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SASOD at 10: Coming Full Circle

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SASOD just marked its 10th anniversary on June 7, so it seems an opportune time to reflect on where we are in achieving human rights and equality for all Guyanese -- especially lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) -- citizens. It was June 7, 2003, when then Students Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination entered the public sphere in Guyana, hosting a forum at the National Library to which the entire 65-member National Assembly was individually invited. We were a motley group of some 10 to 15 students, mostly from the University of Guyana, who signed the invitations to parliamentarians as SASOD. Only three opposition Members of Parliament came to our forum. But for the small group at the National Library that Saturday, it was an opportunity to have an informed, reasoned discussion about including "sexual orientation" as grounds for protections from discrimination in Article 149 of Guyana's constitution.

It was this very lack of rational debate that spurred the birth of this student lobby group at the time. Recommendations to expand the very limited grounds for protection from discrimination in Article 149 stemmed from a national constitution reform process, not us. Seemingly inspired by post-apartheid South Africa's robust constitution, the National Assembly in 2001 unanimously passed a constitutional amendment bill with comprehensive reforms, including new expressly prohibited grounds of discrimination. Three new grounds in particular raised the ire of sections of the religious community: marital status, religious vilification and sexual orientation. Initially campaigning against all three, but eventually settling for the biggest perceived sin, sections of the evangelical Christian and Muslim communities managed to convince then-President Bharrat Jagdeo not to assent to the bill but to send it back to the National Assembly for reconsideration. The bill came up in Parliament again in 2003, and this was a key moment in SASOD's genesis.

Ten years later, we seem to have come full circle, with LGBT issues again before Parliament. In 2010, Guyana came up for its first review before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Stakeholder submissions being an important part of the UPR process, SASOD was provided with an opportunity to report on LGBT human rights issues to the UNHRC. Our UPR shadow report highlighted Guyana's laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross dressing, which led to documented cases of violence, harassment and exclusion, as well as the lack of constitutional and legal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As expected, the UNHRC made firm recommendations that Guyana repeal these discriminatory laws, as well as take legal and other measures to prevent and protect LGBT people from violence and discrimination, so that the state could fulfill its international human rights obligations to all people. The Guyana government committed to holding national consultations on these LGBT issues, and on the abolition of corporal and capital punishment. Guyana is scheduled for its next UPR in the cycle beginning in September 2014, and the government will be expected to report to the UNHRC on the outcomes and related actions of the national consultation process currently underway.

At the regional level, SASOD has been participating in the Inter-American system since 2007. As part of a larger regional coalition of activist organisations from Caribbean and Latin American states, we have successfully lobbied and advanced resolutions on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity at the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) every year since 2008. In October 2008, we participated in the first thematic hearing on sexual orientation and gender issues before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The advocacy work of the coalition in the Inter-American system is largely thought to have contributed to the commission establishing a Unit on the Rights of LGBTI Persons in 2011. (The "I" is for intersex persons.) In December 2011, SASOD became the first Guyanese organization, and the first LGBT human rights organization in the Anglophone Caribbean, to be included as a registered civil society organization in the OAS. The Guyana government raised no objection to SASOD's accreditation. While Guyana has always joined in unanimity with the General Assembly every year since 2008 in signing on to the resolution on LGBTI issues, it is deeply concerning that this year -- just last week, in fact, at the General Assembly in La Antigua, Guatemala -- the Guyana government followed other Caribbean states in registering a footnote rejecting the resolution that reads as follows: "The Government of Guyana is unable to join consensus on this Resolution given the fact that several of the issues addressed herein are currently the subject of deliberation by a special select committee of the National Assembly." The special select committee process should not become a convenient excuse for rolling back commitments made at the regional level to protect human rights at home.

While detractors often argue that these patently bigoted laws are harmless, events of the last decade tell a completely different story, especially for working-class, transgender Guyanese. In May 2006, SASOD became aware of an arrest and prosecution for cross dressing through a Stabroek News report. Through our community networks, we reached out and found Petronella, who was arrested and fined several thousand dollars for this victimless offense. Petronella joined SASOD representatives on a live program on state radio for te International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) on May 17, 2006. In February 2009, there was a more extensive, state-sanctioned crackdown as various sections of the local media reported the arrests and prosecution of seven persons within a 48-hour period for cross dressing. This police crackdown was particularly offensive, as the seven persons suffered a range of rights abuses beyond the arbitrary arrest and detention, including sexual harassment while in police custody and disparaging remarks about their gender identity and sexuality from the then-Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson, who took the opportunity when sentencing to share her gospel of Christ from the bench. In February 2010, four of the persons who'd been arrested and prosecuted, along with SASOD, filed suit against the state for these unconstitutional violations. On June 6, Chief Justice Ian Chang, sitting as the Constitutional Court, heard full arguments from both sides and reserved the matter for judgment.

Events of the past decade have been nothing short of remarkable for SASOD, and while there have been some setbacks, the willingness of reasonable people to engage on LGBT issues gives us encouragement to continue the struggle for equal rights. Anticipating the chief justice's judgment and the special select committee to press ahead with its work, the remainder of 2013 promises to be equally, if not even more, exciting. We hope that every arm of government -- executive, legislative and judiciary -- can display bold and clear leadership on these issues to fulfill Guyana's human rights obligations to all citizens, and not regress or try to "pass the buck," as happened at the OAS General Assembly last week. Hope matters, but so does our determination to continue and extend our work and build solidarity across Guyana, the Caribbean and the wider world.

For more information about SASOD, visit www.sasod.org.gy.

I can be reached at joelearlsimpson@gmail.com.