Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Visiting Caribbean LGBTI Rights Activists Share Strategies to Challenge Homophobia

By Neil Armstrong

Left-right: Justin Khan of The 519, Nigel Mathin of Grenada, Jason Jones of Trinidad & Tobago, Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), Maurice Tomlinson, senior policy analyst at Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and Sizwe'-Alexandre Inkingi, coordinator of Positive Spaces Initiative at OCASI.

Jason Jones speaking at The 519 on April 12 about his legal challenge to overturn laws that criminalize LGBT citizens in Trinidad & Tobago.

Nigel Mathlin, one of the founders of GrenCHAP based in Grenada, speaking at The 519 on April 12.

Jason Jones of Trinidad & Tobago and Nigel Mathlin of Grenada, both LGBTI activists, visited Toronto recently and spoke at The 519 about their work.

Two Caribbean LGBTI rights activists recently visited Canada to talk about the work going on at the grassroots level in their respective countries and to gain support from those in the Caribbean diaspora and friends of the region here.

Jason Jones of Trinidad and Tobago and Nigel Mathlin of Grenada met with Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa on April 11 and held community talks in Toronto later that day and on April 12.

Organized by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, in partnership with the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), Jones and Mathlin shared information about their advocacy at Glad Day Bookshop and The 519.

Maurice Tomlinson, senior policy analyst at the legal network, introduced them as having two distinct approaches to challenge homophobia in their countries.

Jones, a prominent Trinidadian who also lives in England, said about 15 months ago he was approached to be a claimant in challenging the buggery law of Trinidad and Tobago.

He was born in Trinidad but identifies as ‘Tringlish’ as he holds dual citizenship (his mother is British) and splits his time between the two countries.

For the last eight months, he had been putting together his legal challenge of the archaic laws that criminalize LGBT citizens of Trinidad & Tobago.

“This document represents our freedom,” he said, holding aloft the challenge inside a room at The 519 community centre on Church St. in Toronto. He filed his historic claim on Feb. 23, 2017 at the height of the country’s carnival season

Re-visiting his experience of homophobia as a child, Jones said when he was 13 years old at Fatima College in Trinidad he was beaten up by his brother and was subjected to verbal and physical abuse almost daily.

A few months before his 14th birthday, his parents told him that he needed to own who he was – to be himself – and that created the space for him to live his life as a gay male.

Jones said 15 months ago when he decided to go on the journey of challenging the Trinidad and Tobago government on the buggery law, he wrote on a mirror, “I deserve love and success.”

He said what he is doing is not just for his community but it has a direct impact on his life.

Describing the writing of the affidavit as one of the most difficult things he has had to do in his life, Jones, who is 53, said it required him to uncover some of the pain he had to endure over those years.

Jones has been in the twin-island republic for the last two months and has been the target of several death threats.

He noted that some elite LGBTI Trinidadians do not want any change to the present situation and are critical of him but he will persist with his work.

The LGBT activist said he met with the Canadian government on April 11 and he believes that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is presenting himself in a view similar to former US president, Barack Obama.

He encouraged those gathered at The 519 on April 12 to write letters to Trudeau imploring his assistance to helping him change things in his Caribbean homeland.

The activist also told them that as people living in the diaspora when they visit they should not encourage the homophobia they hear around them – they should challenge it instead.

Jones plans to create a Trinidad and Tobago Charter of LGBT Rights to ask for the human rights of the country’s lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender nationals.

By April 30, he has to submit to the judge the names of any interested parties to the challenge that he has filed against the government.

He is also planning to found a human rights organization called “L'Ouverture,” which in French patois means ‘an opening’ across the English-speaking Caribbean.

Jones is encouraging Caribbean people living here and elsewhere to help him, encouraging them also to send ‘sense and cents’ of “how you live in these countries.”

After more than 25 years of activism, Jones said Tomlinson recently reminded him of the importance of self-care, especially when doing this kind of work.

He said he has been incredibly isolated for the past 15 months, noting that his family – including 17 siblings -- has not spoken to him for the last two months.

Mathlin is one of the founders of GrenCHAP, a non-profit organization working to promote sexual reproductive health and human rights, with a focus on marginalized populations, such as LGBT and sex workers.

When it began in 2003, its primary focus was on men who have sex with men (MSM), and was a reaction to the regional partnership between Global Fund and the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP).

Mathlin said he was no longer with the organization but was in Canada to represent it.

He is a graphic designer and founder of the online newspaper, NOW Grenada, reaching a significant portion of the population.

Describing himself now as a part time activist, Mathlin said GrenCHAP’s approach is to form alliances as much as they can with groups such as the Grenada National Organization of Women and others.

Their strategy is a mixture of preferred linkages as well as alliances and partnerships with other organizations.

“All of us are fighting for the same thing. None of us have achieved what we’re fighting to achieve,” he said.

Mathlin also spoke about the referendum that was held to reform the constitution of Grenada last year.

He noted that a fundamentalist Christian church suggested that a clause in the Rights and Freedom Bill about gender was an opening to have same sex marriage in the country.

“Caricom Today” reports that in November 2016, “Grenadians voted overwhelmingly to reject seven pieces of legislation that would have reformed the Constitution the island received when it attained political independence from Britain 42 years ago.”

Mathlin underscored the colonizing nature of fundamentalist Christian churches resulting in hatred and divisiveness and in which everybody suffers as a result.

He said there is, generally, a wave of nationalism, hatred and divisiveness, which is a symptom of the problem. It is not the public itself, it is not just a LGBT issue, it’s an issue of a lack of respect, he said.

The co-founder of GrenCHAP advised each person present at the event to lobby locally to support organizations that are on the ground in the Caribbean.

He said the quiet diplomacy and big stick colonization models won’t work and that the situation is “far from a one size fits all approach” because Caribbean islands are quite different.

Mathlin noted that GrenCHAP supports organizations on the ground so that it can continue to do the work that it has been doing over the years.

So far, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has hosted LGBT activists from Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Jamaica.

“We hope to host others as funds permit as we believe that giving a platform for these activists to engage with Canadian government officials and residents will ensure that Canada provides the most appropriate response to the liberation work in each territory,” says Tomlinson.

As a region, the Caribbean has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, after sub-Saharan Africa.

UNAIDS and regional and national agencies have identified homophobia as a factor contributing to this troubling statistic.

“The legal and social environment varies significantly across the region, as does community organizing to defend and advance the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. However, in numerous countries, particularly the Commonwealth Caribbean, the criminalization of consensual same-sex relationships and gender non-conforming people – accompanied by wider societal stigma and discrimination, often intensified by fundamentalist religious groups – has had a damaging effect on health and human rights,” says the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

The legal network promotes the human rights of people living with and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, in Canada and internationally, through research and analysis, advocacy and litigation, public education and community mobilization.

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