All the LGBTI+ community wants is equality in the eyes of the law, policy-makers, legislators, public servants and the general public, explained Jeremy Steffan Edwards, executive director of the Silver Lining Foundation (SLF).
That is why the Alliance for Justice and Diversity (AJD), a social justice coalition of organisations and allies, created the 2020 Election Agenda, also called The Gay Agenda. The document is a collection of 13 policy actions the community would like to see addressed as soon as possible.
“Discrimination against the LGBTI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex plus) community still happens in various sectors and we need to have the 13 reforms to get the journey of equality started.”
Luke Sinnette, a social worker with Friends for Life, told Sunday Newsday although the LGBTI+ community was small in comparison to the wider community, its members were very diverse.
“The document seeks to pull the areas that we mostly agree on so that we can all share in the improvements if the state wants to address our issues. Persons from the community are free to choose the ones that are most important to them and use those when talking to their MPs or potential MPs. What was important for us was that, as a community, we can all see ourselves in the policy document and we can all advocate using it.”
The document speaks about issues such as building state capacity, appointing community advocates as Independent senators, tackling employment bias, sex education and genital mutilation. And many of the 13 benefit, not only the LGBTI+ community, but others who are often disenfranchised or discriminated against.
For example, one policy asked that the Parliament give the Equal Opportunity Commission authority to receive discrimination complaints based on health conditions, age, and LGBTI+ status.
Another asked that government give businesses incentives to hire people who are usually discriminated against including people from “hotspot” communities, people with disabilities, LGBTI people, pregnant women, and ex-offenders.
The document also asked that sustainable funding be provided for the police service’s Gender-Based Violence Unit and other special victims units, and that the Domestic Violence Act be amended so that those eligible for protection in a household did not have to be related in law.
Specific to the LGBTI+ community, the agenda asked that various state stakeholders engage individuals and organisations representing the LGBTI+ population in national policy development and decision-making.
One action, build state capacity, said, “As with the elderly or people with disabilities, key state institutions (school system, protective services, social care, health/mental health care) should develop capacity to understand and respond to needs of LGBTI persons, through training, technical cooperation with other governments, and hiring persons with relevant competence.”
It asked that the government immediately make a medical HIV prevention (PrEP) programme available to people in all key HIV populations, and to designate housing units in different areas “as public-private emergency transitional housing programme for persons made homeless by homophobia and family violence.”
One action had three points, to put into effect institutional protocols for perinatal care of children with ambiguous genitalia and other intersex conditions, to build the competence of a community health centre in Trinidad’s East West Corridor to provide quality care for transgender and transitioning people, and to provide legal measures that enable intersex and transgender persons to have gender markers on their state-issued identity documents match their adult gender identity.
Sinnette said the policy items were the result of two virtual town hall meetings this year as well as five years of research, but the AJD had been putting out its policy position for years.
Edwards further explained, “In 2015, we (the AJD) lobbied all political parties to adopt our platform of proposed legislative and programmatic reform and direct representation of the LGBTI community in Parliament. This covered areas of healthcare, anti-discrimination laws, housing, reduction in school bullying and violence and proposed efforts to mitigate that.
“We were moderately successful in realising some of those objectives. SLF, for example, was able to train secondary school teachers from 40 schools across the country on how to address anti-gay bullying in the classroom. While this sensitisation exists, it needs to now be done consistently and with the necessary policy and programmatic formulation for it to take effect.”
He said from the SLF perspective, “sex education for all” was particularly important. He said in 2016 the organisation did a national study on bullying and gender-based violence in secondary schools and 15 per cent of students surveyed reported facing sexual assault, rape or some form of sexual molestation.
“Even more worrying was that half of these students reported that they were unable to say whether what they experienced constituted rape or sexual assault because they themselves could not define what happened to them.”
In addition, he said young people seemed misinformed about sex and sexuality, consent and coercion, with some learning about sex through porn.
“When we have young people growing up with these beliefs, we cannot expect to have adults who have developed healthy sexual practices... We cannot continue like this and therefore it is so very important that we begin to address the needs of our children so that they don’t just receive academic development. They should be able to grow emotionally, socially and psychosexually as well if we want to have well-adapted adults.”
However, not everyone was pleased with the agenda. Brandy Rodriguez, a trans woman and head of the TT Transgender Coalition said the policies were too narrow and did not convincingly address the urgent and very specific needs of transgender people.
She said a lot of trans people had to migrate to live as their true selves because of the threats they face as a result of stigma and discrimination. Trans people are seldom the focus in the LGBTI community compared to gay men who get the most visible support.
“This is not to say that any real advancements have happened for them. It’s that trans people are the most visible when it comes to rights and equality should be for everyone.”
Rodriguez said the agenda was too limited and that conversations around gender identity and sexual orientation, support, tolerance, and inclusion should include community training. She said the policies should be strengthened by mandatory training on gender nonconformity, non-binary, trans and medically transitioning people for the staff at state institutions.
“This agenda does not speak about education for people to change their mindset in terms of stigma and discrimination in the workplace or at any public institution.”
For example, she said she recently had to carry a trans woman to the hospital and had to contact a specific doctor to get a bed, and the woman was placed on a male ward.
That is why she said “without legislation, policies were a bag of hot air.” She recalled a situation in which she spoke to a permanent secretary of a ministry about the needs of her community and the person refused to do anything to help because of personal and religious biases. Therefore, she believed without laws to back the policies, they would not be enacted fairly.
“I don’t want sympathy. I want my dignity and respect and for these things to be done legally. Legislation is the best way to begin to make these things happen. TT has a punitive culture. For example, if people didn’t have to pay $2,000 for not wearing seatbelts they wouldn’t wear it even though it’s saving thousands of lives.
“While the greatest change has to be social inclusion, protection from hatred and discrimination is an urgent must.”
Sinnette said the issues on the agenda were important to those in the LGBTI community because its members feel the “systemic discrimination” due to transphobia and homophobia.
He recognised the world was “under stress” with the covid19 pandemic, and people were generally tense and focussed on their own issues. He said many people did not have the “emotional space” to have a serious conversation about homophobia but many people in the LGBTI community worked in the service industry and were also affected by loss of income, threat of eviction by religious-minded landlords, but without family support.
“AJD has hired a community navigator whose only job is to support LGBTI persons that have been affected by the pandemic. Its but a dent, but we cannot not be there for our community.”
Edwards added that there would always be opposition to the LGBTI agenda based on religious or cultural beliefs. However, he said it was time for people to start taking a more evidence-based approach to policymaking.
“It is not political suicide to say and govern with the belief that everyone in this country should be treated fairly and equally and should not be victimised based on who we love. The polls are clear on that. We just need leaders with the backbone to make it happen. Until that happens, the Alliance will carry the mantle of leadership to serve the community.”
To read the full agenda, visit https://justicediversitytt.wordpress.com/