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The right to love

By Sunity Maharaj

And now comes another man who refuses to take no for an answer. Another man willing to turn his body into a battlefield in pursuit of justice.

Maurice Tomlinson is a gay man. He is a Jamaican attorney who should have been in Trinidad tomorrow for an HIV workshop organised by the United Nations Family Planning Association. Instead, he's at home, preparing to drag T&T into the 21st century into a world that respects our right over our own body and our right to love.

Tomlinson turned down the invitation to be here because he was not willing to lie and indulge our collective hypocrisy as enshrined in law. He has better things to do, which is what he will be doing when he files legal action against Section 8 of Trinidad and Tobago's Immigration Act on behalf of the NGO AIDS-Free World.

Article 8 of the act bans homosexuals from entering this country while condemning gay relationships as "immoral". It states:

(1) Except as provided in Subsection (2), entry into Trinidad and Tobago of the persons described in this subsection, other than citizens and, subject to Section 7(2), residents, is prohibited, namely-

(e) prostitutes, homosexuals or persons living on the earnings of prostitutes or homosexuals, or persons reasonably suspected as coming to Trinidad and Tobago for these or any other immoral purposes;

By Trini standards, Tomlinson might be considered a troublesome man who clearly cannot leave well enough alone. Especially given that we would be more than happy to look the other way and welcome him with open arms, if only he would agree to pretend he is heterosexual.

An advocate for change, he has chosen not to play the game, spurning the invitation and exercising his right to challenge a law that we have been too coward to change ourselves.

The Immigration Act is not the only source of legal oppression on same-sex relationships in this country.

Section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1986, later strengthened in 2000, declares "buggery" or anal sex to be a criminal act, even between consenting adults, whether involving males or male and female. Just so you know, the penalty for breach is 25 years in jail.

As in the case of the Immigration Act, this is another law on the books that is almost never invoked, except in cases where a child is involved. Indeed, Section 16 effectively outlaws sex between gay persons and non-intercourse arousal by everybody- by identifying as "serious indecency", any act of sexual arousal that does not involve intercourse between husband and wife or adult man and woman. Again, just so you know, the penalty is five years in jail.

This, too, is another law seemingly dead on the books but available to be unleashed with full potency at will.

Just over a week ago, in introducing the new Adoption Board, Minister Marlene Coudray disclosed without fanfare that cabinet had approved a gender policy for Trinidad and Tobago.

How this policy treats with gender rights remains to be seen but if it advances the cause of equality and sensitivity and hasn't been dumbed down into nothingness,trying to please everybody and nobody at the same time, it would mark progress.

Ultimately, however, while law and policy entrench culture, it is culture that determines both. What the above-quoted sections of the Immigration and Sexual Offences Acts reflect is a culture that seeks comfort in conformity at the expense of peace in the truth of ourselves.

While history carries the responsibility for the cultural orientation of our laws in regard to same sex-relationships, the culture of modern Trinidad and Tobago is yet to find the courage to free itself from its oppressive past. Instead, it has conformed, accepted its lot and gone underground. In doing so, it has expanded the twilight zone in which we live, deepening our instinct to survive by living multiple fractured realities. Like a broken mirror, each piece reflects us back in the image that the other would have us be.

The road between the State's responsibility for respecting the rights of all and the church's responsibility for tending the flock is never the easiest to negotiate. But in secular T&T, the law must come to terms with the fact that it has no place in the bedrooms of consenting adults and no right to decide the shape of intimacy between them. How can we even talk about an Equal Opportunity Commission when we discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation? Respecting human dignity requires us not only to erase such archaic laws, but to ensure legal protection for all of us, whether straight or gay, from ridicule, oppression and those crimes that have their basis in discrimination because of gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation or other distinguishing differences.

But the law is the easy part. More difficult is culture, and infinitely more challenging and urgent are the attitudes that culture breeds.

Even inside families, the protective circle of unconditional love is broken by fear and embarrassment of the gay family member, sometimes with repercussions that are so damaging and soul-destroying that the very will to live is lost.

Out in the cruel world, survival reduces loving, wonderful, beautiful people to lives of secrecy and lies, warping relationships and causing needless pain. In a world already short on love, why should it be denied?

It is time to open our closet of skeletons and allow the light of truth in. Denial is far more damaging to the state of our souls and the fabric of our nation than the truth that sets us free of doubt and ignorance.

The ten days between yesterday's observance of World Aids Day and next week Monday's Human Rights Day is a good time to open up a conversation that is rational and respectful.

If Wayne Kublalsingh's high stakes gamble has taught us anything it is the power of the human spirit and the capacity of the single individual of courage to galvanise a nation and lift it out of its stupor of complacent cynicism.

All by himself, with nothing more than his disappearing body, expanding spirit and focused mind, Dr Kublalsingh has created a national flowering of consciousness.

If that is the power of one, imagine the power of many.

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