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Same sex marriage in TT

A Special Investigation by Neidi Lee-Sing Rojas Sunday, September 14 2003

The general public may not be aware of it, but same sex “marriages” are taking place in TT. These secret ceremonies conducted privately in homes, have no legal status, and evoke snickers from those who are aware of such activities. The “ceremonies” are often supported by family who come together and create a wedding scene in a large, private house, with an aisle down which a couple walks through an arch decorated with flowers. They exchange vows and jewelry, usually bracelets, since rings would be too obvious. The “ceremony” is performed by a lay person. There are guests and even a wedding cake. It is called a “commitment ceremony” and takes place more frequently than we realise.

The only difference from a “normal” wedding is that the “couple” are either two men or two women. Another fact that is perhaps not generally known is that there is a fairly large “gay” community in TT, many of whom live in steady unions and pay taxes like eveyone else. The group includes professionals; businessmen; clerks and the unemployed of both sexes. Many are very artistic. In fact, the highest percentage of known gay people appears to come from the world of arts. But like any other group, their members include men and women who are irresponsible and dishonest and indeed are prostitutes. Over the years, society has not changed the way it treats homosexuals. They are ridiculed and scorned, the butt of jokes, and are often treated as outcasts and as less than human. We would like to think that we have long passed the day when any sexual contact between two men could attract a jail term. But are we really?

Change is definitely taking place particularly in certain European countries and in Canada, but such change is being stoutly resisted by leading Churches; governments; right-wing conservatives; ordinary men and women who are determined that gay people should enjoy few, if any rights at all. When the HIV/Aids disease descended on the world with such vengeance in the early 1980’s, it was first seen among homosexual men and even now, is wrongly regarded as a homosexual disease. One well-known scientist saw it as a punishment from God for the “wickedness of homosexuality.” Are homosexual people born that way, or is it “wickedness,” “nastiness” that transforms them? No one we spoke to would go on record with an answer. In fact, only religious leaders and one human rights activist was willing to be quoted. Even a psychologist who advocated that homosexuals should not be ostracised, opted for anonymity. She did admit, however, that gay men and women were human beings with feelings. She said since 1973, homosexual behaviour had been taken off the Diagnostic Statistics Manual as “abnormal behaviour.”

Therefore, she said, those with such lifestyles are normal human beings, who have become homosexuals/lesbians by choice and/or, a combination of “complex environmental elements,” and even by some genetic causes discovered by medical research. Another psychologist listed sexual abuse as another major reason which leads to homosexuality. However, she believes that biological factors were also major causes, including abnormal hormones and the use of synthetic drugs such as steroids. What are the environmental factors? One psychologist said: “A young man came to me and told me a story about being the last child of nine children who were girls.” Growing up in a predominantly female environment and being exposed to predominantly female mannerisms made it extremely difficult for him to grow up as a man. She said this was made worse by the fact that there were men like him who preyed on him a lot. In terms of biological explanations, the psychologist said sometimes there are men who may have too many female hormones (estrogen) and women with too many male hormones (testorone).

Somestimes, a child may be born with a penis but has more estrogen, or babies may be born with both male and female organs. However, she lamented that no research was done in TT, which is why, she does not advocate passing judgement on people who are gay or seem to be gay. Asked why she would not allow herself to be quoted, she said she was not being cowardly, just facing the reality that to be objective about the issue was to be seen as advocating homosexuality. Not surprisingly, some well-known and respected homosexuals also distanced themselves from public discussion on an issue that personally affects their lives. Several agreed to be interviewed, only to cancel at the last minute, refusing even to speak off the record. One sensed a bitterness in the refusals. One man who did speak, extracted from us, the promise that he would not be named. Was he embarrassed? “Not at all!” he replied, “only that the society in which we live put my life in danger just because I am not attracted to women, which makes me a freak.”

He might also have been remembering the young university student who was beaten to death in the USA by his classmates because he was gay. But the headlines of today seem to suggest that we are witnessing the winds of change with regard to this issue. Traditionally, marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman. In Canada, in June, the province of Ontario legalised same sex marriage as unconstitutional. The same day, two men “tied the knot” in a civil ceremony and were photographed kissing. The photo taken by AP was published on this newspaper’s front page. Our telephones rang constantly, with readers accusing us of “immorality.” Asked whether the TT Government would even consider such changes in the law, as was done in Canada, Prime Minister Patrick Manning had no comment to make. He did, however, object to the Newsday photo, describing it as being in “poor taste.”

In August, Manning also said that if he had a vote on the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA, (Bishop Gene Robinson who had been duly elected by the Episcopalian Church, despite his open homosexuality), his vote would have “gone in a different direction.” That election created one of the biggest controversies in the 70 million-strong Anglican Church worldwide. In Moscow, last week, the Russian Orthrodox Church defrocked a priest for marrying two men in that country’s first same sex wedding. The cost of the ceremony was close to TT $3,000. The Russians regard homosexuality as a deadly sin and such marriages, as blasphemous. Whether one sees homosexuality as a sin or not, the issue will not go away, particularly now that governments and Churches are taking a second look at the subject and wondering what next to do about it.

How the Church sees it —

God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve

It is not God’s will but homosexuals/lesbians have a choice and should be allowed to live in any society, despite the choices they make, is the generally accepted position. Even though most religious denominations in TT have come out against support for the gay community, the Inter-Religious Organisation said they will be discussing and looking closely at the issue to see how best they can deal with it. Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Sat Maharaj, is of the view that people with gay tendencies should seek medical attention and counselling. He does not support the altering of laws in order to accommodate a few people who could change their “abnormalities” with medical help.

IRO President, Rev Cyril Paul of the Presbyterian Church said about three weeks ago, the organisation had discussed the topic in great detail. In June this year, religious leaders had declared themselves totally against gay marriages and/or coupling. At the end of the recent meeting, which came after a province in Canada had made same sex marriage legal, the IRO members, the Roman Catholic, Pres-byterian, Orishas, Baptists, Bahai, Hindu and Muslims, were each asked to provide scripture/teachings on the issue. “Basically, the followers of each faith will have to be guided by those scriptures but the scriptures do not support same sex marriage,” said Paul. He pointed out, however, the IRO could not ignore the issue and would be willing to study it in greater detail. “We have to weigh all the information,” he said, “we have to hear what the scientists are also saying and seek professional advice on this type of sexual behaviour.”

Paul added that the IRO was open to “responsible dialogue” since the organisation empathised with the gay community on the issue. “The IRO could never take a judgmental approach, but one of understanding and compassion,” he said. But former IRO president, Brother Noble Khan (Muslim) said moving in the direction of gay marriages went against all the principles set aside for a family, a sentiment endorsed by the Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Sat Maharaj, who said that in Hindu tradition, a man and woman should be married and there is no room for same sex marriages/coupling. It goes against the vivah samskara or the Hindu wedding ceremony. Maharaj said while the Hindu community sympathises with the gay tendencies of some people, he urged them to seek medical attention and counselling to rectify “the problem,” pointing out that they can be helped. “What they have to understand is that human nature plays tricks and crossovers begin to take place which shows that some kind of psychological default has taken place,” he said. “Medical research shows that a lot of gay tendencies are derived from some form of human abnormality, but they must try to correct this,” Maharaj said.

Pastor Winston Cuffie of Miracle Ministries, representing the Pentecostal Church, had a different view. He urged the national community not to “scorn” homosexuals, but rather help them change their lifestyle. According to the Bible, he said, homosexuality is frowned upon. “It is seen as an abomination in God’s eyes,” Pastor Cuffie said. “However, we should not ostracise them,” he said, “because they may become more traumatised when we do that. We should try to help them through education and counselling.” Pastor Cuffie disclosed that there were homosexuals in his church and boasted that a few had changed their lives around. He said, as a matter of fact, there was a case in which a previously gay man is now happily married with children. “Therefore they can come out of it, there are those who have come out of it and this is what we have to work on,” said Pastor Cuffie.

Another local Christian Ministry said according to the scriptures, Romans 1, God did not make man for man but woman for man. In the book of Ephesians, the Ministry said God speaks about the importance of marriage and in Genesis 1, God created woman, out of man to be man’s help mate and companion for life. As one church leader said: “God did not make Adam and Steve but Adam and Eve.” But there are voices in support of the rights of homosexuals. YMCA Human Rights advocate Gregory Sloane-Seale has called on Government, religious organisations and denominations, as well as all social groups, to start talking about human sexuality in a more open way, to avoid discrimination of homosexuals and all other aspects of sexual life.

Sloane-Seale, mostly a child rights activist, spoke on homosexuality during an interview at the YMCA, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain last week.
Referring to Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s “poor taste” comment on two men kissing, Sloane-Seale felt that no Government should discriminate against homosexuals. He noted that it was Government’s role to “protect, serve and provide equal opportunities” and not criticise a certain group of individuals because of personal biases. “Government is there to protect and serve and advocate on behalf of its constituents which is the national population. I don’t think they are in a position to discriminate against anyone based on whatever personal ideology they may hold,” he said. Sloane-Seale also pointed out that every country is governed by laws, of which we have certain rights as enshrined in the constitution.
Among these he said, should be the ability for gay people to get jobs, freedom of movement and expression, education as well as protection from discrimination.

He lamented the high number of “homophobic” people in this country, calling on all spheres of society to be more open-minded and change their attitudes where gay people are concerned. He said as a matter of fact, studies show that homosexuals/lesbians and even bi-sexual were often victims of sexual molestation and child abuse which they manifest later on in the form of homosexuality. Sloane-Seale spoke about a legal matter in which a certain homosexual individual is currently trying to seek asylum from TT because of discrimination against him. He said the gay man claimed that police officers beat him and he experienced other forms of violence against him because he was homosexual. Sloane-Seale said there were many similar cases in which other people with personal biases attack gay persons verbally and physically. He suggested that if the gay community felt threatened or afraid to live in their own society because of their choice, they should organise themselves and advocate against it. However, they were advised to do so in a proactive and positive manner.

While he supports the gay community in their hope of achieving equal opportunities, Sloane-Seale does not support the idea of flaunting their ideologies publicly. As for gay marriages? He said: “That is something for the Churches to decide.” “I believe that each and every individual should be given the opportunity to develop themselves to their greatest potential,” said Sloane-Seale. He felt it would be better for society if they support, embrace and allow the gay community to express themselves. “I think if there was more acceptance of human rights in general and a lot less of people trying to force their own personal ideologies unto each other, these issues will become non-issues,” he said. As a human activist, Sloane-Seale said it was time moves were made to educate and empower people on human rights. Also speaking out on the human aspect of homosexuality was Robert Solomon, who became a voice against “gay-bashing” this year with the reggae/dub tune “Chi Chi Man.” Solomon said when he made the comments against the message of the song, he was speaking out against any form of discrimination.

Psst — you can find a same-sex mate in the ads

One hears about “the alternative lifestyle/gay parties” in TT and the saying that they are very discreet about who is invited. A Sunday Newsday investigation revealed that only the genuine and discreet gay people can get on to the list of activities offered in the personal ads section of newspapers, for example. Under the ones listed “alternative lifestyles,” you can sign up for a membership fee of just under $200 a year for services in any category. You can get a man with a man, woman with a woman or a heterosexual relationship. How-ever, it’s not as simple as that. You will be asked everything about yourself — age; race; height weight; complexion; your likes and dislikes, and your preferences and they will match you up once you pay the registration fee.

They asked if there were gay parties that we (the posing reporters) could attend, they said yes, but not until we registered. Once you register, they give you names and phone numbers of four people for you to meet. You are reminded that these women/men are professionals who were not looking for a fling or one-night stand, but for a serious relationship. If it does not work out, you can get back in touch with the agency which will continue working with you until you find your ideal mate, after which they put you on an unavailable list. There were other alternative services offered in which you could acquire temporary pleasures from any gender, but the prices were high. At one place, the price was $300 per hour. “$300 per hour?” I asked, unbelievingly. “Yes, and that is quite cheap actually,” a woman responded. However, you are guaranteed your money’s worth and your choice of gender.

Same-sex marriages — Canada

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the provincial governments of Alberta; British Columbia; Nova Scotia; Ontario and Quebec, granted restricted rights to gays and lesbians that were nearly equivalent to those enjoyed by heterosexual common-law couples. On June 10, 2003, the definition of marriage in Ontario, was widened by the courts so that same sex couples were allowed to obtain marriage licences and register their marriages for the first time. On July 8, 2003, the province of British Columbia followed suit.

The deputy Prime Minister, John Manley, commented to the media on August 21, 2003, that Quebec will soon start to register SSMs. If this happens, SSMs would be available to 80 percent of Canada’s gay and lesbian population without them having to leave their province of residency. The Federal Government submitted draft legislation to the Supreme Court of Canada on July, 2003, which would redefine marriage to include same sex couples. The Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the proposed laws in 2003. Same sex adult couples are expected to be able to marry anywhere in Canada by July 2004.


The Legal Debate-

Gay ‘marriages’ not recognised

According to attorney-at-law Ronnie Bissessar, by section 13(1) of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act Chapter 45:51, marriage in TT is void if the parties are not respectively male and female. In TT, a person’s sex is fixed for all time at birth and the only relevant tests for sexual identity are biological. In a UK case — Corbett vs Corbett 1971 — a man known as George Jamieson underwent a sex change operation and lived as a woman by the name of April Ashley. Indeed, April was a successful fashion model and was recognised as a woman in her passport and for National Insurance purposes.

She purported to marry a man, Arthur Corbett. It was held that the marriage was a nullity because they were both men. The court held that she had been born with male genitalia and male chromosomal structure and her sexual attribution could not change. Corbett is the legal position in the UK and in TT. There was a subsequent case by transexual, Rees vs UK to the European Court of Human Rights in which he alleged that the English law made it possible for him to enter a valid marriage with a man. The European Court upheld the findings in Corbett. Accordingly, Corbett remains good law in TT and as a result, gay marriages are not recognised. There are moves, however, to interpret the expressions of “male/female” as referring to a person’s gender rather than sex, and if so, the question of whether the person is male or female may not be resolved by reference to tests of biological sexuality as in Corbett.

But in terms of philosophical and psychological evaluation, for instance, if a person considers himself to be a woman and has lived his life as a woman, “he” is a woman. If this position was ever adopted in TT, the external attributes of a person would become unimportant. There has been increasing recognition for gay marriages in some provinces in Canada and European countries where legislation has been enacted to recognise gay marriages. In the UK, in 1995, a Bill was introduced called “the Gender Identity (Registration and Civil Status) Bill,” which permits the Court to grant transexuals a “Recognition Certificate,” which is akin to a marriage certificate, but is not lawfully a marriage. The Bill is yet to be enacted, however.

The TT constitution Section 4, declares certain rights and freedoms. Section 4(C) enshrines the right to respect for one’s family and private life. But it is a breach of an individual’s constitutional right if the State fails to recognise “marriage” between two men and two women. The Equal Opportunity Act, number 69 of 200, prohibits certain kinds of discrimination. The Act, however, while prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex, makes it quite clear that “sex” does not include sexual preferences or sexual orientation. (The latter speaks to gay marriages). Attorney General Glenda Morean refused to comment on the issue. However, an official from the AG’s office said a number of changes would have to be made to the Equal Opportunity Act before this issue can go any further.

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