PRESIDENT of the Tobago Pride Association (TPA) Todd MJ Denoon believes homophobia is perhaps the biggest challenge confronting the island’s LGBTQI community.
While combatting homophobia still remains an uphill battle in some jurisdictions, he observed small islands like Tobago present an even greater challenge.
“The main concern of the community is dealing with being able to come out and to have spaces that are queer-friendly. Battling homophobia is one of the biggest things,” he told Sunday Newsday.
As a result, Denoon said, many members of the community tend to avoid the glare of public scrutiny for fear of being labelled and targeted.
It’s perhaps one of the reasons why only seven people from the LGBTQI community turned out to the TPA’s flag-raising ceremony last Saturday, at Fort King George, Scarborough.
The ceremony signalled the start of the month-long Pride celebration.
Denoon explained the ceremony “aims to visibly signal our pride and to signal us taking up our space as part of the fabric of the nation.
But for many in the community, the quest for inclusion remains elusive.
Nevertheless, Denoon said the TPA has organised a host of activities to commemorate Pride month.
The association holds its general meeting on July 10 at Bliss Bat & Lounge, Wilson Road, Scarborough, at 7.30pm. It will also host a film festival on July 15 at Scarborough Library from 7.30pm.
A highlight of the celebration will be a hike to No Man’s Land on July 23. It was organised as a fundraising venture for a member of the community, Earth.
In Tobago, Denoon admits the relatively young association does not have all the resources to address fully the issues affecting its members.
But he said through its alliances with other well-established organisations, it continues to provide support for those who are experiencing violence, discrimination and stigmatisation.
In some cases, people have also been put out of their homes because of their sexual orientation.
“While we have not been able to – individually or as an organisation – deal with that, it is one of the main issues, and I think one of the good things that we have experienced is the camaraderie of other organisations.”
Denoon said the association has been invited to round-table discussions at the THA Division of Health, Wellness and Social Protection and other entities which deal with gender-based issues and the concerns of the LGBTQI community.
“Because you have those established organisations which have a good network and also being able to network with them, we are able to channel persons to those organisations who have the capacity to deal with that.”
But he noted there is what some may consider a “downside” to a pride association.
“It often attracts people who are much more out there and comfortable. So those persons who are much more closeted tend to avoid pride associations, because it does involve a certain amount of visibility, and being at that closeted stage doesn’t really mix very well."
Nevertheless, Denoon said, the association tries its best to work with those who are afraid to live authentically “because a lot of time, it’s not our members specifically having these challenges, but the persons that they know.”
Denoon was elected president of the Tobago Pride Association last year.
He leads a small but committed executive team which includes Denica Daniel (vice-president); Isaiah Ramkeesoon (secretary); Kevin Fortune (PRO); and Jewel Greene-George (acting treasurer). Denoon and Fortune are also representatives on the national parent association, Pride Trinidad and Tobago.
The TPA began four years ago, after the 2018 landmark Supreme Court ruling which overturned TT’s sodomy law, deeming it unconstitutional.
The ruling came after Jason Jones – a Trinidad-born openly gay man – had asked Justice Devindra Rampersad to determine whether the State had the constitutional authority to criminalise sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex. Rampersad ruled that Jones’ dignity and basic human rights were taken away by a state-sanctioned threat of prosecution and persecution because he was homosexual.
Soon after its inception in 2019, TPA members, alongside representatives from Pride TT, held their first flag-raising ceremony at Signal Hill.
That event was led by Eswick Padmore, Gaynor De Gaye Foster and included Michelle Timothy, Margarita Hinkson, Giselle Shipely, Melani Birusingh and then Progressive Democratic Patriots deputy political leader Dr Faith BYisrael (now Deputy Chief Secretary and Secretary of Health, Wellness and Social Protection).
Since that time, the association has continued to host its own Pride activities. One such activity was a retreat, which included members of the parent body, Pride TT.
At the retreat, psychologist Dr Alina Williams led a session on identity among queer individuals, particularly within the Caribbean. It also addressed financial management, among other topics.
The group later formed an executive and established its constitution. Denoon said the TPA maintains a good relationship with Pride TT in organising celebrations.
During 2020-2021, in the height of the covid19 pandemic, the association held mostly virtual activities.
Denoon said transitioning from a virtual to a physical setting, post-pandemic, has been somewhat challenging for many people.
“One of the main challenges after becoming so comfortable with virtual meetings is now trying to translate into the physical space again, because I think what virtual meetings allowed was for persons to meet more safely.”
So Denoon said it’s difficult to quantify the association’s membership.
“We have a WhatsApp group that for all intents and purposes practically is what our membership is like. But this year, we are actually trying to quantify those numbers in a real sense. In the WhatsApp group we have about 67 people. But a fraction of that is very active.”
He said the TPA, which was incorporated on April 14, 2021, recently did a census on the WhatsApp chat to meet the people who are interested in joining the organisation.
Several people did not respond to the poll, and Denoon said the TPA spoke to them individually to determine why this was the case.
“There was a feeling like when you leave, people might be talking about you. And often times, that is just your perception. It is always a personal choice, but we still reached out to find out if they wanted to be a part of it – no pressure.”
Some non-responders said they were very busy during the day.
“A WhatsApp group can be a bother, because there are so many messages that come in , along with your own personal messages.”
But for those people who still said they were interested, attempts are being made to address them directly by sending them messages about important things.
“So if there is a meeting coming up, if there is dues coming up – the main thing that is going to be impactful to their involvement.”
Meanwhile, Denoon said, “We are trying to see how many members we actually have and of course, who we can rely on going forward. We got some of that feedback and that has informed the way that we channel persons.”
At present, Denoon said, most of the association’s executive members are between 30 and 40, while the majority of its members are in their 20s.
He said people wishing to join the TPA must be 18 or older. Those under 18 must have the consent of a parent or guardian.
“This can present some difficulty because not many parents are at that stage (of being open with their child’s sexual orientation). But the parents at that stage do liaise with us."
Denoon said young people below 18 are not in the TPA’s WhatsApp group.
“But their parents are, and that way we get to have a pulse on the experiences of queer teenagers in Tobago.”
Over the years, the association has done television interviews and written articles to sensitise the public about its existence and objectives. It has also promoted several social causes, including cancer awareness.
More recently, the TPA also established a public-relations committee to better streamline its activities and facilitate more involvement.
“Once people see an opportunity to get involved, they have more stake and buy-in to the programmes. That is one of the byproducts of having committees, and takes a lot of the load off of the individual members.”
Through its social media platforms, the association commemorates observances specific to the various arms of the LGBTQI community and also shares other Pride associations’ posts.
“We maintain our social media presence to get more traction and to get more people interested and aware of the fact that we exist.”
As president, Denoon said, his main focus is trying to establish the framework for the association to exist.
This involves fine-tuning its constitution and establishing the groundwork and protocols for the organisation to develop and thrive.
“That is a structure that is going to exist beyond my participation or any individual’s participation. Anybody who comes after me should be able to function at an efficient level, and then they can add meat to that skeleton. That has been my main focus.”
Dues have also been instituted to help fund the association’s various programmes.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times when you have these organisations, the leadership often bears the financial burden...I didn’t want that to be how we continue, because that is not sustainable, because not everybody who can serve will be financially able to keep that up, and they shouldn’t.”
For now, he said, “We are looking towards getting a physical meeting location. At this point we don’t have a dedicated space. By and large meetings are still virtual.
"But there are plans to move into a physical space that is not necessarily going to be a stagnant or a dedicated space.”
PRIDE MONTH ITINERARY
JULY 10 – General meeting at Bliss Restaurant & Lounge (7.30pm)
JULY 15 – Film Festival, Scarborough Library (7.30pm)
JULY 17 – Canadian Immigration Consultancy Virtual Session (6.30pm)
JULY 21 – Games Night (TBA)
JULY 22 – Beach Yoga (TBA) – (5pm)
JULY 23 – Hike (No Man’s Land) – (9am-2pm)
JULY 25 – Book Club Meet (Scarborough Library) – (5.30pm)
JULY 26 - Business Registration (Virtual Session) – (7.30pm)
JULY 29 – Rainbow Picnic (Sip N Paint) – (TBA)
JULY 30 – Rise and Pride Breakfast Meet Up Dreamsicle
JULY 31 – Pride Villa Cooldown (TBA)