From madness to mainstream – “Gay rights” in Guyana (part 2)

By Vidyaratha Kissoon

2013 is an interesting year in the Caribbean for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality. Belize, Guyana and Jamaica have court cases pending. Guyana also has a select committee in the National Assembly to discuss the repeal of the laws that discriminate against LGBTI persons.  Vidyaratha Kissoon has been associated with LGBTI activism for the last decade in Guyana and was a member and Trustee of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (also celebrating its 10th anniversary this year) until his resignation in June 2012.

Caribbean Community
in the diasporaIn 2004, Caribbean and other LGBTI activists, concerned with the growing popularity of homophobic lyrics, initiated the ‘Stop Murder Music’ Campaign to bring pressure to bear on private and public sector groups in the Caribbean, North America and Europe to respond to these lyrics.  Guyanese joined the campaign by writing to the Ethnic Relations Commission since they believed “that sexual orientation is one of the forms of diversity in a plural society and that therefore the ERC holds a constitutional mandate to encourage respect for the rights of gay and lesbian people in Guyana.” One year after the appeal, the ERC said it had no mandate to deal with the matter.  This issue continues with some protests against the Antigua 2012 Road March song ‘Kick in she back door’ across the Caribbean.

The Jamaica Outpost, a newsletter which ran in Kingston between October 2004 and June 2005, as well as the MSMNPA’s Free Forum magazine edited by the late Deni James in Trinidad & Tobago carried articles from Guyana.

The Regional HIV/AIDS mechanisms interrogated the laws fuelling discrimination and the years 2004 and 2005 saw discussions in different countries, including Guyana, about the need for repeal of ‘sodomy laws’. Some Caribbean Minsters of Health, including Guyana’s Dr Leslie Ramsammy, supported these calls, which were rejected by their Governments.
In 2007, Trinidadian activist Colin Robinson wrote that “In a field in which international human  rights advocacy and HIV response work have been the dominant forms of LGBT organising,  SASOD’s breathtaking cultural and political programmes have distinguished themselves by their  inventiveness, analysis, balance, and skilful use of limited resources. SASOD’s work and  imaginativeness reflect the best Caribbean political and cultural traditions and they make me proud  to be a gay Caribbean man.“    In 2008 the late Dr Robert Carr, who was based in Jamaica,  also stated that he wished there was a “SASOD in every Caribbean country.”

The SASOD Film Festival sought to include participation through films and other creative work  from the Caribbean, with performances by Jamaican poet and writer Kei Miller in 2007. SASOD’s CARIFESTA Fringe in 2008 featured films from Caribbean directors. The Fringe also included the Guyana launch of Thomas Glave’s edited collection, Our Caribbean; and Crawling out of the Closet by Grenadian Claude Douglas.  In 2008 LGBTI activism in Guyana gained even more visibility with an article, ‘Love After Love’ in the Caribbean Airlines magazine, Caribbean Beat. Author  Caroline Taylor wrote “.. It takes perhaps even more courage to put on a film festival in the Caribbean that’s devoted exclusively to movies which challenge established notions of sexuality and gender. It is a wonder, then, that Guyana’s Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) has managed to mount its festival…”

Diaspora
The engagement of the Guyanese and Caribbean diaspora included the support of film makers Philip Pike, Michelle Mohabeer, Richard Fung, Sean Drakes, Renata Mohammed, Andil Gosine and others. Diaspora contributions extend to support from artistes like Nhojj. There is also support in terms of logistics for activities and events, and for information sharing.

One of the memories of June 2012 is the story of two films that crossed race divides. One young Black woman collected a film from a woman from India, while a young Indian man collected the film from a woman in South Africa. Both of these young persons did not want to be named in their contributions to the festival.

LGBTI Guyanese returning home have expressed surprise at the work being done, and some have used the space created by the film festival to speak about their reconciliation with their memories of leaving Guyana.  This has even gone beyond the Guyanese community; it was interesting one year when a young American from Ohio credited Guyana with giving him the courage to come out to his parents.

Diaspora engagements now to extend to research as a young Canadian/Guyanese student presented a paper about SASOD at the 2013 Caribbean Studies Association Conference in Grenada.

One of the complexities of LGBTI diaspora is dealing with the issue of asylum, especially in Canada and the United States. Some activists have felt that they could not get involved in providing ‘expert testimony’ to be used in Asylum cases, while others felt that it is important to help whenever one could.

Who else spoke out and supported the work?
In 2003, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) joined in calling for the Constitutional Amendment.   In October 2004, Guyanese Bertie Ramcharran also stated his support for law reform at a public Human Rights forum which included the Prime Minister and other members of Parliament.  On International Human Rights Day in 2007, the GHRA invited SASOD to make a presentation. This presentation was then published in the 14 December 2007 edition of Dayclean, organ of the  Working People’s Alliance – the first time that any political party in Guyana had endorsed LGBTI activist positions. Other NGOs such as Help & Shelter and Red Thread have included non-discrimination policies in their own activities and supported the work.

In May 2005, the late Grenadian scholar Professor Simeon C. R. McIntosh became the first Caribbean legal scholar to speak to the needed changes, in an article published in the Barbados Advocate “Homosexuality: A constitutional question” while he was Dean of the Faculty of Law at UWI Cave Hill.  Other commentators such as Sir Ronald Sanders, Ralph Ramkarran and politicians and newspaper columnists around the Caribbean  have also challenged the discrimination which exists in the Caribbean. Some politicians have taken risk at different times including Portia Simpson Miller in Jamaica before the 2011 elections, the Hon Francis Fonseca – Leader of the Opposition in Belize and Dr. Joseph – President of the Senate in Grenada. Fidel Castro in 2010 apologised for the ‘gran injusticia’ of the earlier years.

Other support in Guyana came from different places. The first film festival had the support of the 3HCD/Video Club and Sidewalk Cafe. In November, 2005, the recently opened Oasis Cafe agreed to host an evening of “Readings from the Spectrum: Lesbian and Gay Writings”.  In addition to publishing the notice for the event, a young journalist in Stabroek News published the entire text of the epic poem in prose form of Alan Moore’s The Mirror of Love, which looked at the history of same-sex love.

The Government and discrimination
The first project that SASOD engaged in was funded through the Global Fund/Ministry of Health. One of the interesting features of LGBTI activism in Guyana is the required branding of the  SASOD website with the coat of arms of Guyana.  Cynics might ask whether the Government was funding a revolution against itself.  Whenever President Jagdeo was asked about the issue of law reform, his response was always framed in the position of ‘no discrimination’ even as he remained non-committal on law reform.

In March 2011, Cabinet Secretary Dr Luncheon noted  “Cabinet reflected on social responses to homosexuality and reiterated its position of not supporting discrimination of those whose sexual orientation offended contemporary social norms and also consequently any advocacy of such lifestyles.”  While the public commentary of the Government seems to be shifting towards ‘no discrimination’, these statements are not translated into action.

“Is it homophobic to say that homosexuality is a sin?”
A statement from the Christian Community in Guyana on the proposed decriminalisation of Homosexuality notes that “We also believe … that we are called to embrace and reflect God’s love and compassion for humanity as outlined in the Bible which demands that we reject the acts of violence and hostility meted out to some homosexuals and other attitudes or actions that devalue and diminish our humanity as God intended.”  The statement affirms in addition that  “…It is evident that homosexuality is an offense to religion, morality and public convenience…”
On the one hand, homosexuals are to be loved (like murderers, thieves, rapists are to be loved?), while on the other hand they are offensive to the public. This experience of loving is manifested in the experience of LGBTI people who are then threatened with the fyah which reportedly destroyed Sodom.  Fyah.. in 2013.. in the form of the acid thrown on Sandy Jackman as she dealt with her family duties; and fyah in the cigarette lighter flame held by ‘loving’ citizens to the locks of Ryon Rawlins as he walked down Regent Street going about his business with a reminder of his apparent sin in the chants of ‘bun batty man’.

The agenda for activism has to be responsive to the diverse needs and experiences of the LGBTI community. The goal of LGBTI activism is to create a society in which LGBTI persons have equal access to education, housing, jobs, health, police protection, and equal opportunities to participate in community and national life.

There are cynics who will speak about ‘homosexuals in high places’ who face no discrimination. On the other hand, the experiences of violence, and alienation experienced by other LGBTI persons have to be addressed. The future of activism for equality must be grounded in accountability to those who are affected by the discrimination.

A gay teacher living in a rural area in Guyana said recently he did not have much faith in laws, and was looking instead at fundamental changes in the education of regular people. Ravi Dev was a Member of Parliament when he participated in the first public forum in April 2003. In his reflections on the 10 years since that forum, he said he believed the discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity is one which is related to the general discussions on diversity and difference and who has moral superiority over whom.  This moral superiority in this instance often expressed in the violence and discrimination that seemingly has no redress.  How then can the views of ‘regular people’ who oppose discrimination against LGBTI Guyanese be given prominence in the national discussion about laws and policies?

In April 2013, I visited the Wedding Expo and used the opportunity to poll on the issue of gay marriage. I asked 13 exhibitors how they felt about offering wedding and honeymoon services to same-sex couples. Eleven of the exhibitors said they had no problem (a few had already done so) while two persons said that offering services to same sex couples would conflict with their faith.

In Trinidad & Tobago, a survey conducted by the Caribbean Development Research Services Inc (Cadres) in collaboration with the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) suggested that 56 per cent of citizens are either tolerant or accepting of the LGBTI community. Guyana’s cultural and social makeup is similar in many ways to Trinidad & Tobago – can we assume that in Guyana a majority of Guyanese would like to see LGBTI Guyanese achieve their potential free from violence and other forms of discrimination?

Is this the majority which would convince the Select Committee of the National Assembly when they consider the submissions to repeal the laws which discriminate against LGBTI?  Or would the legislators in the Caribbean and Guyana be siding with those who invoke fyah on LGBTI citizens?

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