Americas / Commentary

Seeking LGBTI rights in Trinidad, finding them in Canada

David Soomarie (Photo courtesy of UNAIDSCaribbean.org)

David D.K. Soomarie (Photo courtesy of UNAIDSCaribbean.org)

Advocacy on behalf of LGBTI residents of Trinidad and Tobago is a heartfelt concern of Trinidad activist David D.K. Soomarie, currently visiting Canada.

While in Toronto, Soomarie took part in a public discussion of the struggle for LGBTI rights in his native country and joined a protest seeking recognition of the human rights of LGBTI “Trinbogian” citizens.

That protest — a “stand” at the Trinidad and Tobago consulate in Toronto — was held on Aug. 31, Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence Day, marking 54 years of independence from British rule.

Soomarie traveled to Toronto to participate in “Trini Independence Lime & Learn,” an event that celebrated the country’s independence while also describing the struggle  to assure the human rights and health of Trinidad and Tobago’s LGBTI and HIV-positive citizens. Soomarie is program coordinator of Community Action Resource (CARe), a community service organization based in Trinidad that advocates for persons infected and affected by HIV, including members of the LGBTI community.

Below are Soomarie’s thoughts about that experience, about the acceptance of LGBTI people in Canada, and about the changes he seeks in his native country:

Protesters in Canada seek LGBTI rights in Trinidad and Tobago. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

Protesters at the Trinidad and Tobago consulate in Toronto, Canada, seek LGBTI rights there. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson)

Toronto Chronicles: The quest for liberty

Even before my arrival, I had an innate sense that something life-changing and significant was going to happen in Canada. This was confirmed by a number of events; my ability to pay (thanks to my dad) and to acquire a visa without hassle, a change in my duration here from one week to one month, and the sentiments by many friends back home that I may not return. As the plane approached the runway to land, I shed a tear, deeply grateful that I had arrived.

My ‘Independence’ Stand

The “protest” took place outside of the Trinidad and Tobago consulate here in Toronto. I had never participated in such an event before and had no idea what was going to happen.

We set up and stood outside the building while visitors to the consulate’s Independence Day event ate and drank, completely oblivious to us — completely unaware that a lot of Trinbogian citizens are not allowed that liberty because of who they are and love.

It struck me that 54 years after independence we still allow colonial laws to dictate our sexual rights. In fact, these laws have been further strengthened with penalties moving from 5 to 25 years. How do we remove these laws? Who advocates for repeal? More importantly, what is my role here beyond this action?

As we stood there, cars passed and honked their support. I was surprised that there was not even one anti-gay sentiment. Some inquiring Trinis approached us and I decided to engage them. One lady was surprised that I was gay and from Trinidad. She expressed that there are no gays where she lives back home and I laughed.

I simply told her, “I’m sure they are. You just don’t know.” After posing for a picture, she then proceeded to tell me that she had a gay nephew that she would like to set me up with.

The 519, the City of Toronto's community center serving the LGBTI community. (Photo courtesy of The519.org)

The 519, the City of Toronto’s community center serving the LGBTI community. (Photo courtesy of The519.org)

I then visited the 519, a community centre for the LGBTQ community. I was impressed by the mere idea that this existed — an entire three-story building dedicated to the community!

I had lunch at the café and was served by a trans person. There was no shock or shame. No disgust or anger. Just humans engaging their lives as their true selves. I attended a newcomer orientation session that day which was facilitated by two Jamaicans and one St. Lucian. Some of the participants were from Nigeria, South Africa and India. It was truly a reflecting of diversity. What also impacted me was the range of services offered to the community, from language assistance to legal aid, transitional housing to support groups.

After the session ended, I stood outside taking in some warmth. As I stood there, I saw gay couples holding hands walking down the street casually talking. I saw one couple jogging together. I saw individuals with that extra swish in their step. More importantly, I saw people who were comfortable and free to express their own individuality.

My flatmate and I later went to a mall. People were remarkably polite. A compliment paid to a guy about how nice his hair was, was simply returned with a sincere “thank you.” One guy flirted with us in another store, with incredible ease and comfort.
These occurrences may seem of little significance to a Canadian citizen but to someone who lives in a country where homophobia is more palpable it is truly an incredible experience.

The Independence Lime & Learn Event

I was a bit anxious about speaking at the event, given that I had never spoken in front of a Canadian group before. I had no clue about how they would respond to my presentation. However, my anxieties were soon abated by the warmth and camaraderie in the room. I felt a sense of connection to Lezlie Marie Lee Kam’s struggles with identity, discrimination and ageism. I was moved by her level of activism and passion and her strength to continue despite her disability. Then Naomi Abiola spoke, my very close and dear friend from Trinidad.

Even though we are close, we had not seen each other for years. For the first time, I heard the story about her coming to Canada and the discrimination she experienced back home as the result of a Toronto Pride March photograph of her that went viral. As she delivered her spoken-word performances, I remembered the times back at home when she performed in the community, when we pulled together shows and performed together, when there was a community that valued and appreciated each other.

Then I spoke. As always, I had my notes but did not need them. I spoke of our history of community, about those persons who laid the foundation stones for the movement, how the movement seems to be kidnapped by a privileged few. I spoke to my passion, my politics. My desire to engage and excite communities to demand their own movement.

As I spoke of my own struggles, I felt safe that I was in a community of friends. The questions and comments from the crowd reinforced this. I was touched by one woman’s story about the ways she had to police her sexuality back home in an effort to blend in and be accepted.

That story impacted me. I realised that, while I can say that I am an openly gay HIV positive man, I was not truly free. I am forced in many ways to police my body and my sexuality so as to not draw unwanted attention to myself. I hate it. I hate that I have to do that.

Yesterday, I got the opportunity to venture out on my own and had time to think. I am free in this space. Free to move. Free to be. This is what liberty is.

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3 thoughts on “Seeking LGBTI rights in Trinidad, finding them in Canada

  1. Pingback: Legal challenge confronts Trinidad’s anti-gay laws | 76 CRIMES

  2. Pingback: Both death threats and support for LGBTI life in Trinidad | 76 CRIMES

  3. Pingback: LGBTQI community in Trinidad launches safety campaign | 76 CRIMES

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