‘Transgender is not my only identity’

By Rae Wiltshire

Rae Wiltshire is an award-winning playwright, theatre director and short story writer. His play “Creative Burial Ground” and short story, “Me Fuss Fineral” placed first and second respectively at the Guyana Annual Competition 2018. He is currently in his final year at the University of Guyana, studying Literature and Linguistics

“Everybody came to see this trans person, and when they realised it was just a normal human being, everybody left; because they felt it was this big show, this big performance to be a transgender.” Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan laughed as she remembered the response of an audience. In Guyana, LGBT persons are often perceived as outcasts who exist for public amusement – a narrative that sections of the local media and theatre continue to push. There’s nothing amusing about Gulliver, she is not larger than life. She simply wants to educate Guyanese on transgender issues.

Prior to 2009, Gulliver hid herself away to avoid the insults she would receive just walking down the street. Any task she needed to get done, her siblings had to do it. Today, however, people see her as female and no longer hurl insults. She is comfortable in her skin as a trans woman. To achieve her femininity, Gulliver said, “I just looked at myself, looked at the mirror and tried to portray the look I wanted to see.” Her ideal style is “Attractive, beautiful and sexy,” she revealed with a laugh, as she busily prepared cheese rolls and pine tarts for her guests.

Cooking is an integral part of her identity. When she’s in the kitchen, Gulliver is herself. Cooking is a skill she used to feed her siblings when her mother worked 12-hour shifts. It is what earned her a job at Barama Company Limited. And it is a talent she uses now to empower the trans women whose rights she fights for as director of advocacy group Guyana Trans United (GTU).

After Barama, Gulliver opened her own canteen at the Cyril Potter College for Education. The business thrived and she was able to hire employees – even do the catering for the College’s 75th anniversary. However, fear of stigma caused her to abandon the business. This fear was warranted. On February 6, 2009, Gulliver and seven other trans women were arrested for cross-dressing under the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, which makes it an offence for a man to wear female attire for an “improper purpose.” Stabroek News reported that the Acting Chief Magistrate heard the case on February 9, 2009, at the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court and told the group of eight that they were men and confused about their sexuality. They were ordered to pay a fine of $7,500 each.

In 2010, four of the arrested persons – Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud – with the support of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), put forward a constitutional claim that the law was inconsistent with the Guyana Constitution (1980). They argued that the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act – which uses terms such as “improper purpose”, “male attire” and “female attire” – is vague and fails to give “the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited”, as laws must do. The litigants argued that the Act violated their right to freedom of expression, since clothing is a form of expression, as well as the constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination and equality before the law.

Gulliver believes the law that prohibits trans women from cross-dressing is discriminatory.  Only trans women are affected by the law, she said, whereas women wearing male clothing and actors in the theatre dressing as women are not criminalised. In 2013, then-Chief Justice Ian Chang ruled that trans persons have a right to express their identity – as long as it is not for an improper purpose. In an interview with SASOD in 2013, Gulliver said, “The Chief Justice was relatively clear that once you are expressing your gender identity, it’s not criminal for a man to wear female attire,” she continued. “But the law really stifles us, because what could be an improper purpose? The trans community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests in light of this decision.”  The four litigants subsequently challenged Chief Justice Chang’s decision.

In 2017, SASOD reported that The Court of Appeal had unanimously dismissed the appeal, rejecting the appellants’ arguments that the law in question discriminates based on gender and violates multiple equality provisions in the constitution. Their appeal is due to be heard at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on June 28, 2018. Gulliver said she is hoping for a favourable response from the CCJ. Despite the Guyanese government’s failure to enact legislation to protect LGBT citizens, Gulliver believes that Guyana is moving forward on LGBT issues. She said the annual cross-dressing pageant is indicative of this change: “Every time we host our pageant, it is packed. We feel it is impactful to change hearts and minds.” But this is no easy task. Despite attempts to educate persons on LGBT issues, said Gulliver, one Sunday sermon on Leviticus can reverse all their efforts.

In addition to attempts by sections of the Christian community to deny trans persons their rights,  trans women have been prevented from dressing according to their own wishes in court. On April 8, 2017, Stabroek News reported that Magistrate Dylon Bess had barred a trans woman, Petronella Trotman, from attending court – ordering her to appear in pants, a shirt and without earrings. Her assault case was eventually dismissed, prompting GTU to write to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). The JSC agreed that Magistrate Bess had denied Ms. Trotman justice, but did not indicate a penalty for his actions.

Despite Chief Justice Chang’s ruling, institutionalised discrimination remains a challenge in Guyana. “It is very difficult,” said Gulliver. “Every time you go to the police to represent yourself or any other trans woman, you have to make reference to the case – before the police realise this is not a criminal offence for a transgender woman to wear female attire.” In addition, some trans women do not know of their rights; Gulliver believes the ignorance of their rights can make trans women fall prey to unlawful acts. But these hurdles do not stop Gulliver from pushing forward.

To challenge public stigma and discrimination against trans women, Gulliver uses dialogue as a tool to educate people. “Sometimes I try to change negative [attitudes] by having a conversation, because when you share your story people get to understand maybe you are just a normal human being,” she said. “I don’t want another trans person to live those negatives that I live with, so I became an advocate for trans persons.”

The discrimination she has faced has meant lost dreams. “I wish I had known that I could have become maybe a doctor, a lawyer or a nurse,” she said, “but I was forced into narrow spaces in schooling and community settings; and had to quickly adjust to be an entrepreneur in order to create that space for myself.” Stigma from classmates and teachers caused Gulliver to drop out of school in fourth form. She recounted a teacher saying, “You know, you have gay tendency. So when you grow up, you gonna have men buggering you. Even when you drink soup it ain’t go stay in. It go run out, even if you use green plantain, it won’t be able to ‘chack’ your anus.” The teacher’s words traumatised Gulliver and she started to skip classes. It was the first time a teacher called her out for having a “gay tendency”.

Despite the verbal attack, Gulliver said today she is close friends with that teacher, who later apologised profusely for her remarks. And whenever she attends events at the school now, she expresses her gender identity. She holds no malice for her teachers and said they were not equipped to deal with LGBT pupils – seeing trans persons as attention seekers when in fact they were only looking for love and acceptance. Love and acceptance is something that transgender persons often struggle to find in Guyanese society, which can lead them into lives of destitution. “The fact is that within the whole LGBT community, no one employs transgender women who express their gender identity and people are forced to become sex workers,” explained Gulliver.

Fortunately for Gulliver, her family did not treat her as a pariah. “Growing up in a large household was fun to me because family were the only friends that I had.” Her identity as a trans woman is not the sole title that defines her. “I am a human rights activist. I am a good chef. I am a caregiver. I love nature. I raise my siblings and I continue to look forward to looking after my niece and nephew. I am also a caregiver for a child, so I am a good mom.” These characteristics have guided her onto a path of love and caring, not only for trans persons but also for women who are victims of domestic violence and children who are at risk of abuse. She is often seen standing in solidarity with other advocacy organisations, such as Red Thread.

Gulliver believes her future in Guyana is dependent on continuing to fight for human rights, and she is determined to keep the battle going.

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