“I am T&T,” proclaims Wendell Manwarren patriotically in the State advertisement touting the glorious attributes of this culture that celebrates and cherishes its diversity. Manwarren has become the chivalrous poster boy exhorting us to respect each other; stop discrimination and embrace our differences and creativity. One of our truly exemplary citizens, his grace, talent and intelligence feed the artistic excellence that is his hallmark, and hearing him on any forum always reaffirms my esteem.
Like him, as I have grown older, and perhaps more measured, I have tried to temper my responses to the increasingly boorish and intolerant behaviours that hold sway in this place we call home. I work hard at understanding the reasons. It often leads to a bleaker place, because once you begin to apprehend the complexity and history; you would have to have super optimism not to concede that we’ve gone too far already.
As the pulpits of wrath renewed their onslaught of condemnation for homosexuality, I couldn’t help but be struck by the scantily clad bigotry that parades itself as a traditional mas. It shouldn’t really have been so remarkable; the most appalling and barbaric acts of humankind throughout the ages have emanated from rigid arms of self-righteousness. The eye for the eye has found far more favour than turning the cheek, and creativity has flavoured the quest to destroy human flesh and mind. Feed them to lions; bury them in sand and let the ants take them; stone them; behead them; hang them high; strap on a bomb belt and go shopping; hell, go to war.
If you don’t share my beliefs, then I have the right to stop you dead in your tracks.
It is intolerance. And you know what, Wendell? It is the hideous opposite of one of this country’s little trio of discarded watchwords. And I think this is now our T&T. I was reluctant to say now our T&T because I am not sure we were really different in the past—there is a lot more space for ventilation of views and thus we unearth more of once submerged feelings and ideas.
But I’ve seen many of the comments on the question of decriminalisation of homosexuality. At first, I could not believe that we actually had to discuss it. As a people have we really become so cluttered with mean-spirited bigotry that we have lost sight of the simple fact that this is about human rights?
The country’s constitution declares that “without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex”, certain fundamental human rights and freedoms exist, and they include “the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law” and “the right of the individual to respect for his private and family life”.
Archaic laws have made homosexuality a criminal offence, but by now we should have matured enough to do away with them because at many levels they have created more pain, suffering and misunderstanding, and destroyed far more lives than they could possibly have saved.
When you have religious leaders talking about “these people” as “oddities”, and others talking about them deserving to be “chopped down” and the kettle-coloured Catholic church pussyfooting around with statements that acknowledge they are humans too but should curb their impulses, you know it causes so much disquiet precisely because it is so intertwined with religious dogma.
The thing is; it ought not to have anything to do with religious beliefs. Not as far as the law goes. It is about rights. Legal head at the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) Narendra Lalbeharry was quoted in this newspaper as saying that although the Equal Opportunities Act does not deal with gay rights, it did not mean they were opposed to it.
“In fact, it was part of the whole concept of equal opportunity and if Trinidad and Tobago is to follow other countries, as they have done by setting up an EOC... I think a first step could be actually amending our Equal Opportunity Act to at least provide some kind of protection (for the GLBT community),” he reportedly said.
Amending the law is just one aspect of making things right. It goes far deeper. I have known too many people whose lives were reduced to loveless darkness because their families rejected them, and they were afraid of a disapproving society. I’ve seen young people subjected to cruel bullying at school; self-esteem fall away; depression take root—stigmatisation has deep and brutal effects.
In response to these negative reactions, lives can veer off unexpectedly and unhappily, and be lost.
The same people who would argue for their right to twirl beads, ring bells and light candles; to wear hijabs and to marry 14-year-olds are the ones who say the most vicious things to deny other citizens their own rights.
What good does it serve? Why are people so unwilling to allow others to live their lives with the same rights they enjoy? If this is what we have learned about celebrating our diversity, then I am sorry, Wendell. You are not T&T.