By Renée Sylvestre-Williams
When the question went out about whether we’d write something about minorities and the automatic presumption that most are homophobic, I said, “Sure! I’ll write something.” I just wasn’t sure what to write about since homosexuality was never really discussed when I was growing up.
My parents aren’t homophobic and they raised us the same way. When I thought about homophobia and the gay movement in Trinidad, there are three moments that stand out for me.
Mom would occasionally tell us of her friend Michael. Michael lived in New York and Mom and Dad would visit him when they went to New York. Michael always sounded so cool – they would go shopping together and he lived in New York! So glamorous!
The second moment that came to mind was of a school colleague, Paul. Paul was part of the very large circle of acquaintances you develop when you’re all in the same year and studying the same subjects. Paul, most of us were pretty sure, was gay although he never said and we never asked. A few of us saw him drive off with his boyfriend. At least we think he was his boyfriend. Again, we never asked but it was normal for Paul’s boyfriend to come pick him up after school.
The final moment is the news coverage of a man who ran across a runway and apparently leapt into an airplane engine. Rumour was the man was gay (never confirmed as far as I know) and had committed suicide. (again, never confirmed.) The tabloids had a field day covering that story. Imagine a paper that was a blend of the Toronto Sun and the UK’s Daily Mail but worse – they spent more time on his rumoured homosexuality than his horrific death.
Homosexual acts are forbidden by the Trinidad Criminal Code but the country is considered a safe place for gay travellers. There was always an underlying thread of homophobia in the country and sometimes it came out in the culture. Men were lerry of being called gay. There is local slang: ‘Buller’ and ‘bullerman.’ Don’t ask me how they came about, I honestly don’t know.
The thing is, I don’t remember talking about homosexuality with friends, in ethics or religious knowledge classes or even with relatives growing up. Then again, the attitude was what you did in the privacy of your home was your business – don’t scare the children or horses.
When I moved to Canada and friends would tell me they were gay, my attitude was, “ok” and we’d continue on with what we were doing.
Sometimes I wonder if maybe it was the not talking about it that prevented any prejudice growing up. Which is an odd thing to say because discourse, knowledge and understanding are the keys to empathy. By not talking about it (except for stories about Michael) we weren’t allowed to form prejudices about homosexuality but then again, we weren’t able to form other opinions about it as well.