As a lawyer stood on the steps of the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain late Thursday morning, she whispered the words “we won”, and the crowd erupted. For the activists, allies and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, this was a major victory. Standing among them was human rights activist and law student Terry-Ann Roy.
It was only days before that Terry and I sat down to discuss all of what they were fighting for: for gay rights, for human rights, for equality. And even then, hopeful as she was, she feared for the worst – a loss, an appeal and another 5 years of the fight.
The fight we’re referring to is Jason Jones vs the state. In early 2017, Jason Jones filed a legal challenge to the constitutionality of Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act. These two acts criminalise consensual conduct. Should be easy enough to reverse, right? Not so fast. These laws fall under the saving law clause, which was instilled by the British rule upon our independence in 1962.
“The saving law clause is really that any law that was in place before we became independent was still in place after,” Terry-Ann explained. “Even if it’s an infringement on somebody’s human rights, it would still be constitutional because it was there before.”
Due to the colonial-era background of the law, it’s a little bit harder to reverse. With a saving law clause, you have to go further than just proving it’s unconstitutional, you have to prove that even in a just and reasonable society, it’s still considered unconstitutional. And then even after you prove that, you have to get 3/5 majority vote from Parliament.
And while the case has been ongoing for more than a year, it was only in the last few weeks that it really rose to public attention – and it came through haters.
“A group of Evangelicals decided to have a month-long protest, where they vowed to stay outside of Parliament for every Friday until the hearing, and that’s actually what sparked all of the commotion,” she added. “Before that, people probably knew that it was happening – but I don’t think anybody was this passionate about it, besides the activists.”
Trinidad was one of 9 Caribbean countries that still criminalized homosexuality, but it definitely was not enforced – something that anti-gay protestors were quick to use against the activists: why do we need to change the law if you’re not getting in trouble anyway?
“People are asking, if it’s not being used, then why challenge it all of a sudden?” Terry-Ann said. “But everyone has a right under the constitution to challenge laws if they feel they infringe on their human rights.”
Human rights. It’s a phrase that we definitely take for granted – because most citizens don’t have their rights challenged. But for the LGBTQIA+ (which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Allied + more) community, not just in Trinidad, or in the Caribbean, but all around the world, their human rights are challenged, and certainly not promised. In fact, before Thursday, there were 72 countries in the world that criminalized homosexuality. And with our country’s newest ruling, there are only 71.
“The court declares sections 13 and 16 of the [Sexual Offenses Act] are unconstitutional, illegal, null, void, invalid and of no effect to the extent that these laws criminalise any acts constituting consensual sexual conduct between adults,” explained Justice Devindra Rampersad, as he delivered his ruling on Thursday.
A major misconception – and admittedly, one that I had as well – is that Jones’ win in court will mean that homosexual couples can get married – and that’s not even the case. This ruling just allows for them to be who they are: in the comfort of their own home, in public, in private – and without the threat of a 25-year jail sentence just for being their truest self.
But although our nation’s judges and parliamentarians believe the law is immoral, there are many members of our society that disagree – and argue that homosexuality itself is immoral. For most, the argument is God-based or church-specific. But that’s not enough to govern our country.
“We’re a religious society: we’re multi-religious, we’re multi-cultural, we have so many different religions – so which religion is right?” asked Terry-Ann. “If we were to found our [laws] based on a religion, which one would we go by? Which one is right, and which one is wrong?”
Terry-Ann, who works at – and attended – a Catholic school herself, doesn’t believe that we should allow religion to govern our constitution. And she’s right: while our National Anthem calls on God to bless our nation, the song also preaches that every creed and race find an equal place, and the same message should be applied to sexual orientation.
“This is not a LGBTQIA+ issue,” she explained. “This is a human rights issue.”
Many heterosexual relationships form common law unions, where after 5 years of living together, you’re both legally protected and have a right to your shared assets. For same-sex couples, they don’t get the same luxury. In fact, no matter how many years they date, love or co-habitate, if a situation were to occur – a breakup or even a death – the partner has no legal right to property, or even to make important decisions because they’re unable to assume common law status.
But all that aside, the biggest impact that the law change will have on the homosexual community will be on the youth. Across the globe, there’s an incredibly high rate of mental illness, depression and even suicide amongst LGBTQIA+ people, and that’s because they grow up surrounded by a lot of hatred. Whether it’s from society, family and friends, or complete strangers, there’s no shortage of animosity. For many young people who may be struggling to come to terms with how their life may change by coming out or opening up as gay, it can be frightening.
“I’m more adamant on trying to instill in young people that regardless of the outcome, you are still important, you are still valued, you are still a citizen,” Terry-Ann said.
And regardless of the excessive hate that followed LGBTQIA+ members, allies and activists after Thursday’s announcement is disappointing, Terry-Ann is taking it in stride. While the homophobic law may not have been enforced in its recent existence, she’s positive that the removal will cause a culture shift in our society.
“Although the law might not [have been] enforced, it empowers people to discriminate,” she explained. “People feel empowered to be homophobic, because there’s a law that supports it. It creates a very homophobic culture.”
As the country gears up for a constitutional shift, she’s positive that a mindset change will follow – though she knows it’ll take some time. But at the end of the day, she hopes that everyone in our twin island society – regardless of religious beliefs, gender, age, or sexual orientation – will be able to support the movement for equality.
“You don’t have to be a member of the community to be an activist, and you don’t have to be a member of the community to be of the opinion that LGBTQIA+ persons deserve human rights,” she added. “We have to move past that, be human and recognize that everyone is human. We have to unite and try to protect and support each other. We have to not be so divided.”
And while history was made in Trinidad and Tobago this week, it’s only now starting. Equality for all – regardless of age, sex, religion, race, sexual orientation or health status – is the end goal.
“This is the beginning,” Terry-Ann clarified. “But the conversation has been started, so it has to continue.”