by Krystal Ghisyawan
This essay examines activism caught in a moment, occurring from mid-September to November 2014 in Trinidad and Tobago, where two separate but very connected events were happening. On one front, the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM) and Project 40 were protesting the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway, particularly the controversial section from Debe to Mon Desir which runs through private property, ancestral agricultural land, indigenous land and part of the Oropuche lagoon. On the other, local sexual rights advocates were reacting to statements made by then Prime Minister (PM) Kamla Persad-Bissessar about putting decriminalisation of homosexual acts to a referendum. In this essay, I discuss visibility and the occupation of space by comparing multiple forms of protests these movements exemplified: the HRM camp and Project 40, the predominantly online and media presence of sexual rights advocacy groups, and individuals and the “#WeCantWait” online campaign. I examine the co-creation of “Nation” and “citizen,” demonstrating the selective employment of “development” and “progressive” politics by the state, the centrality of religion/religious bodies in governing and maintaining social control, and the burgeoning of cyber-activism.
Key words: Trinidad and Tobago, sexual rights, cyber-activism, post-coloniality, liberal progressive development
Este ensayo examina un momento de activismo que ocurrió a mediados de septiembre hasta noviembre del 2014 en Trinidad y Tobago, donde sucedían dos eventos separados pero interconectados. Por un lado, el “Highway Reroute Movement (HRM)” y “Project 40” estaban protestando la extension de la carretera Solomon Hochoy, en particular la sección de la carretera que corría desde Debe a Mon Desir, lo cual pasaba por propiedad privada, tierras agrícolas ancestrales, tierras indígenas y parte de la laguna Oropuche. Por otro lado, activistas locales de los derechos sexuales estaban reaccionando a declaraciones hechas por la Primera Ministra (PM) Kamla Persad-Bissessar sobre hacer poner la decriminalización de actos homosexuals a un referéndum nacional. En este ensayo, discuto la visibilidad y la ocupación de espacio, comparando las múltiples formas de protesta exemplificadas por estos movimientos: el campamento de HRM y Project 40, la presencia predominantemente virtual y mediática de los grupos que abogaban por los derechos sexuales y los individuales y la campaña virtual de “#WeCantWait. Examino la co-creación de “la nación” y “el ciudadano”, demostrando el uso selectivo de “desarrollo” y una política “progresista” por el estado, la centralidad de la religión y los cuerpos religiosos en gobernar y mantener el contral social, y el crecimiento del ciberactivismo.
Palabras clave: Trinidad y Tobago, derechos sexuales, ciberactivismo, pos-colonialidad, desarrollo progresista liberal
In October 2014, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, leader of the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM), began what would turn into a nine month long fast to protest the southern extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway, particularly the controversial section from Debe to Mon Desir. This was Dr. Kublalsingh’s second fast, the first occurring two years prior. Dr. Kublalsingh vowed to refrain from consuming food and drink, including water, until he could meet with then Prime Minister (PM) Kamla Persad-Bissessar to discuss the social and environmental impacts of the highway. The concerns of the HRM included the disruption of communities, cutting through private property, ancestral agricultural land, and possible historic sites of indigenous settlements, the destruction of habitats, and disruption of a watershed by filling in a section of the Oropuche lagoon to build the multi-lane highway. The projected cost of the highway extension was $7.5 billion TT dollars (approximately 1.2 billion US dollars). As Dr. Kublalsingh continued to fast, the highway project went ahead without offering to consult the HRM, leading supporters and detractors of his fast alike to question the point of him persisting in action that could result in his death if it would change nothing about the highway extension.
At the same time, local sexual rights activists were up in arms over comments made by PM Persad-Bissessar on September 25, 2014 while being interviewed in New York City. She said it was “not legally possible” at the time to decriminalise homosexual acts, as Trinidad and Tobago (TT) was very divided on the issue and without consensus. She proposed a referendum on the issue, stating that this was a matter for the people to decide, not the government. She also pinpointed the Roman Catholic Church as having put up “tremendous opposition” to decriminalisation, while urging that people should not be discriminated against based on sexual orientation. Local sexual rights activist and columnist Colin Robinson described this move as “political cowardice,” since PM Persad-Bissessar was evading her government’s responsibility to deal with matters of sexual inclusion. She instead used public opinion and the Roman Catholic Church as scapegoats for her administration’s own unwillingness to take a stance on these matters.
Local advocacy groups (such as I am One, the Coalition Advocating the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) the Women’s Caucus, and the Silver Lining Foundation (SLF)) and community members began organising protest actions around the PM’s comments. One initiative, the #WeCantWait campaign, was launched by SLF members on Facebook, and attempted to garner support across LGBTI persons, organisations, and allies. The initiative asked supporters to post pictures and videos showing their messages of support, emphasising why “we” –“we all,” “we” the LGBTI community, or “we” TT– cannot wait for discrimination to end.
A number of factors draw highway reroute into parallel with sexual rights activism in TT. Both movements called for accountability and transparency in government dealings, as the People’s Partnership (PP) government headed by Persad-Bissessar constantly made contrary claims and shifted its position on these issues. HRM and sexual rights lobbyists utilised various forms of protest action (placarding, using music and chanting, sharing personal and community posts online) to engage debates on the agency and value of citizen lives and experiences, youth involvement in these social justice movements, and ultimately the ability of citizens to influence state action. In this paper, I assess and connect the actions undertaken by the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM) and Project 40 to sexual rights activism, particularly the #WeCantWait campaign that was simultaneously occurring in TT. While exploring these parallels between highway reroute and sexual rights activism, my discussion moves through different kinds of public spaces –mediatic, ideological, physical, and virtual– within which these movements operated. I compare the movements’ use of these diverse spaces and the merits and limitations of cyber-activism as a new sphere of political participation while investigating the claim that these movements are “revolutionary” (Maharaj 2014).
What Kind of State is Trinidad and Tobago: “Progressive,” “Liberal,” “Democratic”?
As a “post-colonial state,” Trinidad and Tobago is still in the process of creating itself and negotiating the ideologies and policies it wants to uphold and enact. Considerable tensions have emerged between colonial legacies that include homophobic laws, engaging assertions of modernity and self-articulation as a nation-state, and trying to guard the nation from perceived “foreign” threats like the “homosexual agenda” (Wahab 487). As it relates to “progress” and “modernity,” infrastructure and accessibility are an accepted part of what it means to be developed, while sexual rights are viewed negatively as importations of Western Euro-American liberal progressive politics (Wahab 485).
Anthropologist Ryan Jobson points out that neoliberal fervour can also be attributed to the desire to secure global markets, even if that means destructive harvesting of limited natural resources, deepening foreign dependence, and partaking in corrupt backroom dealings. It is common for developing nations to forward infrastructural projects that put local ecological systems, cultural groups, and communities at stake, ignoring the long-term costs of such projects in favour of short-term goals to achieve what is perceived as “development” and “developed nation” status. The HRM highlighted these same issues in relation to the nine-mile section of the Solomon Hochoy Highway connecting Debe to Mon Desir, including five interchanges and “a series of ramps, loops, connector roads, built in the midst of 13 communities, a large and important wetland system, and well established networks of commercial and industrial enterprises” (Kublalsingh). For the HRM, the costs of the project outweigh the proposed benefits, which could be achieved by a less intrusive design concept, a fair tendering process, and a route that did not require filling in a portion of the wetland. Many persons from the area where the highway is to be built reject these arguments and support the project for its expected impact on vehicular traffic, especially for those who commute daily for work.
The HRM petitioned the government, held sit-ins and protests on the site of the highway, and used bodies to block bulldozers sent to demolish homes and clear agricultural land. As all these measures failed and construction of the highway began, the movement set up camp under an open tent across the street from the Prime Minister’s office in St Clair, Port of Spain. Invoking what journalist Sunity Maharaj referred to as “Spartan existence and yogic calm,” Dr. Kublalsingh embarked on the hunger-fast in a desperate attempt to get consultation with the PM. The HRM camp was frequented daily by the “citizen soldiers” “who put everything into the trenches of citizen organizing for more than a decade for no personal gain” (Hosein), as well as government ministers, religious leaders, other activists, and cultural performers from all over the country who gathered to show their support. How did the state treat these ongoing protests? What concessions were made to accommodate citizen concerns?
According to a 2010 survey conducted by Kirton, Anatol, and Braithwaite, in public opinion, “transparency, accountability and integrity do not seem to be high on the agenda of the past governments” (4). The survey cited scandals occurring under the People’s National Movement’s (PNM) last administrative term (2001-mid 2010). The People’s Partnership (PP) –made up of the United National Congress (UNC) and the Congress of the People (COP)– came into power in May 2010 amid promises of democratizing the economic process in the country so that young people could participate in planning for TT’s economic future and forming “a transparent Government, a new kind of Government in Trinidad and Tobago” (Rampersad 460). If the September 2015 general elections were any indication, the PP did not live up to these promises, as they were voted out of office. There were also numerous protests under their watch.
While protesting Section 34, a controversial change to voting procedure in Trinidad and Tobago in 2012, protester and University of the West Indies lecturer Rhoda Bharath expressed distrust towards the government, saying that “No electorate should have to be saddled with a Government it doesn’t trust,” and that if TT is truly a democracy then “we have the right to show our displeasure and I am going to show it” (Hunte). Founder of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA), Paula Lucie-Smith, who represents several civil society organisations and is an HRM supporter, felt that people refrained from public comments and protests not because of apathy but because they felt it was pointless, as nothing would change, and the government would not listen. Lucie-Smith’s own motivation for engaging in popular action and joining the HRM was to make citizen’s voices heard (Kowlessar).
With regards to gender analysis and policy development, Patricia Mohammed accused the state of being more concerned with a “democracy of convenience” in which the government strategically commissions policies to suit a particular group, yet doesn’t actually believe that these policies are useful (13). A so-called “democracy of convenience” can be seen in the PM’s call for a referendum, given that the TT constitution does not support action based on referenda and would need to be amended for this to happen. At consultations held by the Constitutional Reform Commission (2013-2014), citizens repeatedly requested increased participation in governance through the medium of referenda and called for redrafting “fundamental rights” to include sexual minorities and indigenous populations. Although the PM called on the use of referendum for the issue of sexual minority rights, her government made no motions to change the legal framework within which such a vote could lead to policy change. Her call therefore illustrates the selective mobilisation of these potentially democratic structures as symbols of democracy, but not as real or accessible aspects of democracy in TT.
Public surveys such as the 2013 Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES) study utilised stratified random sampling within polling divisions across all constituencies in TT, Barbados, and Guyana, seeking opinions on sexual rights and inclusions. This study showed that sixty percent of Trinbagonians polled did not want homosexual acts to be decriminalised, yet only fifteen percent felt that discrimination was acceptable. A 2014 UNAIDS poll conducted only in Trinidad and Tobago found that seventy-eight percent of those polled felt that people should not be treated differently based on sexual orientation, thirteen percent felt it was okay to discriminate, and nine percent were unsure or could not say. These figures are vastly different, showing that while there may not be consensus, participants have disconnected decriminalisation from discrimination; they may not fully understand that criminalising same-sex acts is a form of institutionalised discrimination. But Trinidad and Tobago’s acceptance of international human rights treaty laws (such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) from December 1978 and later the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) stipulations), charges the government with the responsibility to attend to anti-discrimination in legislation and in society. The PM attempted to save face for not attending to the needs of sexual minorities as per the state’s obligations by passing responsibility to the public and pinning the blame on lack of consensus and religious lobbying.
Religious Nationalism in Democracies of Convenience
As reflected in the PM’s comments on decriminalisation, the religious lobby received most of the blame for hindering efforts at passing a national gender policy, which among other concerns, recommended legal and safe abortions, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and enforcing sexuality education in schools. Her statements also imply a separation of the interests of religion and state. But religion is an integral aspect of law making in TT (Wahab 486) as seen in the opening of the constitution, which claims TT is:
founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, faith in fundamental human rights and freedoms, the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions, the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights with which all members of the human family are endowed by their Creator. (The Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, 27)
All (in)action taken by the state is informed by this statement, with homogenised religious opinion being given considerable influence over political decisions, mainly in the form of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) which claims to speak on behalf of the “religious community” with a unified voice. The IRO is composed of 150 different religious and faith-based organisations (Baboolal). In 2013, IRO head, Pundit Harrypersad Maharaj (himself a Hindu), cited the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’s definition of gender as only two sexes –male and female– and the IRO’s recommendation that this be the official position of Trinidad and Tobago. He is cited by Baboolal as saying, “we all unanimously agreed that from time immemorial humans were created as male and female, not homosexuals and all these kinds of things.” He went on to declare:
We can’t tell people how to live their lives but we are saying it must not become lawful. If the Government ever intends to legalise same-sex marriages in T&T, we are sending out a warning in advance it will not get the support of the religious community. (Baboolal)
The PM’s statement in New York one year later sparked an apparent change of heart among the IRO and other religious bodies. Not wanting to be blamed for allowing the persistence of institutionalised discrimination, Catholic Archbishop Joseph Harris spoke on radio, denouncing the PM’s claim as untrue and reckless. He said that while the Church is accepting and does not support discrimination, marriage was another matter altogether. IRO head Brother Harrypersad Maharaj said he did not support gay marriage but, “at the same time, these people have made a choice and although it is against my personal choice, they should not be discriminated against” (Paul).
Maharaj was among the religious leaders who appealed to Dr. Kublalsingh to end his hunger fast at the behest of the PP government, along with Archbishop Harris and leaders from the Anglican, Shouter Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian churches (Kowlessar). Their appeals all failed as Kublalsingh continued to fast, resulting in his hospitalisation in October 2014. Catholic Father Clyde Harvey also met with Dr. Kublalsingh, but as a genuine supporter, even getting involved by posting a video on YouTube voicing his support for rerouting the highway and for transparency and accountability in governance.
While Dr. Kublalsingh was hospitalised, supporters seeking to demonstrate the “power of collective” formed Project 40 as “a space for dialogue and discussion.” Adopting the spirituality and “yogic calm” of Dr. Kublalsingh, members of Project 40 would observe twenty-four hour fasts for forty subsequent days at the HRM camp. The dubbing of “Project 40” is resonant of the forty days of Lent and Ramadhan, representing the purification of body and spirit, and acknowledging the significance of fasting in many religions, especially Hinduism, Islam, and sects of Christianity, the major religions in TT. Although inspired by Dr. Kublalsingh’s hunger strike, Project 40 sought to detach their movement from his by attending to wider issues in governance, like the lack of due process and transparency in government spending and decision-making, and not just issues of highway expansion (see Project 40s Facebook page for more details). HRM supporters, who Hosein describes as older women and “quiet rural mothers” challenging the PM, did not become part of this new movement. Instead, young artists and activists, including those dealing with other social issues like women’s rights and sexual minorities, joined the fasting. This included Zeleca Julien and Timmia Hearn of I am One, a group attending to sexual rights and inclusion through arts and culture, and Brendon O’Brien from CAISO. Project 40 represented unity of purpose in seeking social justice and accountability from the government, but their reluctance to publicly support or take a position on LGBTI issues alienated some LGBTI supporters among the group. While the #WeCantWait page shared Project 40’s content, the reverse did not occur, which could simply be due to the interests of management on the page not wanting to dilute its content. This apparent exclusion, however, gives the impression that the movement was not as unified in its goals as it initially intended.
While religion was being strategically mobilised on both sides of these arguments for government recognition of citizen demands and responsibility towards them, it also demonstrated the complicated relationship between church and state. The timing of religious leaders’ responses for LGBTI inclusion was strategic as well, as though motivated to appear more accepting of human difference and human rights in the eyes of the international viewing public, yet ignoring the inclusion in religious communities desired by local LGBTI persons. This suggests tension between the image of itself that the state seeks to maintain internationally, and the extent to which they will be accountable to such issues locally. How and where should local social movements apply pressure to the state in order to get a desirable result?
Occupying Spaces of Protests – Where to Placard?
Broome and Adugu, looking particularly at “small island developing states” in the Caribbean, including Trinidad and Tobago, argue that the Caribbean public sphere is not authoritarian and state-controlled, so Caribbean actors have greater access to public space for protest, and therefore may not turn to social media as an outlet (8). They do not account for the differences in state and social attitudes towards various issues however, which can make protests in public spaces difficult. For instance, sexual inclusion is often met with antagonism by politicians and civil society (Hunte, Mendez), which deters public protests (Allen-Agostini, Baksh and Ghisyawan, forthcoming). Interrogating the location and social media presence of the #WeCantWait, HRM, and Project 40 protests reveals how a politics of visibility influenced the reach, reception, and apparent success of each campaign.
While #WeCantWait wanted to launch an online onslaught of LGBTI support, the HRM sought the attention of PM Persad-Bissessar specifically, and so located its protest where it could confront her office and workers daily. This location, on a side street in St. Clair, hid the protest from road traffic, except of that around the Prime Minister’s office, nearby financial firms and international missions, including the Canadian, British, and Brazilian High Commissions. The HRM camp’s presence channelled international attention to the issues of environmentally sustainable development and transparency in governance by connecting to the local public through news and social media, and not through a highly visible physical presence.
While hundreds came out to support Dr. Kublalsingh and the HRM over the course of the protest action, there seemed to be reluctance from the public to engage with LGBTI issues, evidenced in the lack of support for and relative invisibility of earlier initiatives surrounding the Equal Opportunities Act (EOA) and National Gender Policy (NGP) mounted by CAISO (King 114), and the slow growth of the #WeCantWait page. According to Rosamond King, Caribbean sexual minorities operate within a dynamic of visibility and semi-invisibility (110), meaning that while indications to their presence are visible, and some hyper-visible (like public displays of affection), dominant discourses in society work to hide them, such as politician’s refusal to deal with LGBTI issues. This results in the community even being invisible from itself with individuals having a hard time finding a place of belonging within society. Political groups and movements such as CAISO and the #WeCantWait campaign can help community building (King 112), but often, social circuits prove more useful for this than political ones (Puar 1045) as more people would attend a social event or party than would a protest or demonstration. Facebook was selected as the primary social media platform for the #WeCantWait campaign in an attempt to access groups who socialised on the site but did not necessarily see themselves as invested in the political struggle for accommodations. It also created other ways engagement in protest action without having to go to a single location (typically Port-of-Spain), and without experiencing the exposure of typical protests by posting from behind a virtual screen and being able to do so anonymously.
As an administrator on the #WeCantWait page, I could access its analytics, marketing information, and supporters, and was able to privately solicit support and chat with contributors. While the page gathered “likes,” actual participation through posting was slower to get going, with a total of nine videos and thirty pictures posted to the page from October 2014 to January 2015. Although dwindling, the page is still receiving new “likes” daily and in January 2016 had 1147 “likes.” Persons who declined to participate in the campaign cited fear of exposure and retaliation through physical attacks or loss of jobs, friends, and family support (Allen-Agostini, Baksh and Ghisyawan, forthcoming). One local government counsellor privately messaged me, saying that while he would like to show his support, his constituents would not accept that, and he was not yet ready to go against the crowd, even if it meant standing up for what he believed. Broome and Adugu (11) noted that online users generally feared online surveillance, contributing to self-policing measures, such as censoring themselves to avoid retaliation in offline and online settings, especially as social media and digital technologies become further integrated into day-to-day life. To combat this fear of exposure, the #WeCantWait Campaign offered to post on behalf of those who wanted to share anonymously (sixteen posts were made anonymously).
Broome and Adugu (2015) place Internet penetration in TT at just over fifty-three percent, compared to the worldwide rate of thirty-two percent. Broome and Adugu (2015) also cite that ninety-seven percent of young users chose Facebook as their primary social media platform, noting, like Miller and Slater, that the site attracts a cross-section of users across age, social class, and ethnicity. The #WeCantWait campaign attempted to catch this cross-section of people. Many LGBTI movements across the region, including St. Lucia’s United and Strong, Jamaica’s J-FLAG, Barbados’ BGLAAD, Guyana’s SASOD, Trinidad’s CAISO, I am ONE, and Silver Lining Foundation, all have pages on Facebook, as well as websites and blogs. Similarly, HRM and Project 40 both have Facebook pages, each getting updated with news stories related to the issues and events that each group hosts.
Are online counter-publics effective spaces of protest?
Both highway reroute and #WeCantWait campaigns used hashtags – words and phrases preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) that are used on social media including Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter as a searchable component of a post. Searching for a tag brings up all posts made using that tag. While the #WeCantWait Campaign was hosted on Facebook, it encouraged participants to use the tag on another social media sites, like Twitter or Instagram as well. The HRM’s hashtags, #democratisedevelopment and #powerofprinciple, reiterated their call for more accountability and transparency in governance. While HRM and Project40 used social media as an organising tool, the #WeCantWait campaign was entirely online. Each campaign nevertheless experienced the limitations of online media spaces.
Critics of cyber-activism such as Christensen and Kristofferson et al believe joining Facebook groups, sharing, and liking posts are token acts that achieve no real political goal (Christensen 2). The terms “slacktivism” and “clicktivism” have been used in this context to undermine the political effectiveness and commitment of these “token acts.” Wearing political messages on the body, clothes, jewellery, or one’s vehicle, or taking part in short-term boycotts and using hashtags on social media are considered examples of token support, which unlike “meaningful support” have little associated effort, cost, or change in behaviour (Christensen 2-3, Kristofferson et al 2). Research has demonstrated that participation in these token acts lead to greater involvement in more meaningful acts later on (Kristofferson et al 2). Additionally, allowing contributors to engage in more meaningful acts and show increased support offline can combat absent-minded clicktivism, as they may feel more connected to the cause (Kristofferson et al 2).
Broome and Adugu (7) argue the opposite for the Caribbean, claiming that persons already inclined to “grassroots and other forms of political participation” were more likely to participate on social media. Closer review of those who openly engaged in the meaningful acts of participation in the #WeCantWait campaign, considered in this case to be the making videos and posting them openly, showed them to be either more socio-economically secure, university-educated, or part of the local sexual rights movement. There were also a number of persons who routinely participated in public protests, appearing in media, news, and talk segments, such as LGBTI activists Colin Robinson, Sharon Mottley, and Brendon O’Brien, who made videos in support of #WeCantWait and also appeared alongside HRM and Project 40 at various times.
Robinson and O’Brien have also written online about these issues, engaging in what Broome and Adugu referred to as “citizen journalism” (14) through online blogs that connected digital literacy to civic literacy, “including critical thinking, writing, and political literacy to be able to express ideas, and in order to reach a wider audience and engage with diverse people and ideas” (Broome and Adugu 14). Citizen journalism on digital technology also forces greater accountability and transparency in governance, as citizens can access news online that is withheld from mainstream news media, and mount challenges against government actions.
#WeCantWait, HRM, and Project 40 brought together a cross-section of people, including civil servants, teachers, academics, artists, and musicians. These groups were also engaging in certain kinds of protest action. #WeCantWait used videos and pictures, all hosted on the webpage. Some of these included original artwork, slideshows, speeches, and poems. Project 40 also utilised songs and spoken word in addition to fasts and moments of silence. Both campaigns were able to attract the attention of many young artists and musicians, activists, and other politically conscious persons who supported this call for better governance (Nixon).
Testimonies were posted to the #WeCantWait page by people from different walks of life, allies, and advocates, sharing the reasons why they wanted to end discrimination, such as the negative impacts of homophobia (suicide, ridicule, low self-esteem, unrealistic gender ideals), bullying in schools, being publicly ridiculed, or wanting to get married. These personal consequences were being connected to the institutionalised discrimination that government inaction allows to persist in TT. A contribution from a parent highlighted the ways in which gender-based discrimination and homophobia affects everyone, not just sexual and gender minorities:
This little human likes to wear nail polish, put flowers in everyone’s hair and have dance parties in the grass. I fear though that as he gets older, social norms will harden him and make him afraid of true self expression. I say no to discrimination because I want him to live in a world where stereotypes and sexual orientation do not matter. I want him to be able to express his own ‘unconventional version of masculinity’, whatever that may be”. #WeCantWait
Additionally, and unintentionally, the #WeCantWait campaign reproduced a particular idea of the acceptable gay subject –productive, trustworthy, monogamous, and non-threatening– who deserves protection and inclusivity by reiterating these ideas in the posts (Crawford). One post urged: “WE are your MPs, your advisors, your teachers, your lawyers, your doctors, your local celebrities, your FAMILY… and WE CANNOT WAIT. END discrimination NOW, Madam Prime Minister.” This raised questions about whose inclusion is being negotiated and who is doing the negotiating. According to Jen Schradie, online activist spaces are dominated by the middle class given their access to digital infrastructure and political consciousness, which often results in the exclusion of working-class voices and interests. Online sites such as Facebook limit what users can access by exposing them to content similar to what they are already looking for and to posts made by members of their friend circles. These digital geographies mean that some content is always invisible to users unless they actively search for it or engage with others who use it. This is a limitation of using online spaces. Even blogs that are open to the public need to be aggressively marketed for improved visibility. Otherwise content may remain within one social circle –whether a social class group, groups of activists, academics, or artists– talking amongst themselves, isolated from the rest of society (Schradie).
Another deterrent to activism that was expressed to me by LGBTI persons and allies who declined to take part in the #WeCantWait campaign was their disenchantment with the whole process; they felt that public and political protests led to no real or tangible change and was ineffective. Instead, some people chose to engage in forms of resistance that challenge the state everyday; people whose activism does not mean walking the picket line but rather engaging in conversation, writing blogs and articles (citizen journalism), making posters and videos, making love whole-heartedly (albeit illegally given the proscriptions in the Sexual Offence Act), and raising families. These acts work to create changes in society from the bottom-up, especially as there is little faith in the government making top-down legislative changes.
Conclusion: What are these movements accomplishing?
At the culmination of the fortieth day of fasting, journalist Sunity Maharaj said of Project 40, “When people can start and finish something in Trinidad and Tobago, that is a Revolution.” This statement plays on the notion of the apathetic TT public. But this is certainly not the only reason for these movements to be thought of as revolutionary. Being part of the movements, attending HRM events and administrating the #WeCantWait page, I felt participants’ excitement for being part of something, a rebellion or just a crucial moment in local history. It was a defining moment for PM Persad-Bissessar as the first female Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, especially having entered office full of promise. Online activism and coordinating through social media demonstrated a new phase of citizen organising in TT, and was crucial for defining the relationship between state and citizen. However, the outcome of these actions reflects unfavourably on the state, particularly its assertions of “democracy” and goals for “developed nation” status. The PP administration showed it would not bow to citizen demands, even if all citizens were demanding was a consultation.
PM Kamla Persad Bissesssar did not meet with Dr. Kublalsingh. Her administration did not take action towards the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Equal Opportunities Act (EOA) or for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, despite the recommendation of the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Lynette Seebaran-Suite, to do so. Project40 continues to share news and events on issues of government inclusion and local artists’ projects and accolades. The #WeCantWait page is still active on Facebook and is used to share news on sexual rights issues from across the region and other social media campaigns. One example is the sharing of memes made by members of the LGBTI community declaring “I may be fashionable but my rights are inalienable” in response to comments by Prime Ministerial hopeful Dr. Keith Rowley, who, in the lead-up to the September 2015 election said that while gay rights were fashionable at this time, his party were not prepared to address the issue. This period also saw the creation of a new alliance among sexual rights advocates called Allies for Justice and Diversity, who presented political parties and individual candidates with a twelve-point manifesto for the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities, outlining the legal and social constraints facing LGBTI peoples in TT. These include exclusion from the Domestic Violence Act, lack of affordable or public housing for homeless LGBTI youth, the criminalisation of same-sex acts, and the lack of sexuality and gender sensitivity training for police and other workers in justice.
As these movements continue to struggle onward under the current PNM administration, we can adopt the lessons learned from these campaigns and the limitations of their execution. The operations and critiques of HRM, Project 40, and #WeCantWait show how access to different spaces can be read as forms of privilege, which in turn shapes the ways in which movements are able to organise and mobilise, influencing how much attention and support each receives from the media and the public. Although HRM is visible in different ways than sexual rights movements, it can still be easily made invisible as media attention is necessary for activist movements to gain visibility and to influence public perception. Based on public outcry and personal attacks on Dr. Kublalsingh and towards sexual minorities, one might be challenged to say which they find more abhorrent, but based on the willingness of protesters to still come out for the highway reroute, it is obvious that the HRM has a larger and more visible support base. The #WeCantWait campaign did not receive as much visible support, having over a thousand “likes” on Facebook but less demonstrations of ‘meaningful’ support.
This raises the question about who speaks: is it only the privileged who can speak out? Alarcón (366) suggests that those who speak and who are heard are already in a position of privilege over those who cannot speak or are not heard, in other words, those who are invisible. To address where this privilege comes from, we can interrogate “invisibility,” not just as an absence but as the active denigration and erasure of the lives, stories, and persons who dare to challenge the norms and power structures within society (King). Media attention (or lack thereof), dismissal or denial by the state are all acts of silencing that keep those who are powerless invisible and unheard. This silence cannot be broken in a single act, but must entail the repeated application of pressure to sites (and sights) of power. These issues of visibility will need to be addressed if we are to look to the future of activist work in Trinidad and Tobago.
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Krystal Ghisyawan holds a Double Honours BA in Anthropology and South Asian Studies from York University, Toronto (2007-2011). Ghisyawan also holds a PhD in Sociology from The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. Her work focuses on multi-disciplinary research involving same-sex loving women in Trinidad.