For the record, yes we can.
We can chew chewing gum and walk. We can calculate the implications of dipping into the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund and compute our chances of surviving three hours on high heels. Yes, we can.
The idea that there are more serious things to address than a club’s action against young Shannon Gomes not only denies our capacity for doing both but underestimates our ability to discern the big in the small and the minor in the major.
We may not all be equally moved, but the Shannon Gomes issue is no trivial infraction to be dismissed with derision.
A club’s controversial definition of the image of a woman represents precisely the kind of issues that prompted T&T to devote time, energy, expertise and money in establishing the Equal Opportunity Commission in order to enforce non-discriminatory behaviour in the supply of goods and services to the public.
A layman’s reading would suggest that the Gomes incident at club Aria qualifies for serious consideration under Section 17, 2(a) of the Equal Opportunity Act, regarding discrimination against persons seeking “access to and use of any place which members of the public or a section of the public are permitted to enter.”
The incident itself, as well as elements of the social media fallout, may also have run afoul of “Offensive Behaviour” as defined by law.
Placard and protest are useful for taking a stand and highlighting issues. But EOC rulings will help define legal boundaries for the engagement between club and customer in an area where management often reserves the right to be arbitrary at the public’s expense.
It is a wonder that the EOC is not overwhelmed with work given the extent of discrimination practised in ways big and small throughout this country.
So prevalent and routine is the discrimination that the mainstream media sees nothing wrong about tapping into the lucrative advertising opportunities derived from bias and discrimination. It’s just business in a matter supply and demand.
Up to yesterday, newspaper classifieds were advertising jobs for “fair Indians”, “attractive Indian females”, “driver over 40”, females for bartending, secretarial support, factory and café work, and males for warehouse work.
Using the same daily newspapers, the escort and massage market is cashing in on our ethnic biases with its smorgasbord of “fair skin East Indian women”, “Spanish girls”, “African girls”, “slim darkies”, “Latinas” and “thick reds.”
For our newspapers, the high risk of being co-opted by human traffickers is clearly outweighed by the opportunity for increased income.
Like almost every other institution designed to serve the public interest, the EOC needs to be far more imaginative and activist in its public outreach. A vibrant connection with the public is key to realising its potential as a champion against discrimination and to becoming the recognised go-to place for redress.
In today’s world, only alert and effective institutions will defend us against descent into the casual destructiveness that which can so quickly escalate into virtual lynchings on social media.
Those who believe that the advocacy in the Gomes issue is out of proportion to public support for other rights involving, in some cases, life and death, are right to worry but not to dismiss.
Ours is a very fragile culture of rights, which is not surprising given our history in which the very right to humanity was denied. People are naturally afraid that, in the coalescing around one particular issue, we might end up excluding or de-valuing another.
It could happen. This is why we cannot discriminate between rights, or elevate one above another. Rights are rights are rights.
We cannot speak out about Ms Gomes without appreciating the value of speaking out against the atrocities of the Remand Yard prison and the rights of all prisoners to due process; the right of the disabled to enjoy the rights available to all; the right of workers, including domestic workers, to fairness; the right of women to have power over their own bodies; the right of children to be loved, respected, cared for and protected; the rights of detained migrants; the right of all to love and be loved and to have their love respected in law, regardless of gender.
Equally, we cannot campaign for these rights without respecting those who champion Ms Gomes’ cause if they believe that her right has been trespassed.
In speaking out about gender rights, abolition of the death penalty and rights in general, Justice Frank Seepersad has emerged as one of the most articulate, thoughtful and courageous voices on the bench.
When the way we live and the laws to which we subscribe contradict each other, which one is to be served in the dispensation of justice?
We need help to make sense of the multiple realities of Caribbean existence where one mask often just masks another.
If others are inspired to follow Justice Seepersad’s lead and find the courage to speak their minds, we might yet build the critical mass needed for giving T&T society the confidence needed to raise our heads from the proverbial sand of denial and hypocrisy.
Shannon Gomes’ experience has given us yet another opportunity to rip away one layer of illusion. If we take it all the way this time, and go beyond talk to law, we might not have to pass this way again.