Trinidadian Geoffrey Maclean has had it. Several times over now.
At 64, the founder of the Caribbean island nation’s only out gay group is painfully, wearily, even angrily aware that he is on a one-man crusade.
His mission: to speak up for those who identify–either openly or not–as gay, lesbian, bi or trans in a society where “the most important criterion for survival is not to let your neighbor see what you or members of your family do. Where one of the greatest taboos is a homosexual family member.”
In island parlance, Maclean is a white Trini. And in a social environment where it is still assumed lighter skin means greater access to wealth and social status, he is perceived to have it made.
But he is also gay.
That means he is potentially subject to society’s special labels for men like himself, including current Caribbean favorite, chi-chi man.
More worrisome perhaps is the fact that Maclean’s 15-year relationship with another man is criminalized by law.
Trinidad’s Sexual Offenses Act (drafted in 1986 and amended in 1999) states that “a person who commits buggery is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment… if committed by an adult on another adult, for 25 years.”
Maclean’s somewhat reluctant activism on behalf of Trinidad’s practically non-existent gay community means he occupies a high-profile space in the small island society.
His experiences in that space have rarely been positive. In fact, they highlight some of the main obstacles to a stronger community: limited domestic geographic mobility, restricted social and political space, a culture steeped in conservative religious values and the lack of a local activist gay movement.
Maclean hasn’t always been a gay activist. At one time, he toed the heterosexual line. He married at 21, had three children–two girls (one adopted) and a boy–and divorced sans acrimony in 1974.
Today, he considers himself luckier than most when it comes to family understanding and acceptance of his sexuality. “They were embarrassed by it, but it never stopped them from bringing friends home.”
Those looking in at his family life these days are confused, he says with great amusement. “People see me ambiguously. They see children and grandchildren, a male partner, and they are not sure where to put me.”
Their confusion rarely extends to his professional life where his interest in art and architecture means he is expected to be eccentric. It’s an eclecticism he himself has embraced ambivalently at times. But he feels it has granted him the license to challenge what he sees as Trinidad’s “heavy denial” of homosexuality, homosexual lives and the civil rights of sexual minorities.
Still, Maclean was reluctant to openly take on the government when it introduced new human rights legislation excluding homosexuals in 1996.
Instead, he formed a publicly registered organization called Families and Friends for Lesbians and Gays Trinidad (TFLAG) to respond in his place.
In 1998, the two-man operation, primarily driven by Maclean, produced a thick document covering such topics as mental health, homosexuality and teen suicide; attempts to change sexual orientation; homosexuality and child molestation; and homosexuality and the law. TFLAG submitted the document as a “defense of the homosexual” to government, the media and religious leaders.
The government ignored the document. Religious leaders, long known on the island for their conservative stances, played it down.
The media response was more mixed.
Making a case for the equal rights of sexual minorities, columnist BC Pires suggested there is a double standard in effect in discussions about male homosexuality versus lesbian sex. “There is something about sapphism that few sexually active (or even simply sexually responsive) men can resist. The same libertines who profess their passion for lesbians almost always claim to find the thought of two men in bed disgusting. ‘That nastiness? That is perversion against the Bible! Them fellas sick! We should all have to pay a special tax to help find a cure for them.’
“But how can the same person rave wildly over lesbianism and be thoroughly disgusted by male homosexuality? Does the proclaimed horror of male homosexuality not make nonsense of the equally passionate endorsement of lesbianism? Either same-gender sex is good or it isn’t. How can you love macaroni and hate spaghetti? It’s all pasta, baby.”
Others, like radio personality David Elcock and a reporter for the Catholic News, invoked biblical authority to explain why homosexuals should be denied equal rights.
Maclean remains uneasy in his role as activist. “I’ve seen the ridicule and don’t want that. Life in Trinidad can push you in one way or the other. It’s difficult to fight, and it can shred you.”
The potential for brutal ridicule, and the intimidating atmosphere it creates, make the small steps 20-year-old Billy (who only spoke on condition of anonymity) is taking towards openness that much more tentative.
Until five months ago, Billy, who is East Indian and Muslim, regularly attended a mosque after work. His parents, whom he still lives with, assumes he still goes and he has not gone out of his way to say otherwise.
“I had a close call one Friday not too long ago. My dad happened to go the same mosque I normally go to, but he didn’t see me there and asked me about it later. I lied and said I was there, but left early. Right now, Islam is causing too much confusion for me. It’s challenging enough if you are straight. Once you like someone, marriage is next. So you can imagine, being gay…” he trails off.
Living at home, and by extension in Trinidadian society, is for Billy a classic case of being caught between a rock and a hard place–or as he puts it, “on a muzzle at home, and on another leash when I’m in society.”
Apart from Maclean and his partner, whom he met some months ago, and one other male friend his age, Billy says he still hangs around with a predominantly straight crowd where he endures the inevitable “jokes and wisecracks” about homosexuality.
He says he can “shit talk” with the best of them, and sometimes joins in. Other times, he is quiet and introspective as those around him label someone or something as “so gay” and touch each other with exaggerated affection.
“I shrug it off, or try to ignore it. Sometimes, a friend who knows about me would try and change the subject, and ask me later if I was okay. I get tired of it, living a double life, like I have a split personality. But it’s hard to change. That’s the regular talk among guys. It’s an ingrained habit to think like that.”
Maclean is encouraging Billy to go online and check out sites like adamforadam.com, and to check out the clubs and parties that have opened up social space for gays and lesbians over the past few years.
But he says sexual minorities learn to isolate themselves from society early on. Alternatively, there is self-exile to cities like London, Toronto, Montreal and New York, which are perceived as more socially tolerant environments.
Monica (who also spoke on condition of anonymity) lives in Toronto with fellow Trinidadian Tracy Craig, her partner of eight years. She admits that part of the reason she lives abroad is related to gender and sexuality and the ways in which they bump up against the aggressively macho culture of the island.
“Let’s face it,” says Craig, “you wouldn’t be able to hold your girlfriend’s hand and walk down the road without getting 16,000 comments. I mean, as a woman, by yourself, walking down the street you are subject to all sorts of sexually suggestive comments from men–and that’s just when you are by yourself.”
The 28-year-old Craig remembers her coming out experience 10 years ago as somewhat stressful, but in the end “not a big deal.” Her mom quipped that no brain surgery was required to figure out where her daughter’s interests lay. Craig suggests heart surgery at age five also allowed her family to put things in perspective.
“They knew what it was like to almost lose me. In the scheme of things, this [my sexuality] was not a big thing.”
Partner Monica’s experience is a study in contrast.
“My mom is Catholic and conservative. Anything different is not so great. Being gay is not anywhere in the ballpark of acceptability.
“Even now, I’m not out to my mother, but I’m sure she has guessed from letters she read. She still asks when I’m going to get married and settle down.”
Both women describe trips home to see family and friends as something of a journey back in time. And while they’ve seen a gradual opening up of the island’s social scene over the last five years, they don’t see evidence of a concurrent political activism aimed at dismantling discriminatory legislation and promoting civil rights for sexual minorities.
“I think Trinidadians recoil from activism,” says Monica. “I don’t know why. We go in the opposite direction to get done what needs to be done. It’s always been very social.”
It’s the Trinidadian way to “just accept things,” adds Craig. “There is a sense that ‘look, this is the way it is, I can’t change it.’ A kind of inertia, a feeling that it makes no sense to try and change things. It doesn’t suit me, but I can totally understand it.
“How you process your sexuality, how you deal with it is a very personal thing,” she continues. “You need to do what feels right to you. If remaining closeted or lying about your sexuality is what you need to do then that’s what you need to do. But it’s not for me.”
maclean says it doesn’t help that Trinidad’s gay community settles for status quo. It’s why he believes a cohesive, visible gay movement has not developed to provide a counterpoint to the expression of anti-homosexual sentiment, whether that takes the form of physical violence, legislation, statements of religious authorities and politicians, judges’ decisions, or media coverage.
“They are comfortable once they can do what they have to do. Party every week. This Friday, Sky; last weekend, Bohemia. Trinidadians love to be superficial. They are afraid to go beyond, they are afraid to think, afraid to have an opinion. We are a society that is heavily into denial about everything. Maybe it’s good.”
The one bright spot on the media landscape, he noted, was Gaymail, a weekly, but ultimately short-lived column in the Sunday Express.
The writer remained anonymous, but Maclean viewed the column’s presence in a mainstream newspaper, its commentary and opinion aimed at initiating dialogue about the issues affecting homosexuals, as a positive step.
Its author seemed to think so too–at least initially. But just over a month into the column’s existence, he too became frustrated with the island’s gay community, and began to echo Maclean.
“Pathetic! In the five weeks I’ve been writing this column, the only written responses have been mostly from its detractors, mostly religious fundamentalists. Anyway, I understand now why this country has no real activists.
“I think it has something to do with the fact that the people who stand up don’t ever get any support from the people they are standing up for. Martin Luther King woulda looked pretty stupid marching through Alabama, he one alone. Sometimes you feel like jumping on a plane to anywhere out of here. Any place where things are different. And they’re most likely different because when someone stood up, others stood up too.”
Maclean does not know what it will take to elicit a more proactive stance for gay rights. He nods when the idea of a local version of Stonewall, the site of gay power riots in 1969 New York, is mentioned. But the Stonewall riots emerged abruptly in an environment of general ferment in American cities which saw anti-Vietnam protesters, Black Power marchers and “others dedicated to radical change or revolutionary upheaval in the United States,” he points out.
In Trinidad, there is no such upheaval in sight as far as sexual minority rights are concerned. Besides, says Maclean, “we are neither here nor there as a society. I find we don’t have both extremes–where people want to kill you because you are homosexual, or where people are very supportive. They just remain in the middle.”