By Schemel Patrick
Schemel Patrick is the Advocacy and Communications Officer at Guyana’s Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD)
The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) joined the rest of the world in observing the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) on May 17 to bring attention to the discrimination and prejudice faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. This year the global focus theme for IDAHOT is on LGBT youth. This focus provides a significant platform to put a spotlight on the challenges facing LGBT youth, to call on policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public, the media, civil society and key institutions to take action and to celebrate diversity.
In Guyana, LGBT youth face the same challenges as their heterosexual counterparts; however societal and institutional prejudices based on sexual orientation and gender identity cause LGBT youth to suffer amplified forms of stigma, discrimination and face particular challenges which warrant our deliberate attention. Young people are often marginalised and alienated as their innate rights are not respected. Human rights dictate that all young people deserve to live in a nonthreatening and convivial environment that affords them the opportunity to develop their fullest potential regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; nonetheless this is seldom the case in Guyana.
Reports reaching SASOD show that homophobia, transphobia and biphobia continue to plague the lives of LGBT Guyanese youth. Discriminatory laws contribute significantly to LGBT youth being particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. These laws lend to intensified societal stigma and discrimination. They impact profoundly on employment, healthcare, free expression, education and access to social services for LGBT youth, among other basic rights. There is an urgent need for constitutional and law reform if the rights of LGBT Guyanese are to be realised. Sexual orientation and gender identity must be included as grounds for discrimination in the Guyana constitution and existing anti-discrimination legislation like the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997 which deals with employment, recruitment, promotion and membership of professional bodies. Colonial-era laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing in Guyana must also be repealed.
LGBT Guyanese are disproportionately affected by poverty as a direct consequence of pervasive discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in our society. Because of homophobic and transphobic bullying and violence in schools, LGBT youth are more likely to drop out of school. As a reaction to homo/trans/bi-phobia in education, LGBT youth often isolate themselves and struggle to find motivation to participate actively in their schools. This significantly limits their options for employment, and disproportionately drives LGBT youth to enter the sex trade, especially transgender youth. Because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT youth often face discrimination in the workplace. These limitations therefore push working-class LGBT youth towards sex work as a means of survival. In “Collateral Damage: The Social Impact of Laws Affecting LGBT Persons in Guyana” (2012), a report compiled by Dr. Christopher Carrico and published by the University of the West Indies Faculty of Law Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP), it was noted that many LGBT Guyanese are “completely closeted at work for fear of social sanction, injury to their careers, or termination of employment.” Equally, in “Sade’s Story”, a documentary produced by SASOD about the working experiences of a transgender woman, she noted that it was extremely hard for her to obtain work, and when she did, she was grossly underpaid and faced discrimination because of her gender identity. Transgender persons face far more discrimination when accessing employment because of their visibility. In order to reduce poverty among LGBT communities, there needs to be more entrepreneurial and job-training programmes for these and other marginalised youth. In addition, after being trained, young entrepreneurs with viable business ideas need access to capital, such as no-interest or low-interest loans, to start their own small businesses. In addition to creating more jobs for young people, the new government needs to support education programmes to reduce discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, so that LGBT youth can have equal access to jobs and job security as their heterosexual peers.
Despite some progress in accessing healthcare, LGBT youth continue to face stigma and discrimination in the health sector, and remain vulnerable to abuse from state and non-state actors. This has resulted in many LGBT persons not being truthful about their sexual orientation and gender identity, and hence not being able to access appropriate care and treatment, or refraining from seeking out services altogether. LGBT youth often face discrimination by service providers, ancillary staff and other persons, such as security guards and taxi drivers, at healthcare institutions. There is a lack of appropriate
sexual and reproductive healthcare and tailored services for LGBT youth in the public healthcare system. In terms of mental health, LGBT youth are often silent on issues related to their psychological well-being, for fear of being further stigmatised, or having their mental health challenges somehow ascribed to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Though there are limited state-provided services that address emotional and psychological welfare, LGBT youth are likely to seek counsel from religious leaders and healthcare workers. The lack of acceptance from family members also contributes to mental health stressors for LGBT youth. SASOD has documented cases of parents and guardians disowning and putting out their children from their homes because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Homelessness among LGBT youth is a growing problem in Guyana. Children are often abused or experience severe violence as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Parents themselves are faced with a lot of cultural and societal pressures which contribute to their abusive behaviour against their LGBT children. Given the inability of state facilities to provide safe shelter for LGBT youth and the growing prevalence of homelessness, LGBT youth are forced to live on the streets, become involved in sex work, and use drugs; these social factors make LGBT youth particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Due to the socio-economic disadvantages faced by working-class LGBT youth, they are more likely to live in violence-prone environments. SASOD has received several reports of LGBT persons being attacked, verbally and physically, because of their gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. Transgender people are particularly targeted because of their gender identity and gender expression. They continue to struggle for equality and the right to live freely, without stigma, discrimination and abuse. Societal stigma and hatred often times leads to violence and death for these marginalized women. A number of transgender youth have been murdered and many are still physically assaulted just for being who they are. LGBT youth who are continuously exposed to violence have expressed feelings of emotional and mental instability and, in many cases, have attempted or committed suicide.
SASOD will continue to work to ensure that the basic human rights of LGBT youth are fulfilled. With the commencement of this new government formed by A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance For Change (AFC) – who campaigned on a platform of inclusion and equality – SASOD is optimistic that these commitments will be realized. Last December, in a meeting with newly elected President of Guyana, then Leader of the Opposition, His Excellency, Honourable Brigadier David Granger, noted that the “APNU seeks to represent all sections of society. We include all and exclude none.” The APNU+AFC manifesto reads: “We commit to putting in place measures which will ensure that all vulnerable groups in our society, including women, children, persons with disabilities, rural and Indigenous women, youth, the elderly and the sick and pregnant and those marginalised because of sexual orientation are protected and not discriminated against.” We will hold our new government accountable to keeping this promise, especially for LGBT youth who face amplified discrimination due to their age, sexual orientation and gender identity. While the primary burden is on the government to demonstrate political leadership and fortitude on these issues, SASOD will continue to take a non-partisan approach to these issues and work with all the political parties that have been elected to represent us in the National Assembly. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the manifesto of the Peoples Progressive Party / Civic (PPP/C) states: “We believe that all Guyanese must be free to make choices and must not be discriminated against because of their ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation.”
As we continue our celebrations for IDAHOT in Guyana, SASOD will execute a number of innovative and exciting activities geared at amplifying youth voices, encouraging support from allies and celebrating diversity. The activities include a week long stimulating social media campaign, televised discussions with community and professional experts and features on LGBT youth. At the end of the week, we will also launch a new television special on “Transgender Visibility in Guyana”, which raises awareness about transgender identities, celebrates diversity and encourages acceptance and respect. The week will also be used to engage new allies and supporters in promoting the rights of LGBT Guyanese youth.
Human rights are for all, no exceptions. As a new era dawns in Guyana, let us also commit to working collectively, state and non-state actors alike, to promote and protect the human rights of all, including our LGBT youth so that they too can develop their fullest potential as powerful influencers and shapers of the future. As President Granger put it, “include all and exclude none.” We will be holding you and your government to this promise, Mr. President.