Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) persons continue to face discrimination, stigmatisation and violence on an almost daily basis, according to a recent study, which also reported that a minister of government was dismissive of the findings and adamant that current legal protections are enough.
Over the period October, 2017 to February, 2018, students from the Washington, D.C-based Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute conducted desk and field research, including 68 interviews in an attempt to analyse the trends and state of Guyanese law and policy affecting LGBT persons and their rights.
The main findings were published on June 1st, under the title “TRAPPED: Cycles of Violence and Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons in Guyana.” The report was launched locally by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) at its Lamaha Gardens Headquarters yesterday.
SASOD’s Homophobia(s) Education Coordinator Anil Persaud explained that during their visit to Guyana the researchers operated primarily out of SASOD’s office and made extensive use of the research and education material SASOD has been generating since 2011.
The group also worked with Guyana Trans United, the Guyana Rainbow Foundation, Red Thread, Comforting Hearts of Berbice.
Following the field research, which included interviews with members of the Guyanese government, such as Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott, the foreign researchers concluded that despite a clear obligation to ensure protection and respect, Guyana continues to display a severe dearth in the protection and fulfillment of the rights of LGBT persons in nearly every aspect of daily life.
“Violence and harassment against LGBT people are endemic in Guyanese society and jeopardise their security and ability to freely express their identity. The State has a positive obligation under international law to protect and promote the rights to life, security, and free expression, yet discriminatory laws and anti-LGBT prejudice create an enabling environment where such crimes against LGBT persons are rampant,” the report states.
The foreword of the report, written by Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, explains that the 90-page report presents a “nuanced set of findings through stories and patterns of abuse and discrimination in every major facet of life including health, education, employment, and access to justice.”
“The report highlights that systematic violations of human rights do not exist in a vacuum, but are connected and informed by other violations and the law, policies, and attitudes of the government and its people,” he said, before adding that “to experience discrimination, stigmatisation, violence, and a general silencing of one’s authentic self at home, at school, in the workplace, in public spaces, and especially at the hands of those with the responsibility to protect persons from such abuse is overwhelmingly damaging to one’s ability to enjoy human rights and live a life of dignity.”
A right to work
Despite a repeated presentation of real and perceived discrimination and harassment, the report shows that government officials were unwilling to accept that this reality exists and were adamant that the failure to recognise sexual orientation as a prohibited ground for discrimination has no bearing on real life experiences. Nonetheless, it was also noted that government has reached out to SASOD though the Social Cohesion Minister as well as the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs for support in drafting an amendment to the Prevention of Discrimination Act to extend the law’s protections to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
Scott is quoted as stating in the report that “[s]ociety imposes certain values on us [and when] somebody steps out of that societal demand, they tend to get ostracised and that is normal.”
Scott and other representatives of the Department of Labour told researchers that they were not aware of pervasive discrimination against LGBT individuals in the workplace. Specifically Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle and Assistant to the Chief Labour Officer Karen Vansluytman, acknowledged that while workplace discrimination against LGBT people “has probably happened,” the Department has “never received a complaint of that nature.”
Surprisingly, they were able to make this definitive statement though the Department of Labour does not categorise complaints received as gender-related, or related to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, the report said.
The position was also presented to researchers even though Scott is later quoted as stating “We have instances where on more than one occasion these people have fabricated instances of abuse.”
According to the report, Vansluytman explained that Guyana’s Constitution “gives every citizen the right to work. . . . If you are Guyanese, regardless of your sexual orientation, the Constitution of the country gives you the right to work.”
The Department did not, recognise the Constitution and the Prevention of Discrimination Act as inadequate to fully protect LGBT individuals, both in their text and implementation. Vansluytman specifically told the researchers that amending the Prevention of Discrimination Act to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression (SOGIE) was not considered “a major issue.”
The stories shared by LGBT interviewees, however, show a clear pattern of violence and harassment. The report notes that since Guyanese law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of SOGIE, some employers refuse to accept LGBT applicants. Others perpetrate or tolerate harassment against LGBT employees and contribute to bullying and hostile work environments that force LGBT persons to leave.
“Such conditions make it extremely difficult to find and maintain work and impact other socioeconomic rights, placing LGBT persons at greater risk of poverty, illness, and violence,” it states.
Experiences shared include those of Adam, a gay man, who described interviewing for jobs and being bluntly told, “Your sexuality is not permitted for my workplace.”
After facing this situation twice, he no longer felt he could be himself during interviews or at work and tries to “be as masculine as possible just to get the job”
Mia, a lesbian woman, explained to researchers that 20 minutes into an interview for a manager position at her company, she was asked, “[Are] you gay?” At an interview with the security company working for the U.S. Embassy, she was also asked, “[Are] you a guy?”
Many of those interviewed were reported as saying that they could only find work in situations where they did not have to interact with the general public or in the informal sector, such as call centres, domestic work, or sex work.
Minister Scott, however, noted the proliferation of LGBT persons engaged in sex work was a sign of acceptance.
“I can give you examples about where the tolerance level is [high]. Tonight . . . go down by the Cathedral, by St. George’s… and you will see a million anti-man are allowed to ply right there. Ply their trade right there. If you go the entire length of King’s Street you will see the same thing, nobody is beating them. . . . The laws protects them as citizens of Guyana equally as they protect anybody else,” Scott is quoted as saying.
The Minister was also dismissive of reports of violence faced by the LGBT community, saying “If there were two men who were kissing, there would be inward disgust at what they are seeing, but at the same time nobody [is] going to attack them.”
Despite Scott’s proclamations, the researchers noted that LGBT interviewees showed them scars received in attacks.
Prince, a gay man, who was able to secure a job, described the conditions he encountered shortly after being hired as a security guard at a private company.
He explained that someone told persons in the area he was working that he was gay and three guys came to the gate.
“Although it was locked… they [made] threats that they would tie me and beat me. I did report that to my boss, but they only said they were checking. I let them know where the people involved lived, because I saw where they were coming out from often. …The company… never did anything, but the guys kept coming again three or four times. They always came and threatened me…. [They] pelt me [with] bricks and bottles. I had to go way down to the back of the yard. …I reported to my boss, they did an investigation, and found nothing. . . .The next day they sent me back [to the same place],” he shared.
The dismissive attitude of the government department is a direct contrast to the reported attitude of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), which has since 2013 supported establishing comprehensive workplace policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of SOGIE.
The GCCI is currently working with the LGBT community to develop a policy on equal opportunity in the workplace to publicly sign and adopt. Already LGBT persons are reporting improvements in their lives both in and outside of work if they are employed by companies with non-discrimination policies.
Ricky, a gay man, who worked at a sugar refinery in Berbice, described how a non-discrimination policy led to a more accepting workplace environment.
“I don’t face [insults] anymore. . . . They’d knock you out [fire you]. If they see you insulting gays, they’d report you to the manager and knock you out,” he told the researchers. Additionally, because the company employs a large number of people in the area, Ricky explained how their anti-discrimination policy helped educate the community and mitigate discriminatory behavior outside of work.
“Because of the job situation, [employees] couldn’t do certain things, so when they’re either on the job or off the job, they can’t risk it. I was comfortable being out [at work],” he explained.