Colin Robinson – The Work of Three-Year Old CAISO – Reflections at the MidPoint” – Activist Report (Trinidad and Tobago)

“The Work of Three-Year-Old CAISO (The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation)
Reflections at the MidPoint”

Colin Robinson

E-mailing the nine questions below to activists and artists in their networks, Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Matt Richardson hoped to initiate a “cross diaspora dialogue” on “Sexual Rights, Erotic Autonomy and Queer Expression in Black Diaspora” for a roundtable originally proposed to be published in the Black/Queer/Diaspora issue of GLQ1. Their goal was to “take… up the problematics of rights discourse; the state of HIV prevention activism, anti-violence and feminist movements and their relationship to queer movement; the status of homosexuality as an identity among African and African descended subjects; and various ways of naming and engaging sexual practices, among other themes,” as well as to “ask… questions about the current work being done in various sites around the globe, to document this work and rediscover the historical perspectives of black queers.”

My January 2011 responses to their questions, reflecting on a year and a half of work with the now three-year-old Trinidad & Tobago’s Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, are shared as an “activist report” in this collection (with Jafari and Matt’s encouragement). June 2012

1. What is the name of your organization; what is its purpose and what are the communities that you serve? (Please feel free to include which countries, regions, languages, specific programs, etc.)

Name. In Trinidad & Tobago I work with CAISO the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, a year-and-a-half-old GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender)2 advocacy and community-building group that names itself after one of the nation’s major indigenous artforms, the calypso or kaiso showing that we are rooted in our country and culture and linking CAISO to a native tradition of speaking out and holding our leaders accountable as we describe the art, wit and poignancy that characterise the political speech of calypso.

Purpose. We are currently unincorporated; and seek to operate as an umbrella or coalition framework that provides a politics (strategic thinking, values) and a brand to enable GLBT political advocacy and social change work, community-building and the diffusion of modern understandings of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Communities served: Regions/Countries. Although leadership and collaboration in regional GLBT organizing is a key commitment of ours, and we face some pressure to position ourselves as a Caribbean voice, CAISO is deliberately a local — national — nationalist organization: our politics are to position ourselves as “nation-builders” and our goals as creating an inclusive nation and deepening achievement of a postcolonial vision of liberty.

CAISO’s commitment is to gay, lesbian, bi and trans communities in their diversity, and we have taken steps to nurture lesbian, trans and youth visibility and leadership. Although Trinidad & Tobago shares a history of plantation slavery with other African American societies, in the century and a half since Emancipation we have become a multicultural country in which Afro‌Trinbagonians are enumerated as a statistical minority and the nation’s second largest ethnic group (a few percentage points behind Indo‌Trinbagonians, the plurality ethnic group, and ahead of people of mixed descent). Thus, CAISO’s communities are not solely Black diaspora communities; our communities belong to the African, South Asian, Chinese and Middle Eastern diasporas.

Programs. CAISO has engaged in media advocacy and public education; lobbying and legislative advocacy; community mobilisation and protest; strategic alliance-building; documentation, social history and cultural work; and faith-based organizing.

Personally, I have also lived in the United States and done sexual rights, cultural and health justice work with the Audre Lorde Project, Caribbean Pride, Gay Men of African Descent, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the New York State Black Gay Network and Other Countries.

2. How and when did your organizations get started? What were the organizations, groups, movements or incidents that preceded and influenced the founding of your organization?

3. What local/national/global political struggles gave rise to your organization? What about struggles for sexual autonomy?

CAISO’s founders originally came together on Emancipation Day 2007, to meet with Kennty Mitchell, a gay, primary school-educated taxi driver whose successful lawsuit for police harassment elicited widespread public sympathy and visible news coverage, in which he said he wanted to speak out for gay rights for people who could not do so for themselves.

The Mitchell case evidenced for GLBT people media and national empathy with victims of discrimination, and substantiated the possibility of successful redress for discrimination for ordinary citizens. Efforts were made then, which fizzled, to form a novel cross-gender, cross-class advocacy organisation. CAISO itself formed on June 27, 2009, in response to a Cabinet announcement two days earlier that the proposed final version of a national Gender Policy (that had been the subject of noisy advocacy by evangelical Christians five years earlier over its inclusion of a handful of forward-thinking references to sexual orientation and termination of pregnancy) would expressly avoid dealing with sexual orientation. CAISO formed at a meeting originally intended to celebrate how GLBT activists from T&T and 15 other countries participating in the June 2009 Organization of American States General Assembly meeting had helped ensure passage for the second year of a resolution by all the governments of the hemisphere, committing them to take action against violence and human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

As the Association for Women’s Rights in Development wrote last week, in recent years, “airs of social and political change [have] swept through the Americas”, fuelling “heated debates about rights for LGBTI persons …in several countries. This media-fuelled expansion of hemispheric discourse and political action on sexual citizenship (of which the OAS resolution is a demonstration) has interacted with Trinidad & Tobago’s GLBT communities’ two-decade-long history of organizing (we have formal NGOs as old as 14 years) and with consistent efforts since 1997 to coordinate Caribbean regional GLBT advocacy. While it has included a 2000 legislative campaign for sexual orientation language in an antidiscrimination law, local organizing in T&T has focused largely on HIV among men who have sex with men and the creation of social space. This includes gay bars that open onto the pavement and a slew of entrepreneurial partnerships that produce gay and lesbian parties at least monthly which, at record highest have drawn crowds approaching 1,000. These efforts, and the expansion of GLBT social space during the annual Carnival season when GLBT people of Trinbagonian citizenship and heritage living abroad return in large numbers, along with many GLBT visitors from elsewhere in the Caribbean, have synergistically led to a widespread reputation for T&T as having the most space and tolerance for same-sex communities in the Commonwealth Caribbean. A cosmopolitan, laissez-faire, multiethnic culture has perhaps helped fuel such openness.

4. How does the HIV/AIDS pandemic affect your work?

In my view, HIV has enabled or influenced much of the sexual rights work happening contemporarily. Its role has been to vastly expand public and institutional discourse about sexuality, to highlight homosexuals as a social group experiencing enhanced stigma and discrimination and to legitimate us as a target for strategic social and health programming. In the midyears of the pandemic, HIV emboldened GLBT advocates and created a sense of urgency and priority for both advocacy and sexuality, and helped strengthen sexual communities. HIV and HIV funding have helped give voice, infrastructure, access and often a framework or meaning to GLBT organizing and social activity. This has been the case in Trinidad & Tobago.

HIV has also had a distorting effect on MSM and GLBT community self-concept and priorities. HIV, its dominant discourse and the resources that follow it reframe organic community organizing, the nature of leadership and the substance of programmes and advocacy. MSM, and to an extent GLBT people, are seen primarily in terms of an infectious, disabling and stigmatising disease, and the legitimacy of GLBT representation, resource allocation and the decriminalisation of GLBT desire is justified in terms of disease, and often of preventing its costs or transmission to the population at large, instead of in terms of the humanity or worth of GLBT people, the value of sexual autonomy or the legitimacy of desire and sexual pleasure.

CAISO has been routinely called on by virtue of being a GLBT group to engage with policy and planning issues related to HIV, e.g. calls by the media on World AIDS Day. We have done so with ambivalence, recognising the importance of transforming HIV discourse to one which centres at first stigma, discrimination and vulnerability but ultimately autonomy and self-efficacy as core facets of sexual health. But we have also felt the need to push against the distorting and reductive impact of HIV on resource allocation, attention and imagination with regard to other GLBT concerns and policy issues. We have found some institutional HIV voices responsive to some of these issues.

5. How do your communities name same-sex relationships and gender variance? To what extent are the terms “lesbian,” “transgender,” “gay,” and “bisexual” used for self-naming?

T&T communities relate to the GLBT alphabet in many ways consistent with its Global North usages, and have similar understandings of all those terms. Though GLBT communities here use the internet considerably and many members are Black, “same gender loving” has found little awareness or traction. Some gay men, however, adopt the HIV-influenced term “MSM” as a self-referent. Many colloquial terms (“buller”, “ho”) carry stigma or are gender-fraught, but find themselves in vernacular usage. Where terms break down particularly is on the terrain of gender expression: a sizeable community of gay men with no sense of gender dysphoria are what they might call “dress up girls”. Either because they see this as gay culture or for more personal reasons related to gender expression, they participate, along with smaller numbers of individuals with Trans and genderqueer identities in an organized system of drag performance pageants, and in some instances devote considerable priority and resources in their lives to this activity, clothing and shoes, makeup and its application and performance routines. They also appear at other community events in drag or in their pageant personas. While some pageants offer prizes, they are not typically paid for their performances; on the contrary they spend money on them. Similar to cleavages in other locations, Trans who are committed to lives in a gender other than that linked to their birth sex, whether through sex reassignment surgeries or other strategies, express difficulty sharing an identity with these persons.

6. Has the spread of Western GBLT politics impacted your local organizing?

Hello!? Many in T&T’s GLBT communities are quite enamoured of the visible manifestations of North American or European GLBT political advocacy, see these forms as the standard to emulate, against which local performance should be judged, and show limited imagination about how to practise an indigenous politics on sexual orientation and gender identity. And recently Christian Right homophobia has begun to target the Caribbean and Trinidad & Tobago specifically.

However, the most dangerous impact of the “spread” of Western GBLT politics is not that certain understandings and assumptions about how GLBT politics is practised in the North are being exported to us. The larger danger instead is that ideas about how GLBT politics should be practised in the Global South, quite differently from in the North, and related ideas about political conditions in the South, are being conceived in, and spread from, the North. This queer internationalism makes the Global South an important target of Global North GLBT concerns – and fundraising; codifies differences in “freedom” between North and South, representing one as advanced and the other as primitive; and positions the North in a missionary relationship and one of pity with regard to the South. This has especially been the case with the Caribbean, shaped by internationalist activism over Jamaica (which has been represented ridiculously as “the most homophobic place on earth”), and the larger region, therefore, as a place of homophobic darkness.

The emergence, with the formation of IGLHRC two decades ago, of human rights as a dominant paradigm for GLBT advocacy outside the Global North has also imposed on our organizing in the South an expectation of transnational struggle and the deployment of international human rights authorities and frameworks – neither of which are common in GLBT politics in the Global North, where the discourse is one of citizenship and the engagements are political and national or local in nature. Because of the assumptions that civil and political rights frameworks are weak, enlightened governance is not yet achieved, and GLBT communities are relatively powerless in Global South states, there is the expectation that GLBT liberation politics will rely on external advocates and look for moral authority to international covenants and arbitrating bodies rather than engaging in domestic political work. Combined with tax-code and liberal-values restrictions on involvement by the international human rights charities leading this work in electoral, partisan or foreign politics, this prescribes a “human rights-centred” model of Global South organizing that extinguishes the very powerful political characteristics that have enabled GLBT maturity and successes in the Global North. In this imaginary, domestic political organizing, action and leadership are not conceived as essential and necessary aspects of GLBT advocacy for Africa and the Caribbean especially. Instead, alliances with foreign advocates who apply moral, economic and legal pressure on local powerholders becomes central to advocacy. And repeatedly assumptions are made about the victimhood and lack of agency of GLBT subjects, to the point where activists like Peter Tatchell, Wayne Besen, Michael Petrellis, Keith Boykin and Akim Ade Larcher and their affiliated groups – Égale, Stop Murder Music, OutRage! and Boycott Jamaica – have felt licence to speak like abolitionists on behalf of the GLBT interests of the region.3

This privileging of external policing of governments to achieve GLBT gains vs. domestic leveraging of various forms of power and influence distorts organizing strategies to ones in which domestic GLBT stakeholders invest in alliances with others with the ability to provide financial resources, travel, visibility and legitimacy, but who are positioned as foreign adversaries of their governments. They often do so at the expense of nurturing local political alliances, of building ownership of GLBT issues by other sexual rights stakeholders, of developing strategic power domestically, of building a local base to which leadership is accountable, of developing appeals and legitimacy in the currency of domestic and traditional values and frameworks, or simply of being politically innovative in response to local conditions. And this clearly reinforces the view of GLBT cultures and values as non-indigenous and outside the social order.

7. Is there a relationship between the anti-violence work that you do and feminism?

A precursor to and influence in CAISO’s emergence and analysis was the Trinidad & Tobago AntiViolence Project, which conceived itself as “guided by the vision of a child’s right to healthy sexual development, free of sexual and spiritual violence, into an adult free to express and practice gender and sexual identity in ways of his/her choosing” and “a framework to bring together diverse stakeholders to: mobilise gender-sensitive approaches to sexual violence against children and adults; sharpen understanding of the gender-based nature of homophobic violence; support survivors of violence and their families, partners and friends in individual and collective healing, mobilisation and restituitve justice; encourage gay communities to take leadership in protecting minors from sexual exploitation; and work on other intersectional issues related to sexual, gender-based and social violence”. TTAVP has folded its work into CAISO, but this has also resulted in less priority and focus on violence in the umbrella group’s portfolio.

The Project was initiated as a framework to protest the homophobic (and secondarily misogynist) imagination of visiting Jamaican dancehall performers. It was subsequently used to re-position gay men in relationship to sexual abuse of boys when a local case was covered in the media, by publicly offering strategic interventions around recovery and advocating for programmes and leadership in response. It then became a platform for fundraising, programme development and capacity-building for prevention, victim services and advocacy, and to strengthen community sexual decisionmaking, in response to a rash of internet dating crimes against gay men, including rape. This work (and CAISO’s subsequently) have a core analysis that bias violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression is gender-based violence, and gender is at the centre of our politics and understanding of anti-violence work. This has framed CAISO’s documentation of systematic police violence against Trans MTFs and its inclusion in testimony at the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. The organisation as a whole, however, has not engaged with the specific vulnerabilities of lesbians to violence.

8. What connections do you have to art and artists? To Scholars? (Keeping in mind that you can include yourself in the answer to this question.)

CAISO’s name embodies our connection to art. Our very first public activity (during the local Gay Pride month) was a cultural event in a vanguard arts space that received coverage in the newspaper’s weekly entertainment section: a calypso listening session, open and advertised to non-GBLT people, that explored the history of the treatment of sexual diversity in calypso over eight decades. We published a seminal book review of a collection of fiction on our blog, which is currently the fourth most popular entry with over 550 reads. We created a series of events surrounding the local launch of the Our Caribbean GLBT anthology, including a bookstore signing, a writing workshop and a movie night and panel discussion. We promoted the screening of a gay-themed film in our local film festival and ran a movie night programme of film screenings. And we have repeatedly engaged with Carnival as a potential vehicle for our work. We have occasionally included writing and photography from community members on the blog.

In enumerating a list of CAISO’s values for an organizing meeting, we wrote recently: that “CAISO is committed to analysis-driven organizing, recognizing that one must understand the world to change it.” The Institute for Gender & Development Studies (IGDS) at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine has become a critical ally in CAISO’s work, inviting us to do classroom presentations at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. One of our activities became an elective assignment in a UWI Cultural Studies course. IGDS has also been both a crucible for many of the ideas CAISO uses in organizing and a training ground for CAISO organizers: a young man whose entry into CAISO led to groundbreaking youth organizing work was referred by his gender studies instructor. CAISO also has a strong relationship with the Caribbean arm of the International Resource Network. I have represented CAISO’s work in participating in Andil Gosine’s Sex Inter|National dialogue, at the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime’s 15th anniversary symposium “Crime Prevention from across the World” in December 2009, on a panel at Fire and Ink, and in this roundtable project, among others. A case study of our organizing presented at a United Nations training in Turin recently received attention from a Georgetown University religion scholar. Our exchanges with scholars academically interested in our work of GLBT experience in T&T have tried to engage questions of epistemology, of power, and of strategic essentialisms.

9. In what ways do your communities document their histories? (photography, archive collections, paintings, poetry, blogs, plays, music, video, etc.)

CAISO has both encouraged and conducted oral history, documentation and archiving. Very early on we launched both a blog and a presence on Facebook where we regularly aggregate current news items and weblinks of interest identified with Google Search – some 450 to date. We have archived footage of as many of our media appearances as we can on and index them on the blog. We flirted for a few weeks with a daily digest of internet stories of Caribbean GLBT interest we titled Queeribean Beat. We also have unrealized ambitions to conduct an organizing project of compiling personal histories of older generations.

Several GLBT people in T&T are actively engaged in documentary photography and various kinds of expressive work that reflects or engages with questions of gendered sexuality. As early as 1988, out playwright Godfrey Sealy had created work like One of Our Sons is Missing, chronicling gay men’s relationships to each other, family, women and HIV. Though the debut of Erotic Art Week has provided a framework that foregrounds the sexuality of some of this visual work, and even in the 1970s gay themes appeared in publicly presented theatrical and visual work, little of this creative work takes place in a community framework.

1.Originally conceived of as a panel on comparative sexual rights, erotic autonomy, and “Archives and Politics ‘For My Own Protection,’ ” my intention was to include in this issue a roundtable discussion featuring a few individuals whom I admire for the path breaking work they are doing to document/archive and improve black queer life and culture in a number of sites around the world (Steven G. Fullwood, Black Gay & Lesbian Archive, “Fire & Ink”; Zethu Matebani Forum for the Empowerment of Women; Colin Robinson, Coalition Advocating Inclusion of Sexual Orientation; Selly Thiam, None on Record; Ajamu X, Sharing Tongues; Rukus!) For a variety of reasons, this did not work out. These projects that propose to “save” culture, share tongues, and put on record provide a very differently configured and no less “political” politics, which the working group is committed to engaging. One of our immediate forthcoming projects, therefore, will be to reconvene, revise, and publish this important conversation.” Jafari S. Allen (2012). Black/Queer/Diaspora at the Current Conjuncture (Introduction), GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 18(2-3). Note 16, 240-241.

2 I prefer to begin my listing with the least specific and sometimes ungendered term, “gay”

3. Larcher has since renounced such politics.

Colin Robinson is 50, lonely, and has done a certain amount of shit. Nah, Colin Robinson is trying to build a thinking Caribbean queer political movement. Hmm…Colin Robinson is a Trini who has lived transnationally, legally and illegally. He is currently executive director of CAISO, an NGO doing sexual citizenship, gender justice and nation-building advocacy in Trinidad and Tobago; and spearheading the development of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities as a regional network. His work includes writing, HIV, migration, management; and has been done through the Audre Lorde Project, the Caribbean IRN, Gay Men of African Descent, GMHC, IGLHRC, the NY State Black Gay Network, Other Countries, Think Again, and Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied. Steups. Colin Robinson is a poet.