By Sherlina Nageer
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW Committee”), meeting this month at United Nations headquarters in New York City, will review the human-rights record of several countries that are signatory parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In recent years the CEDAW Committee has increasingly included the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women in its deliberations. During the week of July 9, Guyana will be reviewed. There has been strong engagement by LBT activists in preparation for the hearing. In the case of Guyana, an LBT-specific shadow report, “Human Rights Violations of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (LBT) People in Guyana,” was jointly drafted and submitted by three human-rights organizations: Guyana RainBow Foundation (GuyBow), the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). I had the privilege of making an oral presentation of this report to the members of the CEDAW committee on July 9 at the UN.
There is a glaring gap in Guyana’s anti-discrimination policies and practices on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity: There is no specific protection for LBT people in Guyana’s constitution, or in existing legislation. While the argument may be made that certain articles of the constitution offer general protections against all kinds of discrimination, Guyana has retained archaic, colonial-era legislation, such as laws that criminalize cross-dressing and specifically penalize gender-nonconforming individuals. Retaining these laws reinforces discriminatory, heteronormative stereotypes, creating a de facto climate of intolerance for LBT people and negatively affecting their quality of life, mental health, and economic circumstances.
Guyana may say that these laws are not regularly enforced, but the reality is that representatives of the state, such as the police and members of the judiciary, selectively implement them. The sentencing magistrate told four cross-dressers arrested in 2010 that they should “go to church and give their lives to Christ.” One lesbian, who had been attacked because of her sexual orientation and who reported the incident to the police, received no assistance. “The police just laughed and made a mockery of the situation; it was like entertainment to them,” she said. A transgender individual under arrest described being placed in a jail cell with male inmates who were instructed by the arresting officer to rape her. She reported that two of the prisoners did rape her, and that when she cried out for help, no one came to her rescue.
Research conducted among the LBT community by the University of the West Indies and the Equal Rights Trust has revealed numerous instances of discrimination against LBT individuals in multiple public and private sectors.
Homophobic and transphobic crimes remain uninvestigated. LBT people are sometimes prevented from seeing their partners in police custody, and members of the police force regularly intimidate and solicit monetary bribes and sexual favors. In addition, LBT Guyanese are often forced to conceal their identity or face hostility within their families, communities, schools, and workplaces.
Discrimination in employment is a major issue facing gender-nonconforming Guyanese. LBT individuals are often affected in their access to jobs and hindered in their career advancement because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many people are unemployed, driven to sex work for lack of other opportunities, made to conceal their sexual orientation in order to remain employed, or are summarily dismissed when their sexual orientation becomes known. One lesbian reported, “I work at a school, so I can’t go public. I have to be very careful because of my job; I have to always look around and see who’s watching.” This individual was eventually forced out of her employment at that school. Employment discrimination makes access to the rental and housing market moot for many LBT Guyanese. One woman said, “Because of my sexuality, I cannot get a job, and without a job, I cannot get a [bank] loan [to buy a house] or an apartment.
LBT Guyanese also experience discrimination in their quest for education, and the provision of goods and services. LBT students are bullied and sanctioned by teachers and other school officials. Businesses sometimes refuse to sell goods to or serve LBT people.
LBT individuals are also regularly harassed on the street, from name-calling by men whose advances they reject to being threatened with violence, including “corrective rape.” The families of some LBT women also face harassment.
The Guyanese government has not taken any steps to counter discriminatory stereotypes against LBT people, promote LBT human rights, or protect gender-nonconforming individuals. The retention of the law against cross-dressing and the exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity from existing nondiscrimination legislation contribute to the perpetuation of a societal climate that condones stigma, discrimination, and harassment of gender-nonconforming individuals and prevents them from obtaining redress when they are victimized. We urge the CEDAW committee to recommend that the government of Guyana repeal specific discriminatory laws and adopt policies and practices that are inclusive of LBT human rights.
Read more about the work of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commisssion and LGBT human rights defenders at IGLHRC.org.