Gay rights groups ask president to repeal cross-dressing laws

In a letter to the President, six gay rights groups say Guyana should stop arrests of transgender persons and repeal laws that criminalise wearing clothes considered appropriate only for the opposite sex.

The letter to President Bharrat Jagdeo was signed by the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities, Global Rights, Guyana Rainbow Foundation, Human Rights Watch, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, a press release from the group said.

It comes in the wake of the arrest of eight people last month on the grounds that they were “wearing female attire.” Acting Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson had fined seven of the eight persons $7,500 for cross dressing under Section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act Chapter 8:02 which criminalises as a minor offence the “wearing of female attire by men; wearing of male attire by women.”

According to the letter the defendants told human rights organisations that while they were detained police did not allow them to make phone calls and did not inform them of the charges against them. Police also reportedly demanded they take off their female clothes in front of them and asked them to bend down to search them. It said too several of the defendants were then “placed in solitary confinement (lockdown), a punitive measure allegedly imposed for their own safety.”

The groups contended that the arrests and legal provisions which facilitate them constitute a violation of the individual’s right to privacy, freedom of expression and their personal dignity. “Police are using archaic laws to violate basic freedoms,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights programme at Human Rights Watch. “This is a campaign meant to drive people off the streets simply because they dress or act in ways that transgress gender norms,” he added.

The groups say the law is repressive and urged President Jagdeo to repeal it. They assert that it represses individuals’ self expression which is against the basic provisions of human rights. Further the groups say Guyana is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1977 and that in 2003 it incorporated this and six other major international human rights conventions into its Constitution, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As such “Guyana has an obligation to respect and protect these rights, and to do so in a non-discriminatory manner, as set forth in article 2 of the same treaty,” the letter said. In keeping with this the groups called for a halt to the arrests of people based on the grounds of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and a repeal of the laws prohibiting cross-dressing.

The release pointed out that the United Nations Human Rights Committee held in 1994 in the case of Toonen v. Australia that sexual orientation should be understood as a “status protected against discrimination” by the ICCPR’s equality provisions.

It was also noted by the groups that the General Assembly of the Organization of American States on June 3, 2008 adopted the resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Guyana, by joining the member states of the OAS in expressing concerns for human rights violations, took an important step in its commitment to end violence and related human rights violations committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Continued abuses like the ones committed against these eight men in Georgetown illustrate the need to take steps to end violence on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, as called for in the said resolution”, the release contended.

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