Advocating for the rights and protection of the LGBTIQ+ community
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By Mikiko Tanaka, Resident Coordinator, United Nations Guyana
ACHIEVING equal rights, non-discrimination and protection from violence and abuse for millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) persons has been a remarkable journey of courage, solidarity, and activism since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The annual observation of LGBTIQ+ Pride month offers an opportunity to take stock and reflect on the progress made to advance LGBTIQ+ rights, and the challenges that still remain. LGBTIQ+ Pride is about more than just the rainbow flag, advertising, and corporate marketing. LGBTIQ+ Pride is a social campaign of education and visibility, a call to action for the public and policymakers, and a celebration of human rights and freedom of expression, identity, and association.

Resident Coordinator, United Nations Guyana, Mikiko Tanaka

Movements around the world have helped to advance the rights of persons of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC), usually categorised under the LGBTIQ+ community, by creating spaces for dialogue and acceptance. One of the first movements began in June 1969 when persons took to the streets to protest police raids at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. One of these raids sparked six days of riots, now known as the Stonewall Riots, which bolstered the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world. Over the years, consistent advocacy and public demonstrations have led to discussions on gay rights that eventually triggered changes in perceptions and attitudes towards LGBTIQ+ persons. Globally, there have been fundamental shifts in protecting the lives of LGBTIQ+ persons. The United Nations continues to take action and add its voice to protect the lives and well-being of LGBTIQ + persons. Some of the UN’s actions range from the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder by the World Health Organization in 1990, to UN resolutions adopted to protect against violence and discriminations, to supporting government amendments of national constitutions.

Guyana’s society, like any other around the world, has elements of conservatism, based on traditional and colonial norms and values around gender and sexuality which has limited acceptance and sometimes result in discriminatory treatment by individuals in everyday settings, including workplaces, schools, homes, and hospitals. In worse cases, this entails violent attacks, ranging from aggressive verbal abuse and psychological bullying, to physical assaults and abuse.

Guyana’s Constitution guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Guyanese. However, Guyana is among 10 Caribbean countries that still maintain laws from the colonial era which criminalise same-sex intimacy. The existence of these laws reinforces personal and institutional prejudices that contribute to ongoing discrimination from public and state actors alike. Decriminalising homosexuality is a critical first step to protect the rights of LGBTIQ + persons and facilitate fairness and equality before the law.
Over the past decade, there have been some significant milestones and steps in protecting rights of LGBTIQ+ persons and creating an inclusive and diverse environment.

A legal milestone for LGBTIQ+ rights in Guyana was the Caribbean Court of Justice’s (CCJ) ruling on “cross-dressing” in November 2018, after an almost nine-year court battle. In the case of Quincy McEwan and others v the Attorney General of Guyana (2018) CCJ 30 (AJ), the Caribbean Court of Justice held that Guyana’s law against cross-dressing was discriminatory, unconstitutionally vague, violated the right to protection of the law, and was contrary to the rule of law. Enforcement of Section 152(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act led to the unfavourable and discriminatory treatment of transgender and gender non-confirming persons by criminalising their gender expression and identity. To give effect to the CCJ’s ruling, the current administration has tabled a bill to amend the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act to decriminalise cross-dressing. This is a welcome legislative step that will bring an appropriate closure to this matter.

Guyana’s inaugural LGBTIQ Pride Festival was held in 2017 with the formation of the Guyana LGBT Coalition, which was a coordinating group of three LGBTIQ+ organisations in Guyana active at that time. The following year, history was made as Guyana became the first country in the English-speaking Caribbean to host an LGBTIQ+ Pride Parade. However, prior to these activities, grassroots organisations have observed Pride month on much smaller scales through film festivals and community outreach initiatives.

At the conclusion of Guyana’s Third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Cycle in 2020, the Government of Guyana supported several recommendations in relation to LGBTIQ+ persons. The government has supported recommendations to continue making efforts to combat acts of violence and discrimination, to ensure inclusion in economic activities, and integrate sensitisation training into curriculums to improve responses to discriminatory acts against people based on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and sexual characteristics. Implementation of these recommendations will build positive steps to protecting LGBTIQ+ persons.

These milestone and positive changes to social attitudes on the issue can be accredited to the contributions and works of civil society organisations in Guyana, such as the Guyana Rainbow Foundation (GuyBow), the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Guyana Trans United (GTU), Empowering Queers Using Artistic Learning (EQUAL), among others. Over many years, these organisations have been consistently and persistently advocating and promoting the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons.

Guyana has come a long way, but still has some ways to go in advancing the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons. Legislative change, education, sensitisation, and continued advocacy are important steps which will require a collaborative approach across government, civil society organisations, international organisations, and general society.

The UN system in Guyana has worked with the government, Parliament, judiciary, and civil society to advance the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons and to include them in the country’s development in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has supported efforts for legislative change through collaborations with SASOD Guyana to draft a white paper and proposed amendment to the Prevention of Discrimination Act (1997) which seeks to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination in any employment or occupation. UNDP, together with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), also supported the Guyana Trans United in attending the CCJ ruling on the cross-dressing appeal and subsequently hosted a public forum to sensitise members of the community on the CCJ’s ruling.

UN agencies in Guyana have also supported social initiatives, such as capacity building for CSOs on HIV prevention and treatment promotion, and the provision of HIV testing and prevention packages to the LGBTIQ+ community. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) partnered with SASOD Guyana to distribute relief packages and nutritional support to those in need. An assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTIQ+ persons was also undertaken to determine the impacts on persons’ livelihoods and guide relief efforts needed within the LGBTIQ+ community.

The United Nations will continue to advance the rights and well-being of persons of diverse SOGIESC, the LGBTIQ+ community, and other marginalised groups. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and are entitled to a life free from discrimination of any kind, whether race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion. Guyana has ratified several international conventions and treaties and is obligated to prevent, investigate, and redress human rights violations and is explicitly prohibited from discriminating against persons on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. CSOs, stakeholders and public entities can together contribute to realising these rights in their everyday work, by practising and providing equal opportunities and treatment, respect, and acceptance, and by increasing one’s awareness and knowledge.

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