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Same-sex unions becomes heated issue in Trinidad

By JEWEL FRASER AND STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- An amendment to a minor bill in parliament about spousal payments evoked a storm of controversy that offered a glimpse into discrimination and persecution of gays across the Caribbean.

The debate began when some senators called for same-sex couples to be included in a bill about who could be paid a month’s salary after a civil servant dies. Some in parliament wanted domestic partners to be eligible, a suggestion that quickly became a firestorm.

Despite the heated debate, gay advocates say the issue was not on their agenda.

“Decriminalization of same-sex intimacy is not in our top six things,” said Colin Robinson, spokesman for the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), a gay rights group. “The most serious issue is discrimination, and related to that is violence, and related to both of those are areas of social vulnerability — the ways in which we are seen as legitimate targets of discrimination and differential treatment.”

The amendment to the Statutory Authorities Act that triggered the same-sex union debate states in part: “Where the [deceased] officer has no spouse, the payment ... may be made to the officer’s cohabitant.” It defined cohabitant as “a person of the opposite sex who, while not married to the officer, continuously cohabited in a bona fide domestic relationship with the officer.”

Robinson said the language should have been more inclusive.

“It was a missed opportunity for the government to stop that kind of discriminatory policy,’’ he said. “Our leaders need to stand up and say discrimination in all forms is wrong and will be punished. Unambiguously.”

He said his organization has met with government leaders to discuss issues affecting the gay community in Trinidad but has not seen any results.

“They met with us, talked with us, and then went in bed with the religious leaders who told them they should not do what we said they should do,” he said.

Government officials did not return telephone calls to discuss the issue.

Robinson said he’s familiar with cases where anonymous hookups via the Internet have turned violent.

“In some instances, [men] were held against their will and gang raped, photographed, threatened with blackmail. …Either they decided they absolutely would not report this to the police, or in the instances where they did, they sat in the police station for 13 hours being laughed at and ridiculed,” he said.

The attacks and discrimination are not limited to this southern Caribbean island, advocates say.

In Guyana, “we are concerned about the tolerance for homophobia and the impact on the lives of LGBT citizens. Critical issues include access to health services, education, and criminal justice,” said Vidyaratha Kissoon, a founding member of the Society against Sexual Orientation Discrimination — Guyana (SASOD).

A 2010 report by SASOD said that Guyana’s sodomy laws resulted in gays with HIV and AIDS not being able to access medical treatment.

SASOD’s 2010 Universal Periodic Review reports that transgender people have been subjected to physical and sexual assaults by police officers. It added that many cases are not reported to authorities because of lack of confidence in the police service.

The discrimination against gays makes discussion in Trinidad about the right to marry immaterial, Robinson said.

Anal sex remains a crime in Trinidad, as it does in Guyana, St. Lucia and most countries in the region. In Trinidad, it is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. In Guyana, cross-dressing is a violation.

According to Immigration Equality, a New York-based law firm that represents gays seeking to migrate to the United States, courts in the U.S. have acknowledged that persecution of gay and transgendered people in the Caribbean is a concern.

Seven Trinidad nationals have been granted U.S. asylum over the past five years on the basis of being discriminated against because of sexual orientation.

Victoria Neilson, the firm’s legal director, said the asylums were granted after clients complained of violence, gay bashings, threats and blackmail.

“Our clients believed that the police would be unable or unwilling to protect them,” she said.

Sen. James Armstrong, who brought up the same-sex issue in parliament, said most senators indicated that Trinidad “is not yet ready” for such unions. The language did not change.

“I feel that everyone is entitled to equal protection of the law and equal treatment in any benefits of the state and should not be discriminated against,” said Armstrong, 66, a former United Nations official. “I don’t think that your religious persuasion should be a determinant of the sexual orientation of anyone else. The fact is that we are backward.”

On June 17, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the first UN resolution on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The United States worked with main sponsor, South Africa, and other nations including Brazil, Colombia and Cuba to pass the resolution, said Suzanne Nossel, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations.

“The base of support will continue to grow. By passing a resolution like this, it forces more countries to look at their domestic policies and see whether they are in conformity with where the weight of international opinion lies,” Nossel told The Miami Herald.

Nossel described the resolution as “a tool for activists on the ground who want to challenge repressive laws or practices that target individuals because of their sexual orientations.

“They can invoke this resolution as a way to argue that such measures are out of step with the UN system,” Nossel said. “It calls on the UN high commissioner for human rights to provide reporting on discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. It will spotlight persecutions, discriminatory laws and raise the political price for that repression.”

Jessica Stern, programs director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said passage of the resolution will put pressure on nations that violate its tenets.

“When the definitive political human rights institution in the world acknowledges that people are subjected to human rights violation on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, governments must listen,” Stern said. “This is a mandate. What the mandate says is ‘This what human rights look like, everyone is equal regardless of who you are or you love.’”

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