PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago (RNS) — When he was 18, Kerwyn Jordan came out to his family and close friends, and he’s been open about his sexuality for the past 26 years. But it has not been easy. Jordan said that for years he was beaten and bullied by neighbors, strangers and former work colleagues.
“Feelings of it linger on,” said Jordan. “Since then I have been living in … gated communities where I can feel safe. But I still feel vulnerable.”
In Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex relations are illegal, a remnant of colonial-era laws outlawing sodomy, and the twin-island Caribbean nation does not legally recognize same-sex marriage or unions. A regional study conducted by Caribbean Development Research Services in 2013 found that about 60 percent supported maintaining laws that outlaw same-sex sexual acts.
But Jordan said he is excited about a new ruling that could pave the way for decriminalizing the homosexuality laws. On April 12, Trinidad and Tobago’s high court ruled Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offenses Act “unconstitutional, illegal, null (and) void.” The law makes buggery (sodomy) illegal, even if it takes place between two consenting adults, with a maximum 25-year prison sentence.
The country’s estimated 35,000 LGBT citizens and advocacy groups celebrated the ruling. As Jordan and others prepare to march in the twin islands’ first-ever gay pride parade on July 28, more citizens are openly supporting the eradication of laws that criminalize homosexuality.
But many of the country’s religious leaders are not celebrating. In response to the ruling, on June 12 religious leaders representing the 90 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s population that is Christian, Hindu or Muslim held a news conference to ask the government to uphold traditional marriage.
Convened by Port-of-Spain Archbishop Jason Gordon, the leaders called on the government to amend the country’s Marriage Act to ensure that only a biological man and a biological woman be allowed to marry. It also called on government not to amend the Equal Opportunity Act to accommodate LGBT people. The act prohibits specific forms of discrimination and doesn’t currently offer protection for gays and lesbians.
The leaders represented the Catholic Church, Muslim and Hindu communities as well as Seventh-day Adventists, the country’s evangelical council and an umbrella group called the Faith Based Network.
Gordon said the religious leaders joined forces because the “fabric of society was at risk.” When the United States legalized same-sex marriage, he said, it “infected” Trinidad and Tobago into believing such unions were permissible.
The government has not responded to the religious leaders’ request. So contentious is the issue that the new executive of the Inter-Religious Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, the country’s main religious governing body, has put the legality of homosexuality on its agenda for discussion and is expected to make an announcement on it in the near future.
The Alliance for Diversity and Justice, an LGBT coalition, released a statement saying the faith leaders had “lost their way.” Others took to social media to chide the leaders for targeting the LGBT community.
Winston Mansingh, president of the Faith Based Network, representing 40 religious bodies and community groups, is unfazed by the backlash.
“Their responses does not change the fact that morally and spiritually our position is an accurate one, our position is a healthy one and one beneficial to mankind,” said Mansingh.
He stressed that the religious leaders’ aim is not to trample on anyone’s rights but to protect the institution of the family. He said the April 12 ruling stirred the faith leaders into action.
“The present-day judicial system seems to be trending in this direction,” Mansingh said. “We don’t come into your room, we don’t know what you’re doing in there. Why do you need the court to sanction it?”
Colin Robinson, executive director of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, said the April 12 triumph was short-lived. He said he is saddened by the religious leaders’ response.
“The state is obligated to protect all citizens from discrimination, including in the Equal Opportunity Act, and that faith leaders should call for that not to happen is heartbreaking,” said Robinson.
Mansingh said the Faith Based Network and the other religious leaders have always been champions of equality.
“We empathize and recognize that everyone has rights that are based on (the) declaration of human rights. But we believe strongly that the push for gay rights is a separate kind of rights. There is a very, very strategic, well-thought-out plan to camouflage gay rights within human rights,” said Mansingh, a pastor.
Jordan said that while the support from some quarters of society for the LGBT community is appreciated, much more needs to be done.
“The voices that are saying that are too silent, they’re not as abrasive,” said Jordan. “We have leaders in different categories that are too conservative around the issue. A guy getting put out of his home (because he is gay) — it is all of our burden to bear.”