Throughout history, it has been considered one of the world’s greatest taboos – something many people know about, but very few dare tackle, even on a personal level.
There are many positions on the issue, ranging from full recognition and inclusion in greater society, to downright rebuttal on various fronts.
Even today, in Trinidad and Tobago, it is still an issue not many people willingly discuss, due to religion, family ties and general opinion. This has led to the Trinidadians and Tobagonians who fall under this category, those who fall under the umbrella of homosexuality, to hide, or “stay in the closet” so to speak.
Their stories vary.
Chris – Muslim teen
Chris*, a secondary school student from South Trinidad, is a practising Muslim, and aspires to become an actuary. He has never been in a same-sex relationship, but interacts with other Trinidadian gays through Facebook and other sites.
“I am gay; I’ve known for as long as I remember,” he states about his sexuality. “Sometimes I feel lonely, like the only person going through this, because I don’t really personally know anyone else who’s gay in my area.”
His loneliness, however, is sometimes resolved by confiding in one of his classmates at school.
‘Sometimes I feel lonely, like the only person going through this’
“I told one of my friends at school, a girl. She listens, and there are times she would give her opinion on things, but somehow it’s not enough – I don’t think she understands everything I’m going through, and sometimes she thinks it’s only a phase brought on by puberty or something. But I’m confident she won’t tell anybody else.”
To fill the gap, Chris uses the Internet to reach out to others “like him”.
“I found a group on Facebook, which led me to other groups, where there are Trinis who are gay,” he shares. “My first impression was ‘Wow, look at people here’. So set up a second profile, where I try to contribute, and I have a few people I talk to about gay life and things in general.”
Back in the real world, he made discretion his mantra when it comes to his secret. “Right now, if I told you I have met ten gay people in real life, I would be lying. And I try my best to cover my tracks on the computer by deleting the history before I come off and going on late at night when I know no one would be watching. I have two phones – the main one everybody knows, and the other one stays off and hidden most of the time. Even right now (during the interview) my parents think I’m in the mall with the same friend I mentioned before.”
One hurdle Chris believes is difficult to deal with is that of his faith and its stance on homosexuality. “In some way I am still making peace with the fact I am gay, but I feel guilty going to mosque, so I don’t go as often.” He makes reference to the Qur’an (central Islamic text and basis of Islamic law) and the hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad). Both have texts depicting homosexuality as an immoral act punishable by capital punishment, and in some cases, death.
“There is still no specific punishment written,” he notes. “And in most cases it is left to the judgment of the authorities. But all the same, the last thing I want is to bring dishonour to myself and my family, and have no idea what will happen to me if it gets out that I am gay.”
Renata – The Pharmacist
Renata* is in her early twenties, working as a pharmacist in East Trinidad.
“I see it all the time,” she says, “People coming out, and life gets harder for them. All the talk about lesbians having it easier, it’s a lie. You’re gay, and that’s it – you’ve already been labelled.”
Renata believes she lived in a very sheltered environment as a child, but realised something was different about her, as she developed an attraction to women as a teen.
“At one point I thought I was crazy, because I had no idea what being gay was about, or if there were other people out there like me,” she says. “Then at a house lime by a friend of mine, one of the girls from my school started hitting on me. I didn’t take it on, because she was clearly drunk, until sometime during the week she came out to me in school. It blew my mind, because I was finally not alone. From that day we were the best of friends. We still are, to this day.”
‘At one point I thought I was crazy’
Renata continued life as usual, keeping her sexuality close to her chest. “I did have relationships, both serious and sexual, throughout university, but I kept it on the down-low to be on the safe side. Plus I don’t think my family is ready yet; they raised me and my younger brothers up with the notion that homosexuality is wrong, and ‘not natural’. My mother, most of all, is very vocal; the most memorable thing I remember her saying is, ‘The day gays are allowed to run amok, getting married, and living freely in public is day the humanity will end’. To hear my mother say that, to see my family be so apprehensive towards homosexuality while they live with someone who is indeed gay, under their noses – sometimes it hurts so much I just want to scream it out, but at the same time, I don’t want to lose them, because they’re basically all I have.”
Michael – The PE Teacher
Michael* is what people would term the perfect jock – he is skilled in many disciplines ranging from football to martial arts, and is even a physical education teacher.
He has recently completed his studies for a Master’s degree in Education, in the hopes of furthering his career. His sexuality, however, is something he has kept secret for over two decades.
“I want to be myself, you know, being able to tell everyone about me,” he says. “But not in a place like Trinidad. I don’t see myself telling anyone else soon.”
“You hear on the news all kinds of things happening to gay people – who getting beat, who getting killed. So since I was young, I always try to be as “butch” as possible to throw people off. And what you think will happen if they find out at work? First thing people will think that I coming to rape the children. On top of that, what about the rest of my life? Sports is the only thing I can see myself doing, and if it gets out there I will lose even that.”
Easing the fear of “coming out”
There is, however, some active ventures to ease, if not eradicate the fears of “coming out of the closet”. The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) is a group of NGOs and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) social networks working to contribute to the creation of a just, diverse and inclusive country where members of the GLBT can enjoy full citizenship and equal treatment and opportunity, recognition of their essential humanity and worth, and full incorporated in all walks of national life.
Colin Robinson, coordinator of CAISO, illustrates the organisation’s initiatives in developing a forward-thinking understanding about sexual orientation and gender expression, through advocacy, partnerships with Government and major stakeholders in society and legislative pressure in the form of the National Gender Policy.
“We are working to normalise and make GLBT issues visible and to provide rational analysis and new thinking through new media, via our blog and Facebook,” he notes. “Along with being featured in the print media, our members have appeared on television as well as radio, and we have been treated with professionalism and respect by the media and Government, and even by those who oppose us.
“The Gender Policy is not CAISO’s sole focus or policy target. It is a logical and powerful vehicle for Government to modernise and articulate a specific policy on sexual orientation, but we are already targeting many other ways to do so. Furthermore, the Policy, along with the inclusion of sexual orientation in itself will not be enough to change the “closet culture” among the GLBT community in Trinidad and Tobago. Over time, activities the Policy facilitates will reduce the costs of coming out of the closet.”
Even with the hypothetical scenario of the Policy being enforced and the costs reduced, Chris and Renata are doubtful people will change their minds anytime soon.
“At my job before this one, one of my male co-workers said all lesbians need is some good ‘totie’ and they would be back to normal,” Renata recounts. “That kind of thinking makes me feel even more hesitant to tell anyone about me.”
Chris states: “There was one time an Imam’s son carved a verse from the Sunan al-Tirmidhi (one of the six major hadiths) on a desk – ‘Whoever you find committing the sin of the people of Lut (the Islamic interpretation of the Sodomites), kill them’. I fear for any gay Muslim if he becomes Imam of a mosque. People like him are the reason people like me are in hiding and will stay hiding, because they don’t want to end up being humiliated, or dead.”
“Don’t get me wrong, maybe in 10 or 15 years when we have a new generation we might see a difference,” Michael states. “But until then, I’m staying where I am… waiting and hoping for that day to come.”
*Names of persons have been changed to protect their identity.