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Trans in Guyana: Recognized but Not Protected

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One of the dirty secrets of the LGBT "community" in the U.S.A. is that the "T" -- transgender folks -- usually get the short end of the stick when they're addressed at all. So imagine my surprise when a high court in the Caribbean, a region thought of as rigidly homophobic and "behind" the U.S.A., released a ruling that acknowledges transgender identities, even as it refuses to legally protect them.

On Sept. 6, 2013, the Guyanese Supreme Court released an important decision regarding the country's law prohibiting cross dressing "for an improper purpose." The ruling includes both encouraging and troubling elements.

On Feb. 6 and 7, 2009, several biological men wearing women's clothing were waiting for public transportation in Guyana when they were arrested. They were strip searched and held for more than 48 hours without being told of the charges against them, and some were denied a phone call or access to medical treatment. Eventually the individuals were tried by a magistrate who told them that they "are confused and should give themselves to Jesus Christ." All pled guilty without the benefit of legal counsel and were fined $7,500. When news of the case was covered in local media, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) and the University of the West Indies' Rights Advocacy Project provided support to four of the individuals -- "the Guyanese 4" -- to bring suit against Section 153 as unconstitutional because it is discriminatory and vague, and news of the story started to spread beyond the Caribbean.

The recent ruling argues that because the law treats cross dressing by women and men equally, it does not discriminate on the basis of gender. This statement seems to concur with the law, which strongly implies that there are only two genders. But importantly, the court recognized the existence of transgender identities, declaring that the law "does not proscribe trans-gender dressing per se." And the Supreme Court went even further, stating that "it is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation." But defying logic, it upheld the convictions of the Guyanese 4, refusing to protect this newly acknowledged identity.

Unfortunately, the judgment also upheld the existing law, which states that men cannot wear female attire (and vice versa) in public "for any improper purpose." I know what you're thinking: If expressing your trans identity is a "proper purpose," then what is an official "improper purpose"? The court didn't say; one of the main paradoxes of this judgment is that no examples were given of improper intent, not even in the case of the defendants. Surely this will be addressed in their appeal.

Still, this recognition and the establishment of transgender identities as legitimate identities under the law that can be pursued as a "proper purpose" is trailblazing for the Caribbean region and goes further than U.S. high courts have gone; they haven't taken up gender identity in any major way.

There is reason for optimism regarding trans acceptance and equality in the Caribbean. In 2012 Cuba's Adela Hernandez became the first known transgender elected official in the Caribbean, and 15 years before that, transsexual Jowelle DeSouza successfully sued the Trinidadian state for unlawful arrest and police harassment. The Guyanese 4's case builds on this legacy in the courts, while local and regional activists (including CARIFLAGS and the recently formed Guyana Trans United) continue to work toward changing popular beliefs about transgender people and sexual minorities -- trying to make the "T" more visible and accepted.

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