“It is another victory for human rights and freedom of expression, and another reminder that we need to get rid of those colonial laws that violate basic human rights.”
That is the view of Co-Director of the Barbados Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexuals Against Discrimination (BGLAAD) Roanne Mohammed in the wake of a decision by the Caribbean Court of Justice in the case of Quincy McEwan, Seon Clarke, Joseph Fraser and Seyon Persaud and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) v the Attorney General of Guyana.
On Tuesday, the court ruled that the law under which they were arrested was unconstitutional and Guyana should strike it from its law books.
The law, Section 153(1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, made it a “criminal offence for a man or woman to appear in a public place while dressed in clothing of the opposite sex for an improper purpose”,
It all began in February 2009 when the four appellants, who identify as transgender, were arrested, convicted and punished for wearing women’s clothing in public. At the time of arrest, McEwan was wearing a pink shirt and a pair of tights, while Clarke was wearing slippers and a skirt. A few hours later, Fraser and Persaud were also arrested and taken to the Brickdam Police Station. Fraser and Persaud were wearing skirts and wigs when they were apprehended.
While in custody, Fraser requested medical attention, a telephone call, legal counsel and that the police take a statement, but her requests were denied. All four of them spent the weekend in police custody without knowing why they were arrested. They only found out the charges when they appeared in the Georgetown Magistrates Court on February 9, 2009. They all pleaded guilty to the cross-dressing charge and McEwan, Clarke and Persaud were fined GY$7,500, while Fraser was fined GY$19,500.
On imposing the sentence, the presiding Magistrate told them they were confused about their sexuality, advised them to go back to church and give their lives to Jesus Christ.
Following that, the four women took their case to Guyana’s High Court in conjunction with the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), challenging the law on the grounds that it was discriminatory and inconsistent with Guyana’s Constitution. As both the High Court and Court of Appeal denied the constitutional challenges, they then took their case to the CCJ.
The CCJ noted the law was established in 1893 as part of the vagrancy laws in the post-emancipation era, and with that, the justices agreed that, “The law was from a different time and no longer served any legitimate purpose in Guyana.”
Mohammed concurred, saying “Not only that, but it shreds people of their bodily autonomy and freedom of expression. I hope the rest of the Caribbean, in fact, the entire Commonwealth, takes note of this decision and works towards getting rid of all these archaic laws.”
While Executive Director of SASOD, Joel Simpson, was delighted with the regional court’s decision, he acknowledged Guyana still had a long way to go in addressing discrimination against the transgender community.
“Discrimination against transgender people in Guyana is quite systematic. When compared to our heterosexual peers, there are high rates of school dropouts, limited economic opportunities, and in many cases, they also face isolation and abandonment from their families.”
Simpson said the decision coincided with SASOD’s observation of Transgender Awareness Week, which will include a Day of Remembrance, during which they will honour transgender people who have died as a result of violence against them based on their sexual orientation.