Black History Month: The intersection of race and sexuality, and the fight for LGBT rights in the Caribbean – an interview with Jason Jones

Jason Jones, Human Rights Activist

Jason Jones is a man on a mission. Describing himself as being “hard-wired” to take on the challenge, he has brought a case to the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago to overturn the ‘buggery laws’ left over from British colonial rule. Unafraid of ruffling feathers and never one to back down, this is just the next step in a life that has been dedicated to LGBT activism. The case, however, comes at a perplexing time for the LGBT community. There have been, without doubt, serious advances made in the fight for LGBT rights across the globe with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 24 countries and a significant increase of visible LGBT people in positions of power. Simultaneously, though, we have seen a rise in violent crimes against LGBT people and there remain 74 countries that still criminalise homosexual acts, half of which are former colonies of the UK. This leaves us with over 80% of Commonwealth citizens living in a jurisdiction that criminalises homosexual acts amid “growing evidence that LGBT people face higher rates of violence, reduced economic chances and poorer health outcomes than their peers.” The truth is that, despite advances in the Global North, LGBT people still lack the most fundamental human rights in many places. Something has to change and Jason believes he has the personality, and the strategy, to make that happen.

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“Equality should be a given. What we should be pushing for are the areas where LGBT people are being disproportionately targeted.”

“The Caribbean is far less advanced than the rest of the world and my coming out in the early 1980’s, even by the global north’s standards, it was a tough thing. But my parents, both of whom were journalists, were very forward-thinking people who had gone through their own issues of discrimination as a mixed race couple in the USA. They had a very clear understanding that human beings are different and homosexuality is just another difference. They were very supportive of my homosexuality. Society on the other hand, not so much. 

“I was lucky in that I was 6ft tall from about the age of fourteen. I had a very rough and tumble brother, so I would never really back down from bullying – I would meet it head on. So taking on this challenge comes from that background. My family being well known and my being mixed-race, I was afforded a certain amount of protection. So the kind of homophobia and bullying that you would encounter from service professionals, like police, would never happen to me – I was always ushered past because of the colour of my skin and my status in society. Being Tringlish, half Trinidadian, half English, I think I have a unique perspective of the Global North/Global South divide, particularly when it deals with LGBT issues.”

It is a familiar tale. The most privileged of a protected group do not face the same harassment, abuse and lack of rights that the most vulnerable do. It is why intersectionality became such a prominent term and the reason Jason believes that the improved rights that LGBT people are enjoying are nowhere near enough – tokens and assimilation is not genuine equality. In Jason’s case, the protections he was afforded early on in his life as a privileged, light-skinned man were quick to evaporate.

“That all changed [being protected] when I did the first ever drag show in a public theatre space in Trinidad. I was the subject of a quite vicious and vile media blitz. They said I was bringing Sodom and Gomorrah to the island and this was the end of civilization as we knew it. I was ostracised by my family and that sector of society. That was in 1992 and when I filed with the High Court in February 2017, not one of my siblings contacted me, even though news of the death threats had made papers as far away as New Zealand. I have friends who have been beaten, raped, some who have been blackmailed by security forces in Trinidad.

“Things like marriage equality, employment rights, insurance and what happens to your partner after you die, are improving. That’s all very well and good if you’re white, middle-class, cisgender, and have a nice job. But for anyone else, those aren’t the things that are big on our list. We want to be safe, we want to walk down the street as a Trans* person and not run the risk of being beaten/murdered. Equality should be a given. What we should be pushing for are the areas where LGBT people are being disproportionately targeted: the fact that a ¼ of young BAME LGBT people are unemployed; have more mental health issues; are more like to contract HIV infection; have more propensity to drug/substance abuse. Why are these things not being looked at and addressed in the same way?”

“The problem I have is that there is nobody who reflects the community this case is serving who wants to take it on. It’s a problem that goes right across law – the bench must reflect the community it serves.”

For Jason, this lack of concern for LGBT rights in the Black Community is reflected in the lack of lawyers who identify with these issues being in the kind of position where they can take on controversial cases like his. While he acknowledges that he has been able to put together a fantastic legal team, he is very aware that those most affected by the current laws are not being represented in the courtroom.

I have a dream team of legal advice. We’ve been very careful about how we strategize this case so it will win. We filed with the High Court on February 23, 2017 and have a court date on January 30, 2018 – it’s unheard of! That’s why cases like this are so important for driving human rights, because parliamentarians are cowards, they don’t want to take up a minority issue that is going to lose them votes. So you have to have the courts driving these kinds of change. 

“The problem I have is that there is nobody who reflects the community this case is serving who wants to take it on. It’s a problem that goes right across law – the bench must reflect the community it serves. Cases like this get picked up by people who have an interest, like Richard Drabble QC. Because of the high-profile nature of it, you have to be a fairly secure person in yourself and in your reputation. If you are a person of colour practicing law and working in London, taking up a case like this may not do you any favours. You could very easily be seen as the ‘angry black lawyer’. Most people don’t want that badge and it is thrown so quickly at you if you stand up for your rights, so that is a narrative that we need to address.”

Photos courtesy of Sean Drakes

The underlying message is that, with contentious cases like Jason’s, the fear of a tarnished reputation and a lack of work in the future can turn lawyers away because there remains a lack of support for minority communities in the profession. Currently working as the Business Development Manager for MSL Solicitors, Jason has a clear vision for how the legal profession can become more diverse and inclusive so that, in the future, cases are more likely to be taken on by lawyers who have real-life experience of the issue being addressed.

“You have to force this stuff. In the 1980’s, when I first came here, race relations was the buzz word – everybody was looking at percentages and monitoring forms and how many black people are in your office. All of that has disappeared, it seems. I think we need to go back to a situation of positive discrimination. We need to, especially the big firms that have money, throw some back into the communities that are making you this money. I would like to see pro bono work as much more structured, targeted and with a very strong sense of not just ticking a corporate box but actively wanting to do this.

“Unless we put in quotas, I don’t think it’s going to be implemented. The fact that I was very lucky to get my case off the ground, independently, should send a message saying we need to get on board with this. I can find claimants, what I can’t find are the right lawyers. I also don’t want it to be seen as white knights riding in on a white horse to tell the black people how to live – especially when it was still criminalised in Britain only 50 years ago! We need to get black lawyers leading this. You do that by forcing the organisations that they work for and the organisations that they’re members of to push this conversation. We need people to say, ‘I want to help. What can I do?’”

“Human rights across the globe, in tandem with the emergence of right-wing populism, are getting worse.”

A big part of the problem, though, is that the homophobia of the black community in Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean more widely, is not being discussed and dealt with. Jason is very open about the discrimination that continues to plague society and, in particular, the problems encountered when you have multiple identities as a black person that identifies as LGBT.

“Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The homophobia that I encounter in the black community is horrendous. Ever since the ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Britain has had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy when facing up to discrimination. I use the analogy of the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ because as soon as you speak of it, people will say: ‘Why does it always come down to race with you Jason? Why do we always have to talk about homophobia? Why can’t I just have a beer with you?’ And the answer is because I can’t stop doing what I do – with no money and no resources and no support from any organisation – the only thing that drives me is my own internal passion. That is not something that I can switch on and off.

“When people throw that at me [always reverting back to issues of race and LGBT], I despair because for me, living in Britain for 30 years, I’ve seen us go backwards and nobody is commenting on it. Human rights across the globe, in tandem with the emergence of right-wing populism, are getting worse. During and after Brexit, for example, there should have been people saying: ‘You might want to leave the EU, but that does not mean you can attack Eastern Europeans.’ Why are those public announcements not being made? That is how you change things.” 

The old, familiar tales of money being spent for lip-service and PR, rather than to affect real change, come back to haunt us. When discrimination, whether direct or unconscious, continues to be so prevalent in the profession and in society, it is clear that awareness raising initiatives like Black History Month aren’t having the desired impact.

“It needs a very strict looking at the issue, money being put into proper resources, so that things like the Dove advert don’t slip by. That kind of subversive, subliminal message against black skin is far more dangerous and more difficult to fight because, as we’ve seen, people are saying: ‘I don’t see the problem, there was an Asian woman after the white woman.’ They don’t get the subversive, subliminal message that’s happening there. That’s how companies like that get away with it. For the public, it is very difficult to understand what is so insidious about that advert if you don’t have experience of that kind of discrimination. 

“You cannot drive an agenda of human rights when it’s only white people talking about it because it sends a very specific narrative. In places like the Caribbean, which is the only region on the planet that has had successive human rights abuses over a period of 500 years, you cannot come as a white face into that environment and then start dictating again. After I win, which I will, I think we can start from scratch and look at human rights as a whole in the Caribbean, and the Commonwealth more broadly. Because of its history of human rights abuses, the populations of the Caribbean have no concept of their own entitlement to human rights, let alone asking for them to be given to another minority community.” 

“My motto is: ‘You don’t ask for human rights, you sell it’. If you can find a way to encourage business to see the monetisation of human rights then things will change. Somebody will lose their homophobia really quickly if you’re putting food on their table and shoes on their kids’ feet.”

Photos courtesy of Sean Drakes

This work, however, is not new to Jason. On top of his day job, he is heavily involved in working towards human rights in the Commonwealth and believes that a more business-like approach to human rights is the only strategy likely to wield results.

“I was at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta, in 2015, and I was part of an organisation called The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN). We delivered two LGBT elements of the people’s forum, which was historic because it was the first time it had ever been on the agenda. The commonwealth secretariat is very afraid to engage on this because they don’t want to step on toes – when ¾ of your membership criminalise LGBT people, how do you engage?

“One of the things I’m working on now is what my role will be at the next CHOGM. I’m in talks to do an LGBT side-event at the business forum. My motto is: ‘You don’t ask for human rights, you sell it’. If you can find a way to encourage business to see the monetisation of human rights then things will change. Somebody will lose their homophobia really quickly if you’re putting food on their table and shoes on their kids’ feet.

“One of the things I’m developing now, and am looking for funding for, is to do a thorough breakdown of what homophobia costs tourism in the Caribbean. If you have somewhere like North America, with a large LGBT population that holidays, gets married, spends their pink dollars – the Caribbean is an ideal destination. But when you have islands turning away gay cruises and criminalising their own LGBT population, of course you aren’t monetising that economy. The pink tourism market globally is worth $202 billion – that is serious money but the LGBT community has not monetised itself and that is partly because people who work in human rights are not business people.”

Jason is on a mission. With his background, wealth of experience and passion, it seems there is no stopping him. The success of his case though, is only the tip of the iceberg. The real mission is to make sure that anyone, from anywhere, can be empowered to make a change and win human rights for the most vulnerable people. Only when the infrastructure and will for real change is in place will marginalised communities be fully integrated in a safe way.

“To break that vicious cycle, you need people at the top who say: ‘From now on I want to make sure that there’s at least five LGBT, BAME people coming out of some university and going to these organisations and getting a job.’ We have to give them access.”

“That is where everything should be going. I don’t think I’m the saviour and I don’t think I have the answers to everything, but I hope that what I have done will let others step into the arena and get involved. Human rights is incredibly underfunded. People come to human rights out of desperation, not inspiration. You can’t get a degree in what I do. You can’t train for what I do, except for how I’ve done it by just getting on with the job. That has to change. In 2014 they did a properly funded analysis of how much money was spent on LGBT human rights around the world and it came to $108 million, which works out at about 3 cents for every LGBT person alive. It’s nothing.”

Jason’s passion is contagious, his fearlessness is tangible and his openness is disarming. His advice to people wanting to follow in his footsteps, and to society in general, centres on visibility.

“Something that I realise more and more is the importance of visibility. I had three young teenagers at school in Trinidad contact me after I had filed the case and been in the press, and the general consensus from them was: ‘I was planning to commit suicide. I thought I could never live openly as a gay person in Trinidad, and then I saw you as a gay man who looks fine, speaks well, has a life and is trying to change things’. That doesn’t happen if you aren’t visible.

“If the legal profession is going to start moving this conversation along it needs to champion people. It needs to create programmes that support and encourage leadership, and find spaces for LGBT, BAME people to succeed in the profession. I’m not a lawyer, but my feeling is that it is very difficult to get access, unless you play the game and if you play the game you become part of it. It’s a vicious cycle. To break that vicious cycle, you need people at the top who say: ‘From now on I want to make sure that there’s at least five LGBT, BAME people coming out of some university and going to these organisations and getting a job.’ We have to give them access.”

The legal profession is famously conservative and resistant to change. It is some what understandable when the nature of the law requires such careful examination and the gradual building of precedent. The problem is, when it comes to the fundamental rights that everyone is supposed to be have, we cannot afford to take our time. There can be no mistake that the visibility and success of BAME and LGBT lawyers will directly impact how long these discriminatory laws are allowed to continue. Perhaps what we need, beyond the continuation of diversity initiatives like employee resource groups and bias training, are more people willing to make a stand and say, like Jason, “This is my mission – nothing will stop me because it is the right thing to do.”

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Jason Jones is a 53 year old human rights activist from Trinidad & Tobago. Of mixed racial & cultural heritage, he describes himself as being ‘Tringlish’ and has been involved with LGBT activism for 28 years. He is the founder of ‘I Am One TnT‘ and attended the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta as part of the delegation from TCEN (The Commonwealth Equality Network). He now leads an historic legal challenge in Trinidad of the discriminatory British Colonial era “buggery” laws. His case will be heard at the High Court of T&T in January 2018.

 

 

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