PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, September 27, 2014 (AMG) — Trinidad & Tobago’s criminalisation of men who have sex with men (MSM) will remain in legal force for the foreseeable future of the People’s Partnership government.
Word of this came from Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who insists that the question of decriminalisation should be considered by the people of Trinidad & Tobago, and not her government.
Her remarks came in response to a question posed by Lakshmi Singh, an NPR journalist, at a Trinidad & Tobago Investment Conference in Manhattan, New York. Singh pressed Persad-Bissessar for a response on the issue in light of an increased gay-rights lobby for the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in the Caribbean.
“I think this is an issue that is not for the Government to decide at this time in our country. It is an issue that the people must decide and… therefore may require a referendum to get the views of the people. Our personal views are not good enough”, the Prime Minister said.
The Prime Minister noted that proposals to decriminalise MSM had previously been included in a draft national gender policy by the former Patrick Manning-led government, but that the policy “failed to see the light of day” due to rife opposition. Persad-Bissessar said that she was met with even further opposition when her government later picked up the same policy to disseminate for discussion – particularly from the islands’ Roman Catholic groups.
No-go on referendum: Despite affirming that her Government will not decriminalise homosexuality without a mandate from citizens, the Prime Minister further claims that her Government can not instigate a referendum process either.
“It’s not legally possible”, Persad-Bissessar said in response to questions from journalists on the legality of a national vote. The Prime Minister, herself a Senior Counsel, did not clarify her views on the legal impediments to a referendum, but further told journalists that it would not be “prudent” for the Government to head in that direction at this time.
“There’s no consensus on an issue as sensitive as that”, she added.
On August 12, 2014 Persad-Bissessar championed a controversial Constitutional Amendment Bill that failed to find consensus even among her own party. The Bill, which made fundamental changes to the country’s governance structure – inclusive of new term limits and run-off elections which are widely viewed to be detrimental to smaller political parties – also did not go to referendum.
Criminalisation of gay men in Trinidad & Tobago is spelt out in Section 13 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which prescribes a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for acts of buggery, but the law is rarely enforced. The law also criminalises the act of buggery between men and women, but rights and public health experts maintain that it gives validity to discrimination against gays. The law also bears a disproportionate impact on gay men, in that it criminalises all forms of physical intimacy between males. Similar laws exist throughout the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), with the exception of The Bahamas.
Other legal challenges to anti-gay laws in Trinidad & Tobago: In May 2014, the Caribbean Court of Justice granted leave to Jamaican gay-rights activist, Maurice Tomlinson, to bring a case against the Government of Trinidad & Tobago for the country’s legal prohibition of entry for homosexuals at its borders.
That law – in Section 8e of Trinidad Immigration Act – is similarly not enforced, but may run counter to CARICOM’s Revised Treaty of Chagaramus, which governs free movement of nationals within the Caribbean Single Market. A date is yet to be set for the trial.
The takeaway: By refusing to take action at a Cabinet level, and deferring to a referendum that will not be convened, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has implied that laws against Trinidadian men who have sex with men will continue for the foreseeable future. The legality of a referendum on this matter – in which a majority of citizens would decide the legal rights and freedoms enjoyed by a minority group – is also questionable.