Guyana: World Day of Social Justice

Marking World Day of Social Justice, Transgender citizens, supported by SASOD, move to the courts to challenge Guyana’s law against ‘cross-dressing’

IGLHRC believes that a vital part of our mission is supporting the work of activist organizations and allies by disseminating important information on human rights issues affecting LGBT communities worldwide. To this end we are reposting the following announcement from one of our partners, SASOD: Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

Contact Person: Joel Simpson: - (592) 698-1174

Long misunderstood and seen as legitimate targets for discrimination and abuse, transgender citizens used the occasion of the international commemoration of World Day of Social Justice to file a motion against Guyana’s law criminalizing ‘cross-dressing.’ On Friday, February 19, 2010, the notice of motion was filed before the Supreme Court of Judicature for redress claiming, among other relief, to have section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, Chapter 8:02, invalidated as irrational, discriminatory, undemocratic, contrary to the rule of law and unconstitutional. The law makes an offence of “being a man, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in female attire, or being a woman, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in male attire.

February 20, 2010, marks the second annual commemoration of World Day of Social Justice, which recognizes, in the words of United Nations General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/62/10), that “social development and social justice cannot be attained… in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In his message to mark the day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon explained (pdf) that “social justice is based on the values of fairness, equality, respect for diversity, access to social protection, and the application of human rights in all spheres of life.

The day was chosen to address an act of social injustice against one of Guyana’s most marginalised social groups which took place last year. Transgender persons refer to people whose gender identity and/or expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, including cross-dressers, female or male impersonators, pre-operative, post-operative or non-operative transsexuals. Trans people may define themselves as female-to-male (FtM, assigned a female biological sex at birth but who have a predominantly male gender identity) or male-to-female (MtF, assigned a male biological sex at birth but who have a predominantly female gender identity); others consider themselves as falling outside binary concepts of gender or sex.

In a series of crackdowns last year between February 6 and 7, the Guyana police arrested a number of male-to-female transgender persons (MtF Trans) and charged them for ‘cross-dressing’ under the archaic Colonial section 153(1)(xlvii) statute. Unrepresented and completely unaware of their rights, the defendants were detained in police custody over the week-end and then hustled through the legal system. When they appeared before Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson on February 9, 2009, they were further ridiculed and told that they are men not women, before being fined by the learned Chief Magistrate. Seon Clarke, also known as Falatama, one of the persons arrested, said: “It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I felt like I was less than human.” The motion also pleads that the Chief Magistrate was improperly influenced by irrelevant considerations, discriminated against the MtF Trans on the basis of religion, and violated a fundamental norm of Guyana as a secular state. Vigorous and wide-ranging calls within and out of Guyana for the repeal of these discriminatory laws which facilitate such injustices have been ignored by the government.

Since then, SASOD has forged partnerships with human rights interests in the local and regional arenas who have been working collectively and consistently on a voluntary basis over the past year to assist this marginalized group to obtain access to justice for the atrocities endured at the instance of the law enforcement authorities. The 2009 ‘cross-dressing’ crackdowns and prosecutions provided clear illustrations of how discriminatory laws are facilitating grave human rights’ abuses, in spite of the existence of an entrenched regime of human rights protection in the Guyana constitution. Leading the research initiatives to support strategic-impact, human-rights litigation in the region, Tracy Robinson of the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) based at the Cave Hill campus’ law faculty in Barbados described the arrests and prosecutions as “an unfortunate embodiment of the patriarchal use of coercive state power for no clear or rational purpose,” highlighting the need for law reform to ensure social justice and gender equity in Guyana and across the region.

SASOD has mobilized support from local and regional human rights attorneys to provide representation in what amounts to a ground-breaking constitutional case. According to Dr. Arif Bulkan, also of U-RAP and one of Guyanese attorneys involved in the litigation, “unless the wide-ranging constitutional reforms conducted in 2001 and 2003 are to be dismissed as pure window-dressing, then the emphasis placed on non-discrimination during that process should guide the High Court to interpret the expanded equality rights generously in order to protect one of our society’s most marginalised groups.

Veronica Cenac, a St. Lucian attorney who serves as the human rights focal point on the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition board of governors, lauded SASOD for spearheading the case. “For way too long, we have allowed abuses against the most affected populations to go unchallenged,” she said, quoting the closing words of the UN Secretary-General’s message: “Lack of social justice anywhere is an affront to us all.

Attachments:

(1) Notice of Motion (doc)

(2) Supporting Affidavit by SASOD (doc)