Annually, International Women's Day is commemorated on March 8. This year, I want to highlight the plight of an often-forgotten group of women who are most times invisible and silenced, due to the social stigma and daily discrimination they face: lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women. There are many studies, which have been recently carried out on discrimination against these stigmatized groups in Guyana. (For links, see below.*) And there are also the voices of many who personally attest to this experience. Only a few days ago, a transgender woman related to me the constant harassment she suffers. "Up to this morning someone hurled abuses at me saying, 'ayuh battieman mus dead, doan think ayuh gon get rights and live happy,'" she said. She continued to detail that the police would harass her for cross-dressing, often detaining her but never arresting her since they know she is affiliated with SASOD.
Recently too, there was a prominent incident in the local media where two female soldiers were met with sanctions of suspension from from work by the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) after a cell-phone video of them engaging in intimate activities was disseminated publicly without their permission. These are just a few of the cases that are reported to local groups or make the media. However, the vast majority of incidents go unreported as the victims feel they have no real form of redress for the everyday acts of discrimination they suffer. Some lesbian women, in particular, often feel compelled to conform to gender stereotypes by wearing attire that is considered "sexy" and "feminine." Some women have "sham" relationships with men, just to avoid these social sanctions.
All Guyanese, including LBT women, have a right to protection from discrimination, education and to express themselves freely, among the many other rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Government of Guyana also owes particular obligations to all Guyanese women as a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As such I would like to reiterate key recommendations,which the CEDAW Committee published after its review of Guyana last July:
- Conduct public education campaigns against homophobia and transphobia and promote the human rights of LGBT people through mass media and other public means, including education for teachers, school administrators and police officers.
In addition, I echo the CEDAW committee itself and urge the Government to implement the concluding observations of Guyana's review, which recommend that the state should seek, "to provide effective protection against violence and discrimination against all groups of women through the enactment of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that includes the prohibition of all forms of discrimination against them and the decriminalization of consensual adult same sex relations as indicated in the oral statement of the delegation."
The United Nations Human Rights Council also assessed Guyana's record at the Universal Periodic Review and recommended that Guyana decriminalize same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing, as well as "intensify political initiative and legislative measures to combat any act of discrimination, including those committed against gender identity and sexual orientation."
The Guyanese Government conducted consultations on the issues outlined above, as well as the abolition of corporal punishment and the death penalty. Our country has a golden opportunity to rid itself of all these colonial inheritances through this legislative process. We need laws that protect all our citizens; none that exclude, shun and fester stigma and discrimination against them. Indeed, laws, which criminalize gender-nonconforming people's identities and same-sex intimacy, provide a state-sanctioned basis for transphobic and homophobic discrimination meted out by the general population. Social norms which fuel these gender-based prejudices will not change overnight, but unless we do away with these discriminatory laws and enact laws which protect people, our future generations will not be able to benefit from the norm-creating value of laws which protect all our rights as Guyanese citizens.
I dream of a Guyana where one day all of us have equal access to all services and opportunities and are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of our differences. Guyana is, or should be, as our motto says: "One people. One Nation, One Destiny." I would like to see us demonstrate that we truly are one people living in one nation with one destiny, as diverse as we are. After all, it is our diversity, which enriches our Guyanese tapestry. Let's remember to celebrate gender diversity and include all women as we commemorate International Women's Day.
*See local studies recently carried out on discrimination against these, stigmatized groups. "Collateral Damage: The Social Impact of Laws Affecting LGBT Persons in Guyana" authored by Dr. Christopher Carrico and published by the University of the West Indies and a shadow report by the Guyana Rainbow Foundation (GuyBow), International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) on "Human Rights Violations of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (LBT) People in Guyana" submitted for consideration at the 52nd session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women on July 10, 2012, both detail the continuous harassment and discrimination LBT Guyanese face in their homes, communities and workplaces.