Guyana transgender law victory paves way for greater reform

A cross-dressing law used to criminalise transgender people in Guyana has been overturned by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in a judgement that could pave the way for local campaigners to challenge other discriminatory laws.

On November 13, the CCJ ruled unanimously that the law that makes it a criminal offence for a man or a woman to appear in public in the clothing of a different gender for “an improper purpose” violates the Constitution of Guyana and is therefore void.

The case began in February 2009 when four women were arrested and convicted under section 153(1)(xvlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act from 1893. In 2010, the women, with support from the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) lodged a case to challenge the constitutional basis for the law. 

Commenting on the verdict Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, executive director of Guyana Trans United (GTU) and one of the women who lodged the case said:  “The whole trans community in Guyana is very happy today. I have always said that we should know what the law expects of us before we act and I am pleased that the court agreed that this law is vague.” McEwan added: “It was very important for us to be heard and get justice.” 

Guyana Trans United provides support to transgender women to access a range of services including HIV counselling and testing, legal advice and psychosocial support.  The ruling could prove beneficial to GTU’s ongoing campaign to overturn a British colonial era ‘buggery law’ that can further impact access to health and rights services for transgender people.

Lorraine, a member of Guyana Trans United (GTU)Lorraine receives support from Guyana Trans United on legal and health issues © Jason Florio for the Alliance

Breaking down barriers to achieve further change

The legal campaign has gained public support through extensive advocacy work with national media and sensitisation of government ministers to raise awareness of transgender issues. Guyana Trans United received a grant from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund to carry out this work and to support the submission of a white paper on law reform. The short film ‘A blossom pink world’ highlights the challenges, hopes and aspirations of their members to access health services they want and need.

In the court judgement, the Hon. Mr. Justice Saunders added: “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”  A panel of four judges voted unanimously that it was unconstitutional and “violated the appellants’ right to protection of the law and was contrary to the rule of law.” 

“Piece by piece, we are seeing dangerous, discriminatory laws against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people being overturned around the world,” said Christine Stegling, executive director of the Alliance. “On behalf of the whole Alliance, I congratulate SASOD and GTU on their courage and determination to challenge these laws and we will continue to stand with both organisations as they continue to strive for a better, safer environment for transgender people in Guyana.”  

“We can change laws and policies, but if we can’t change hearts, then we will be in the same place,” added McEwan.  

Guyana follows India and Trinidad & Tobago as the third Commonwealth country this year to overturn laws that discriminate against LGBT people.

The Rapid Response Fund iis managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.