IN 2009, after an increase of transwomen being arrested by the police for cross-dressing, a group of transgender men went to the Supreme Court with hopes of having the law struck off the books. Homosexuality and cross-dressing have been illegal in Guyana since the height of colonial days. So, while it seemed relatively progressive at the time when then Chief Justice Ian Chang stated that cross- dressing was not a crime as long as it was not used for “improper purposes,” this ruling still sees trans- women being sidelined and not being able to access justice.
While intimating that as long as one was expressing their gender identity, cross-dressing is not illegal, the vagueness of the term “improper purpose” leaves the door open for more discrimination against them. Hence, it was for this reason that appellants shortly after Chang’s ruling sought to clarify the meaning behind the phrase in the courts once again.
However, a ruling on the case read by Chancellor Carl Singh stated, “It was not for the court to attempt a definition of a broad term — it is for the magistrate to decide, on a case-by-case basis.”
The problem with this is that when we allow magistrates to look at things on a case-by-case basis and use their own interpretations, their biases will get in the way of justice as we have seen with Magistrate Dylon Bess and his apparent transphobia. He has on several occasions barred transwomen from accessing justice, because they were not dressed in a way that is considered “socially acceptable” for their prescribed sex. Thankfully, Bess is being hauled before the Judicial Services Commission to be held accountable for his discriminatory treatment of transgender Guyanese and I truly hope that the law does not fail trans- women once again.
What I have always found curious about the cross-dressing law is that it only applies to transwomen and not transmen or ciswomen. Is it because women are seen as lesser so to dress like one is seen to be disgraceful? It might have nothing much to it but it is an interesting thought. I always see the argument being touted that those from the Lesbians Gay Bisexual Trans community do not deserve ‘special’ rights and laws, as if that is what is being asked for. The only thing being asked for are equal rights where heterosexuals are not seen as the only ones deserving of the full protection of the law. Human rights should never be arranged in a hierarchy, with some being considered more deserving than others.
In the year 2012, a nine-member special select committee of the National Assembly was set up with the intent to “hold public consultations on the abolition of corporal punishment, capital punishment, decriminalization of same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing, and discrimination against LGBT people.” It is unclear whether these consultations were ever completed or what the outcome was. It is now 2017 and with another Government, we may need an entirely new committee to have the same consultations once again.
For those who often wonder how we often reach a stage where gross human rights violations happen, it happens when discrimination is allowed to be institutionalised. It happens when there exist laws in the nation’s books which challenge the basic rights of citizens and their existence. How does one determine whether a cross-dresser has “improper” intentions? My reasoning is, if someone has committed a crime, let’s say perhaps, robbery then they should be charged for that. They being a cross-dresser is irrelevant to their crime. Let’s examine a parallel. If a young person of a particular ethnicity commits a murder, then their ethnicity should not be the focus, but rather the murder they committed.
When we attempt to link manner of identity or dress with that of crimes then what we do is further perpetuate stereotypes and encourage discrimination against members belonging to those particular groups. Then we wonder why we have such an intolerant society, but is it really a wonder when discrimination is state-sanctioned?
Having these laws remain give the dangerous impression to the public that these persons should be discriminated against or harmed because they are not considered conventional. This of course is not the only law that needs to be struck off of the books; we have so many archaic laws sitting just waiting for someone to use them. The coalition promised constitutional reform. Have I been living under a rock or has nothing solid begun as yet? My bet is on the latter.