Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Where does Govt stand on equality?

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If Trinidad and Tobago's law on gay rights is finally being brought into the modern world, it would be deeply disappointing to witness any reactionary kicking and screaming by an administration that otherwise projects itself as cutting-edge in policy promptings.

For failure to admit sexual orientation as a ground of discrimination, T&T has been lagging behind the rest of the progressive world which has long been taking this development in stride. Some clarification is due on where this government stands: whether with the scripture-quoting homophobia identified with big names in reggae culture, or with the enlightened consensus holding that all human beings should be treated equally. The clarification is especially necessary in light of the fact that gay rights appeared to be immediately opposed by a Government Senator-Minister invoking, not only religion, but not even his own religion.

The issue reared its head, albeit not for the first time, in the context of an amendment to the Statutory Authorities Act, debated in the Senate last week, that would allow the next-of-kin of public servants to get one month's salary benefit. Independent senators Corrine Baptiste-McKnight and James Armstrong made an argument that, in respect of persons cohabiting as spouses, the definition should not be restricted to persons of the opposite sex. It was Subhas Panday, Minister in the National Security Ministry and a supposed Hindu, who challenged Senator Baptiste-McKnight on this issue, asking how she would reconcile such a clause with Section 52 in the Book of Leviticus.



In fact, there is no such section, since Leviticus has only 27 chapters but, in any case, policy arguments in a multi-religious society cannot be based on theology. Desirable goals, empirical validation and ethical reasoning must inform effective policy. Besides, T&T has no law against homosexuality per se, but only an antediluvian statute against sodomy which, for obvious reasons, is unenforceable save in cases of rape. And herein lies the point: should the State interfere in sexual relationships between consenting adults?

Most citizens would say No. Yet many hold the view that, when such consent is between two adults of the same sex, the State has the right to deprive such individuals of rights enjoyed by heterosexual adults. This country's Equal Opportunities Act, which specifically allows discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, is the most egregious example of official backwardness on this issue. Such discrimination flies in the face of the nation's supreme law, since Section 4 (b) of the Constitution guarantees, "the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law''.

To exclude homosexuals from such protection, even by inaction, makes a mockery of rhetoric about carrying the nation forward.