In a letter in Kaieteur News on December 29, 2012 titled `Let’s help our Devons’ penned by Dr Sewnauth Punalall, I was disheartened to read his attempt to manipulate a shocking case of murder to launch an offensive attack on our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Guyanese sisters and brothers. I address my Alliance For Change (AFC) colleague, Dr Punalall, because I find some of the language in his letter having the potential to incite hate against a minority group in our society who are already stigmatised. In his letter he used phrases such as “sinful or a perverted lifestyle,” “devil’s language,” and even went on to suggest that homosexuals are abusive and homosexuality is indefensible, though Dr Punalall provided no real evidence to support his positions.
Dr Punalall pointed out that “a study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence reveals that 90% of homosexuals surveyed had been recipients of one or more acts of verbal aggression, and 31% report one or more incidents of physical abuse. Archives of General Psychiatry (Ibid) found that homosexuals are at greater risk for overall mental health problems, and are 6.5 % more likely to attempt suicide. The cited data demonstrates that targeted violence toward homosexuals is common in many societies because of the high social stigma, which often manifests itself in some of the very inflammatory language Dr Punalall has used to describe our LGBT Guyanese sisters and brothers.
Now since discriminatory laws are still on the books in Guyana and there is widespread perception of LGBT persons being “sinful and perverted,” they do experience “acts of verbal aggression” and “physical abuse.” LGBT youth, in particular, suffer rejection by their families when they reveal their true identities and sometimes find themselves homeless, or in other ways rejected by their families. This kind of discriminatory treatment leads to the mental health issues and suicides, which Dr Punalall highlights.
The issue here is homophobic behaviour which continues to have severe effects on LGBT persons. If heterosexuals experienced the everyday discrimination faced by LGBT people, they too would develop mental health problems, including suicide. In fact, wherever Africans and Indigenous Peoples suffer discrimination it is followed by health and social problems. Homophobia, therefore, is the problem we must change in our society, not homosexuals. Every Guyanese is entitled to fair and equal treatment under law, and in their daily lives.
Laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing play a large part in fuelling discrimination against LGBT Guyanese. This is according to a seminal study titled “Collateral Damage: The Social Impact of Laws Affecting LGBT Persons in Guyana” conducted by Dr Christopher Carrico and published by the University of the West Indies in March 2012. Dr Carrico states that “in the context of Guyanese society, the existence of the laws examined in this study creates conditions conducive to the violation of all of these basic rights for the LGBT community. While there would, no doubt, continue to be many sources of homophobia in society even without the existence of these laws, the repeal of these laws would go a long way towards the securing of fundamental rights for LGBT citizens in Guyana.”
I would therefore like to take this opportunity to urge the Special Select Committee of the National Assembly tasked with holding consultations on these matters to take an objective approach and review the striking evidence that discrimination against LGBT Guyanese is undeniable and recommend that these discriminatory laws which perpetuate stigma and fuel discrimination are repealed forthwith.
To my AFC colleague, Dr Punalall, I say our personal and religious views should never be the reason for us to ridicule and exclude people and treat them like lesser human beings. In a modern, plural society like Guyana we must afford equal rights and protection to all – especially those who are historically disadvantaged and face discrimination on a regular basis. The sexual orientations and gender identities of our Guyanese LGBT sisters and brothers do not come into question when they show up at the polls to vote for any political party. In the same way, they deserve to live freely every other day.
Moreover, at this time when we are faced with a corrupt and unaccountable PPP regime that exploits the fears and insecurities of its ethnic base in its quest for total power, we ought not to be picking battles amongst ourselves. As one people, regardless of our individual persuasions, we must unite to confront and banish the ugliness that has stained our land for the past 60 years, from the time of the suspension of the Constitution in 1953.