Rights groups skewer gov’t plan for referendum on gay sex

Government’s surprise announcement that it will hold a referendum on whether same-sex intimacy should be decriminalised is being condemned as a delaying tactic by civil society organisations.

The rights organisations yesterday called on the APNU+AFC coalition to stick to its manifesto promise to ensure that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and other minority groups are not discriminated against.

While there has been no official statement from the government indicating, the referendum move at least two of its ministers – Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams SC and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Greenidge have publicly stated that this is the direction the administration is headed.

Karen De Souza

According to Executive Director of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Joel Simpson the issue of the referendum first came up in Government’s response to a thematic hearing on the rights of young persons at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March. The day after the hearing the government said among other things that Parliament had previously decided that the issue should be determined by a referendum. However, the Guyana Trans United group objected to this since the issue was never debated in the National Assembly and no decision for a referendum had been taken.

For many years there have been calls for the archaic law that criminalises buggery to be repealed but there has been staunch resistance to this especially from the religious community in Guyana. It is believed that a referendum would produce a vote against decriminalising gay sex and that the government is abdicating its responsibility to address the matter as a rights issue.

Asked yesterday for his party’s position on the government’s signal, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo did not directly respond but stated that, based on consultations held by his government, while Guyanese are opposed to anyone being discriminated against in terms of jobs, employment practices or access to health care, they do not see

Melinda Janki

the issue of decriminalising gay sex as a “fundamental right.”

He said there was a “huge outcry about making it a fundamental right”, while adding that the issue needs a bi-partisan approach and his party would be engaging the government on the issue.

“I don’t think the country, based on what our consultations show, is ready for a same sex marriage, frankly speaking,” the Opposition Leader said.

The PPP/C Government at the UN Human Rights Committee’s Universal Period Review in Geneva, Switzerland in 2010 had committed to holding consultations on decriminalizing same-sex relations but these were never held. .

“The Guyana Equality Forum strongly condemns the declarations of the APNU+AFC Coalition Government to hold a referendum on whether Guyana’s colonial-era law which criminalises same-sex intimacy and violates the human rights of sexual and gender minorities should be repealed,” a statement read by Simpson said.

The statement continued that holding the “divisive referendum” will only deepen the marginalisation and isolation of LGBT persons as intolerant groups will heighten their “homophobic rhetoric, as is already happening on social media.” It pointed out that such a move instead of strengthening social cohesion and building national unity will further divide the nation which he said still suffers from ethno-political conflicts.

Joel Simpson

The GEF, which is a civil society network, also includes Red Thread and the Justice Institute Guyana. Red Thread’s coordinator Karen De Souza said she was “left spluttering” by the announcement of the referendum.

“Over and over again we are hearing ministers of the Government that repeat that the constitution guarantees protection, that the laws guarantees protection…but we still see in reality that members of the LGBT community are seriously discriminated against, sometime violently,” De Souza declared.

She also noted that members of the community are sometimes discriminated against by the very legal institutions that are supposed to uphold these rights of equality.

The network’s and Red Thread’s position, according to De Souza, is that the government has to stop “shilly-shallying” around the issue. She described the move to go to a referendum as another delaying tactic.

“It is designed, as far as we are concerned, to disguise their own homophobia, their own reluctance to stand up for what is right in the face of whatever resistance there is and we will call again on the government to recognise that there is…a section of the Guyanese population that is being discriminated against by the laws…and this cannot be allowed to stand,” the human rights activist said.

‘Further stress’

The GEF believes that the referendum will cause further stress and mental health burdens to  LGBT Guyanese who will be exposed and targeted with homophobic vitriol in the public sphere and on social media, in particular.

Such a move will not be supported by the Guyana LGBT Coalition- Guyana Trans United (GTU), Guyana Rainbow Foundation (GuyBow) and SASOD which are the three LGBT-led Guyanese groups-nor by GEF.

It was pointed out that many government ministers have publicly committed to have the gay sex law reviewed and for there to be social change which accords full human rights for LGBT people. The APNU+AFC government in its manifesto also committed to protect the LGBT community and other minority groups.

“Holding a referendum on whether same-sex intimacy should remain a criminal offence does not fulfil that commitment. In fact, it does the opposite. Homophobia will increase as misguided, emotional arguments are made on a topic which the majority of the population is not educated to engage on rationally. Fear of the unknown exists and religion and personal biases will be misused to attempt to justify the laws of a secular, democratic state, which we are striving to build,” the network said.

It called for the resources that would be used for holding a referendum to instead be properly used to facilitate education programmes on human rights, gender and sexual diversity. That, it said, would be a more productive step towards fulfilling its commitment to put measures in place to ensure that all vulnerable groups in society are protected and not discriminated against.

Simpson said they are holding the government to the statement made in their manifesto which was strong in stating that measures would be put in place to ensure persons are not discriminated against and to prevent same.

“On principle we don’t think a process should begin on voting and determining the rights of any minority group by a popular vote…because that is the antithesis of human rights, the real rationale behind human rights is that you would have a set of principles, you would have mechanisms, you would have laws, you would have regulations [and] systems in place which protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority,” Simpson said.

Executive Director of the Justice Institute Guyana, Melinda Janki, said that the institute is deeply concerned that the buggery laws are contrary to the fundamental values of Guyana’s Constitution and to international law.

She pointed out that Guyana has signed on to the Charter of the United Nations which reaffirms the worth and dignity of the human person. “Human dignity is the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of international human rights law. We must respect the rule of international law and as far as possible bring our domestic laws in line with international standards,” Janki stated.

She also pointed out that the preamble to Guyana’s Constitution also affirms that the laws and institutions are bound by the aspirations of young people to live in a safe society which respects their dignity. The Constitution, she said, does not say that “you are excluded from dignity if you choose to express your sexuality with someone of the same sex.”

“The Government has an obligation to honour the promise of our Constitution and to decriminalise homosexuality. We owe our young people a better and more tolerant future,” Janki stated.

She pointed out that tomorrow Guyana will celebrate 51 years of independence but unfortunately it still clings to colonialism in the form of Article 152. Article 152 of the country’s Constitution states that the pre-independence colonial laws are protected from being challenged in court under the fundamental rights provisions of the Constitution. She pointed out that while the death penalty, the buggery laws and the cross-dressing laws are contrary to the values of the Constitution they are saved by Article 152.

Consequently, if the Government wants to hold a referendum, Janki said it should be one on Article 152 of the Constitution. The last time a referendum was held here was in 1978 for the approval of the 1980 constitution. It was famously dubbed a `riggerendum’.

Commissions

Meantime, the network has condemned what it described as “homophobic statements, made on Facebook by social worker Nicole Cole, who sits on both the Rights of the Child Commission and the Women and Gender Equality Commis-sion. It also called on the commissions to hold Cole to account for her public statements which “do not correspond with the mission and values of these rights-based bodies, which are set up to work for all Guyanese.”

In her statements Cole said that she does not support the decriminalisation of the buggery law and in the same instance also mentioned the rape of children, which she said is rampant. She also stated that scientific evidence has proven that this form of sexual act is the riskiest behaviour for the transmission of HIV.

Contacted by Stabroek News,  Cole said that she stands by her statements while noting that the decriminalising of the law is not a straightforward issue. She pointed out that she represents the Rastafarian faith on both of the commissions and that it is a faith that “will never support the legalisation of buggery in Guyana.”

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