Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gay debate comes out of the closet


‘EQUAL RIGHTS’: Diana Mahabir-Wyatt

Mark Fraser

Denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry and enjoy spousal benefits is a violation of the International Convention of Human Rights, head of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt has said.

A national debate on the issue arose last Wednesday as Minister in the Ministry of National Security, Subhas Panday, clashed with Independent Senators Corinne Baptiste-McKnight and Dr James Armstrong on the issue of same-sex unions during debate in the Senate on the Statutory Authorities Amendment Bill.

The Senators criticised the government for not considering spouses of the same gender in allowing the next of kin of a Statutory Authorities public servant the benefit of one month's salary, in the event of the public servant's death.

Those falling under the Civil Service Act have enjoyed this benefit since the 1950s.

In the amendment, the definition of next kin was broadened to include cohabitational spouses and children born out of wedlock.

Baptiste-McKnight and Armstrong have disagreed with the definition of cohabitational spouses as a "person of the opposite sex".

This led Panday to lash out at Baptiste-McKnight with a quote from the Book of Leviticus in the Christian Bible, which condemns homosexuality among males.

Gender Affairs Minister, Mary King, has also previously called for a debate on same sex unions.

"We know we are in contravention of the International Convention on Human Rights," Mahabir-Wyatt said in a telephone interview Friday, adding that she has a legal obligation to report on the human rights situation in Trinidad and Tobago.

"People should have the same rights under the law."

The former Senator pointed out that homosexuality is in itself not against the law though "buggery", as anal sex under any circumstance is classified in local law, remains a crime.

"But heterosexual couples also engage in anal sex," Mahabir-Wyatt said.

"It means that half the country, if they happen to enjoy that particular activity, are in contravention of the local law. My view is that same-sex unions should be on the same level as heterosexual unions. People should have the same rights under the law."

The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammerberg, has frequently commented on reports coming out of Trinidad and Tobago, she said.

The International Convention recognises that changes such as these must be put into law in accordance with local customs and culture, however, the government of T&T usually at this point continues to state that the country is not ready for that level of liberalisation.

"I find that ridiculous considering that sex is such a part of local culture," Mahabir-Wyatt said.

"People should have choice in these matters. If your religion says 'no' to same-sex unions, then you should have a choice between your religion and your human rights. But that should be your own choice."

In terms of how many people are affected by issues such as these, Mahabir-Wyatt said Trinidad and Tobago has a "very healthy and respectable" gay community.

"Sooner of later, it will have to be resolved," she said.

"We can't keep isolating ourselves from the world. In fact, human rights should be taught in schools."

Asked what sort of catalyst usually leads to a resolution of this type of issue, Mahabir-Wyatt said pressure from the citizenry and the affected groups are normally the forces behind decisions being made.

Spokesperson for the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), a group representing the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community, Colin Robinson, said last week a debate on same-sex marriages is not immediately needed.

Robinson said the group has provided government with six national priorities but the recommendations have been ignored.

The group is eager to see the decriminalisation of homosexuality, action to prevent discrimination and violence, attention to homelessness, safer schools for young gay people and the proper training of the police to deal with matters related to violence and discrimination against the GLBT community.