Jowelle de Souza is Trinidad and Tobago’s most high-profile transgender person.
The political and animal rights campaigner lives in San Fernando, the country’s second city, where she owns a beauty salon and is well known as a civil society activist. But her public life illustrates the contradictions over LGTBI rights in Trinidad and Tobago, one of seven Caribbean nations that criminalises same-sex relationships.
She had gender reassignment surgery in 1993 at the age of 19, the first citizen to undergo the procedure in her country’s history. In 1997, de Souza also became the first trans person to sue the state for a violation of her constitutional rights after she was arrested during a protest and officers subsequently spent hours taunting her about her sexuality and gender identity. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
But de Souza resolutely declines to view herself as a champion of LGBTI rights.
“Transphobia has never affected me,” she said, speaking in her salon decorated with images of Hindu gods, a jade Buddha and an image of Christ. A portrait of Pope Francis is placed, like an amulet, under a security camera.
“I sued the government, but it wasn’t an LGTBI issue. It was about civil rights.”
Two years ago, she ran for parliament as an independent candidate. In her campaign poster, she posed wielding a hammer with the slogan, “Build with me.” Although she failed to win office, she continued to be active in political campaigning, particularly on animal rights. LGBTI issues, however, remained off her agenda.
“It hasn’t been difficult for me to be a transgender woman,” de Souza said, noting that “you only get into trouble if you’re involved in a public incident. And there has never been a prosecution”.
In Trinidad and Tobago, consensual same sex acts carry a possible penalty of up to 25 years in prison, while anal sex is subject to a maximum sentence of life in prison. These laws have not been enforced in the last four decades, but remain on the statute books. Trinidadian law also denies any LGBTI person entry to the country, although this law is not known to have ever been enforced.
Campaigners on the islands differ in what they consider the best approach to social change.
Read more at: Trinidad and Tobago: A Nation in the Closet | IWPR