On the night of December 5, 2017, a transgender woman was murdered at a park in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a country where the legal framework does not include any component through which a person can change his or her sexual identity. The victim’s “legal” name was registered as Keon Patterson, but she was better known by the moniker Sasha Fierce (inspired by American singer Beyonce’s stage persona), through which she was a staunch advocate of the local transgender community and an HIV spokesperson.
Fierce was featured in the Friends4LifeTT video, uploaded to YouTube in August 2017, which explored what it’s like to be a transgender person in Trinidad and Tobago. Reports suggestthat Fierce was shot and killed by two men, who police have since called in for questioning.
While Trinidad and Tobago is used to violent crime, Fierce’s murder has raised the issue of the way in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people are treated in Caribbean societies. The twin island republic has not always shown tolerance for gender fluidity, as is the case with other island nations, such as Jamaica, which has routinely demonstrated a lack of understanding about the LGBTQ community.
Users of social media networks were vocal in their criticism. Lara Quentrall-Thomas lamented:
This wonderful human being, who cared so much for others, died for no reason .. other than perhaps, being different. Trinidad has reached a new low.
Comments on her public thread ranged from calling the country “third world” in attitude to criticising the government for “not putting laws in place to protect all citizens”, saying, it is “truly heartbreaking and unfortunate that members of the LGBT community cannot be themselves”.
Sodomy is listed in Trinidad and Tobago law as a criminal offence, but that has not translatedinto any pending cases for consensual homosexual sex. The law is therefore only one aspect of the issue; deeply embedded societal attitudes tend to have a much greater impact on the daily lives of LGBTQ people in the Caribbean space.
Such attitudes are often influenced by conservative religious pronouncements on sexual and gender minorities. The bias has filtered into both mainstream media reporting and social media comments on the murder, which the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) said has “added to the violence”.
This despite attempts a few years ago to discuss how the media should report equitably and responsibly on issues affecting the LGBTQ community. Commenting on one 2015 television series which tracked the everyday life of a transgender woman living in Trinidad and Tobago, Facebook user Daniel Khairi commented:
This makes me anxious and the preview questions are awful. Trans people are always subject to ‘why’ and ‘what’s in between your legs.’ I have no faith that [the television station] will do right by this woman.
For years now, this has been a commonly expressed sentiment:
Three things NOT to do when a transwoman is murdered: 1) Don’t send the media dehumanising pictures of her dead body to publish. 2) Don’t make her death about you. 3) Don’t fundraise for your hotel room.
The reference is a jab at Trinidad-born, UK-based activist Jason Jones, who is challenging the island’s sodomy laws as unconstitutional in a case that will be heard on January 30, 2018 in the High Court in Port of Spain. Jones, who was interviewed in an article about Fierce’s murder for Gay Star News, is trying to raise money to offset his costs for mounting the legal challenge.
In another post, CAISO commended one local daily for “correcting its old story (which had called Sasha a ‘transgender man’), and changing the pronouns in it to she and her. The updated story also omits a speculation about sex work.”
The same newspaper, Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, carried a follow-up story which said that Fierce’s friends “are afraid to mourn her death publicly” for fear of being targeted, but Facebook user Andre Bagoo was resolute:
Sasha Fierce is dead bt hear this: freedom is not. We will not be afraid. We will not cower in our homes. We will marry the night.
A memorial in Fierce’s honour was held on December 8, 2017.