Last month, I travelled to Buxton to stand in solidarity with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community as they protested the detention of a 15-year-old who was locked up following a fracas in which he was booked by police as both aggressor and the victim. However, the details of the case revealed that he was simply a victim, condemned and beaten in the community last year by a gang simply because he is gay. He is a face in a sea of many who have been bullied, ridiculed, beaten, cast out, disowned and vilified because they identified as homosexuals. Consequently, a culture of shame begins to characterise the community instead of a culture of pride for freely expressing who they are. Shame keeps people oppressed and that is exactly what we have witnessed here in Guyana with the LGBT community.

In the past, I allowed people to tell me what to think about the LGBT community. I guess in some ways, I feared the community.

But it is human nature to fear what we do not know and what we make no attempt to understand. This leads to prejudice and hostility, which is unacceptable, based on my religious and social upbringing.

20131214de recordThe issue of homosexuality has been one of those I initially struggled with due to a Catholic upbringing that taught me it was a sin, but not just any sin, an unforgivable sin. The graphic descriptions of people burning in a raging inferno are mostly what I remember from those younger years, and then there was the biblical tale of what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

All of it now amounts to nothing but a selective condemnation of sin from religious bigots, some of whom I once respected. I have come to realize, thankfully some time ago, that I don’t need to pray for the salvation of homosexuals. What I need to pray for is a Guyana that is less homophobic, more open and inclusive, and much more equal.

This country is far from tolerant of citizens who don’t fit into our categories of “what’s normal” and we have been extremely cruel towards persons who have come out and said they are gay.

Being gay in a homophobic country like ours cannot be easy. Negative attitudes towards homosexuality, rooted in patriarchy and religious bigotry, are widespread in Guyana. To self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender is tougher–when homosexuality then takes on a face people can target; a name to denigrate; and worse, someone people can openly discriminate against without fear of an investigation and consequent penalties.

There is so much intolerance and indignation surrounding the issue that it’s difficult to follow criticisms of the LGBT lifestyle and agree with any of it. Though when you are younger certain beliefs and perspectives are foisted upon you and for the sake of obedience—and all the other things expected of a well-behaved child–you go along with them.

Many of us are unwilling to expose harmful homophobic behaviour, and the hateful language which accompanies it, for various reasons. It’s the same kind of attitude we embrace on issues of national importance–we are silent.

Guyana’s constitution and international law protect every individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to privacy and non-discrimination. We encourage respect for religious, cultural and other forms of diversity in this plural society, yet sexual orientation is dumped in a corner unable to get our support.

I agree that we live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality and I respect those in the religious community who have addressed these issues without prejudice. I cannot say the same for leaders such as Pastor Ronald McGarrell who believes that homosexuals need to be isolated, more specifically, “should reside on an island by themselves so as to not endanger the rest of society when/if God visits his wrath upon them.”

When Pastor McGarrell and others in his camp speak, they give this impression that persons with different sexual orientations are a threat; the kind you have to wipe out from a society or we are all going to be harmed. Where is the logic in this paranoia?

Members of the LGBT community are not knocking on my door asking for anything. But they are, by right, calling for equality, justice and tolerance. They are not even asking for love maybe because we have lost the capacity to love people who are different from us. Again, my religious and social upbringing taught me otherwise.

From a personal standpoint, the incitement to homophobic violence in dancehall lyrics, popularised by lyrical chants, such as “batty man fi dead”–which I heard so often growing up–is as reprehensible as the religious calls for gays to be exiled, and for citizens to stop supporting “the gay agenda.”

When Bishop Juan Edghill railed against homosexuality recently and spoke about the “gay agenda,” I was puzzled as to what this agenda was.

The only gay agenda I am aware of is an agenda to end the blatant discrimination and violence against members of the LGBT community who have no access to their human rights. The mere mention of human rights in the same breath as LGBT rights often riles some people up, but who determines which rights are fundamental and which are not?

In this case, the right to freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is important for every citizen of our country to be able to express themselves freely and to say who they are and also show who they are without fear of condemnation.

But condemnation is not the only issue here. It is also discrimination. Therefore, it is critical that we not only hold people accountable for racist abuse and vilification, gender discrimination and the like, but also their abuse of our friends, co-workers, relatives and neighbours who identify with the LGBT community.

For me, narrow-minded religious leaders such as McGarrell and Edghill will always stand at a pulpit and demand that homosexuals fall before the altar and beg for repentance for their great “sin.” Which is why I ignore them. Religion still serves as an important guide in my life, but at the same time, I am guided by principles of human dignity, respect and equality.

Everyone, including the citizens who are usually silent on the issues that are important, needs to condemn the prejudice and hate being spewed by the likes of McGarrell and Edghill. We cannot have a society where the only voices being heard are those of the intolerant, and where a large section of our citizens are living right among us in isolation.

*This commentary is the first in a two-part series on the treatment of sexual minorities. The second installment appears next week.

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