanamji, the co-chair and co-founder of PrideTT felt just as comfortable making and flying kites with his grandfather. Surrounded by loving parents and other close family members, he went about his childhood routine unfettered and carefree. When his teenage years struck, he would find it difficult to come to terms with how the world would respond to him.
"I read a lot and knew that the word "homosexual" described me. I knew that that word is what I was. What I didn't know until I went to (secondary) school is exactly how prejudiced people were about homosexuals because I would have grown up in a bubble," Hanamji recalled during a Sunday Guardian interview.
He was a teen attending a prestigious all-boys secondary school when the realisation set in that unlike many of his peers, he was not interested in the opposite sex. In a sea of adolescents who had strict notions of how a male should speak and act, he struggled to negotiate his identity and often felt alienated.
"Anything that was not seen as the ideal masculine was bullied. For me, it was the first time in my life that I was dealing with feeling that I did not belong. The first time that I felt judged; that I felt sometimes I was not good enough," he said.
Finding support in some of his classmates, who genuinely knew him, and in teachers, he gained the courage to tell them that he was gay. His personality and determination to be himself eventually earned him popularity towards the final years of his school tenure as he became head of several groups and was elected to leading roles.
Being open about who he was gave Hanamji a sense of freedom and empowerment and he resolved to help others who would have to walk a similar road. At 15, he had already started his activism, working with LGBTQ+ activist and publisher of "Free Forum", Denis James, and continued through university. Funded by UNAIDS, the magazine explored the culture of gay men and promoted HIV education and prevention.
Hanamji dropped off being vocal for several years, but when gay rights activist Jason Jones challenged the constitutionality of Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act which prohibited consensual sexual relations between adults of the same sex in February 2017, Hanamji was approached to help mobilise support the following year.
"I realised there was fragmentation in the community, a lack of resources, some apathy and fatigue. People were tired after fighting these battles for so many years. I decided I would re-enter the space."
Jones won the case in April 2018 and for the first time, the LGBTQ+ community in this country assembled in large numbers publicly. Hanamji recalled that activist Sharon Mottley who was among them suggested having a local parade, similar to those in North America. By June that same year, the non-profit, PrideTT was born and enlisted NGOs, the arts community, women's groups and other allies to host their first celebrations.
Hanamji has had to deal with criticism for speaking up. However, apart from being spat on once and receiving death threats from members of religious groups as the LGBTQ+ community celebrated their victory outside the High Court in 2018, the marketing, e-commerce and innovation professional said he has never encountered the level of discrimination that many of his peers had. Admitting that while some may think his "privileged" upbringing and life, in general, disqualify him from being a spokesperson for their reality, he felt he could still play an important role.
"There are people who have been beaten up, put out of their homes. The landlord would say: get out of here because you're gay. They can't stand up and say it for themselves, so somebody has to talk about it. I accept that duty."
As a co-chair of PrideTT alongside Eva Chavez and Xoë Sazzle, and aided by a 21-member committee this year, Hanamji is charged with coordinating the implementation of month-long activities for the LGBTQ+ community in T&T under the theme, "POWHER". He said this year's theme was about empowering and protecting women and by extension, those that are marginalised and oppressed, especially in the LGBTQ+ community, as there had always been an intersectional relationship between the struggles of both groups.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community at PrideTT cookout
"This year, especially given what has been happening as reported by the newspaper up to a few days ago, women have continued to be victims of violence and inequity in society. Part of the problem that faces the LGBTQ+ community vis-à-vis homophobia is as a result of the patriarchy and misogyny because, in a society that is macho-based like ours, anything that is seen as 'feminine' is less than," he said.
The month-long celebration runs virtually this year from June 25 to July 25 and includes the annual film festival and Iere Art exhibit. Hanamji said instead of the commemorative gathering in front of the Parliament building on the first Friday to mark the Jason Jones case ruling, because of the pandemic, a community needs assessment with just over 200 hundred participants was sent to Parliament and media houses.
In it, 89.5 per cent of respondents said they wanted openly-identified LGBTQ+ government representatives, while issues of self-harm and mental health (69.6 per cent), including "sexual orientation" in the Equal Opportunity Act (69.6 per cent), and violence protection and justice (68.2 per cent) were most important to them.
PrideTT also hopes to assist the MOH in organising a vaccination drive via social media and general networking and highlight women's health and gender-based violence.
Since PrideTT's inception, the community has enjoyed increased visibility and a greater sense of belonging in the society, Hanamji said. Noting efforts by Scotiabank to align their human resources policies with equity and diversity, he said his organisation had also seen a positive response from the corporate society.
But according to Hanamji, the organisation's biggest reward has been saving lives.
"We've actually been able to save lives. People have written and told us that because of PrideTT's efforts, they've made decisions not to harm themselves or that they've found the strength to stand up against bullies etc. I always say: if you save one life, all of this work would be worth it."
When it came to the LGBTQ+ community, Hanamji said his organisation was aware of three murders within the last year and six requests for help from young people who have been put out of their homes or lost their jobs.
People reach out via social media, especially WhatsApp, and also contact email@example.com for advice or help, he said.
Another achievement has been the launch of a PrideTT mobile app with a hotline for those in need of emergency assistance. Designed by Hanamji's life partner, Keita Smith, the app also features resources about mental health, suicide prevention and activities of PrideTT and can be downloaded by anyone.
Although there is still a long way to go, Hanamji felt the pandemic had reduced some of the prejudice against gays in society.
"I think in COVID-19 times, people have put away some of their biases for the moment and are simply trying to survive. Wherever that support comes from–they're not asking if the doctor is gay or the nurse–they just want to survive. I think COVID-19 has forced people to reflect on what is really important and not what divides us. The pandemic has forced us to realise that we are all in this together," he said.
Rudolph "Rudy" Hanamji
Q&A with Rudy Hanamji
You said your parents were very supportive. When they found out you were gay, how did that conversation go? Or was it something that unfolded gradually?
There's a joke in our community that mothers always know. That's always true. My mother, in particular, my extended family, I think people always knew. There was never any feeling from my family that we as children were anything but loved. I didn't have to come out. Over the years, I would introduce them to my friends and partners.
What is PrideTT's mission?
It's very simple. The mission is to highlight the positive contribution of LGBTQ+ people to Trinidad and Tobago's development (names called). There are countless people who have contributed and continue to contribute to our country, but they are not always allowed to live in their true identity. So Pride's role, unlike the other NGOs who have very specific focal points– some deal with HIV, some with mental wellness, others with legislative change–Pride's role is really to create an umbrella platform so that every issue that impacts the LGBTQ+ community is featured within this period of time.
What, in general, does PrideTT celebrate?
We are celebrating the fact that many of us are still here while remembering the people that we have lost due to violence and them taking their own lives; survival and life and the power to stand up and use your voice to make a difference; a better country.
Tell me a bit about some of the adversity PrideTT has faced thus far and some of the progress it may have made.
There is still adversity. There is still prejudice. People are still being beaten up. People are still being put out of their homes. We got a call from a young man two weeks ago. His family put him out of the house and we were able to get some support for him. So these things are still happening. People are still taking their own lives as well. We'll get a report here and there.
However–because at the end of Pride we run a survey to ask what was the benefit to you–from 2018 to last year when we look at the data, there has been overwhelming support for the simple reason that people feel more welcome in T&T. They see there is no direct violence during PrideTT celebrations and the authorities have supported where they can. For the last few years, they are seeing that there is general acceptance and general safety, at least when there are numbers of us together. When people feel safer in their home country, that allows them to begin living their true lives and that continues to add to the discussion and change opinions.
What would you say to those who may say the LGBTQ+ community is becoming too loud, too visible...or are trying to impose themselves on others?
Religion teaches us that when you see wrong, you must not only pray about it, you must act and speak against it and what we are actually doing is standing up against oppression and loss of life. We are standing up against the state or private sector or individuals oppressing us and removing access to our rights. There was a time when people told indentured labourers, they told slaves, women, they even tried to tell children: don't be heard. We cannot stay quiet...and how loud is too loud when all you're asking for is to be seen as an equal citizen in your own country.