Before his death from colon cancer on March 4, one of the last things Colin Robinson asked was for his friend Andil Gosine to write this memorial column.
Gosine is Professor of Environmental Arts and Justice at York University, Toronto.
A virtual memorial for Colin Robinson will be held on March 28 at 1 pm. The link for the event will be posted on his Facebook page.
In 1980, 19-year-old Colin Robinson won a national scholarship and a place at Yale University. A St Mary’s College graduate, he was the kind of bright boy for whom a big future was anticipated, especially following his expected return to Trinidad.
But Colin did not follow the path set for chosen sons of the nation. He quickly abandoned Yale for the heady activist and arts world of 1980s New York, and there he would make a formidable impact, working with such organisations as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the historically important literary collective Other Countries. He also co-founded the Audre Lorde Project and Caribbean Pride.
He finished his degree, but at the less stuffy New York University, in anthropology.
Colin worked tirelessly to support his many communities in the excruciating context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I remember times when it seemed like every few days one of his friends died,” his sister Charmaine recalls, “and Mummy and I looked at each other, worried.”
Colin survived, and in his poem HIVFREE@50, from his celebrated collection You Have Your Father Hard Head, poignantly sums up his own experience of grieving: “Survival without witnesses/ Left holding the camera.”
The prodigal son did return to TT, in 2007, when we first met. In the subsequent 13 years we were in constant communication about two principal subjects: calypso, a mutually shared obsession that resulted in annual commiseration about bad calls made by judges at Skinner Park (and a final outing together to Kaiso House’s calypso tent in 2020); and sexuality rights in the Caribbean.
Over that time, he became the most visible face and public proponent of LGBTQI+ rights and well-being in the country, both as co-founder of Caiso, and through this very column space. His work was socially transformative, for many young people he mentored and supported, and for our nation and region. His activism crucially shifted the needle on attitudes toward homosexuality.
Colin and I had many conversations about sexual politics, and in the longest chapter of my forthcoming book Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex and Law in the Caribbean (completed before he was diagnosed with cancer), I contrast his approach to nation-building and liberation with that of Eric Williams.
That comparison speaks volumes about his significance; Guyanese gay rights stalwart Joel Simpson dubbed Colin as “godfather” to a whole new movement of activists across the Caribbean. Colin demanded serious contention with the history and politics of the region internationally.
He challenged the dominant gay international organisations and called them out on their racism, and he was more conscientious about centring class consciousness than most. Announcing his March 4 passing, the UK-based Pink News described him as an “herculean” activist. An old liming partner from Brooklyn put it another way: “He was the tallest short man I ever knew.”
Colin and I talked less about politics and calypso over this past year. His decision to publicly share his vulnerability as he fought cancer modelled the progressive, healthier masculinity, which he long advocated.
It also revealed the magical, inner workings of his mind. Colin’s braininess and committed politics are widely known and respected, but this past year I was most struck by his persistent sparkle, and the thing that first comes to mind when I think of Colin now, is that he was a true believer in love.
Colin chose the title “Director of Imagination” for his leadership post at Caiso because he was a romantic through and through.
He suffered enormous heartbreak throughout his life, including the loss of partners and friends to HIV, and also the visceral isolation of gay singledom, but he could always get excited about a new flirtation, and savour a kiss.
Colin could be disappointed over and over again by choices made by organisations, governments and people, but he held firm in his belief that a better world was possible, and he was willing to work with anyone he believed could help get us there.
He was notoriously stubborn and charted a high road when it came to ethics and integrity, but disagreements were not enough to stunt his objective of a greater good. His views did not align with Jason Jones’s approach in challenging TT anti-sodomy laws, for example, but when Jones emerged victorious in court in 2018, Colin energetically celebrated Justice Devindra Rampersad’s decision at TT’s first public Pride festival.
Colin understood the difficult truths of human nature, he contended with them with patience and impatience, and aspired toward the best in him, and for us.