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Guyana - Joel Simpson
I work on sexual rights and health in the Caribbean; primarily in the countries I reside (and resided) and sub-regionally and regionally as well. I am the Founder and Co-Chairperson of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana, Co-Founder of the Trinidad and Tobago Anti Violence Project (TTAVP) and founding member of 4Change, both of which have subsumed in Trinidad and Tobago’s Coalition Advocating Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO). At the regional level, I have been involved in the leadership of the regional lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) network – then called the Caribbean Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (CFLAG) but now re-named the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS) since its resuscitation in 2006 as Steering Committee Member, Focal Point, Spokesperson and Advisory Board Member. I am also a Legal Core Member of the Human Rights Working Group of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC).
Homophobia in Guyana exists in multiple forms. Institutionally, it exists in laws, which criminalize sexual intimacy between adult men in private. These laws are indirectly enforced through police extortion and other state-sanctioned abuses, social stigma and direct discrimination that it festers. Laws against cross-dressing, vagrancy and loitering are used to target male-to-female transgender sex workers specifically and transphobic discrimination manifests itself in profound ways; not only through criminal enforcement, but in creating barriers which amount to the denial of access and rights to education, employment, housing, health and other social services which the state is obligated to provide. In state policies, it exists in the health sector where ‘men who have sex with men,’ ‘women who have sex with men’ and other such non-heterosexual behaviours which are officially excluded from donating blood, regardless of their level of epidemiological risk for sexually transmitted diseases. And in the housing sector, it exists where legally-married heterosexual couples with children are given priority to buy house lots from the government. Socio-culturally, it exists in dancehall music, which we have largely imported and adapted locally from Jamaica. Some theatre productions also reinforce stereotypes of gay men, in particular, and represent us as flamboyant, lewd cross-dressers for comedic entertainment.
I find it is very important in the Guyana context, especially, to talk about transphobia as a specific kind of homophobia particularly because we have these unique laws that criminalise cross-dressing and are enforced from time to time. Because public opinion seems largely against this particular form of non-conforming gender expression, even more so than against same-sex intimacy, it seems more strategic and effective to use specific language to address issues around transphobia, than referring to homophobia, as the umbrella term.
The debate has definitely shifted from the time I started this work officially in 2003 when forming SASOD from one which focused predominantly on religious views to a rights-based discourse. This took years of constant advocacy consistently framing the issues as human-rights concerns for public engagement, rather than religious perspectives that dominate private morality debates. I have also found that because we have increasingly articulated LGBT issues as human rights concerns and created more social spaces for community engagement, fellowship and entertainment, young LGBT people in particular appear more empowered to live openly, despite pervasive social stigma and discrimination which still exists in Guyanese society today.
The strategies are many and include public education, media advocacy, community mobilization, alliance building and the list can go on and on. I hope the effects have been to create a more tolerant and respectful Guyanese and Caribbean societies, though I have no way of proving this.
I suspect these are not unique. Challenges range from lack of resources, community apathy to downright indifference. The movement is generally unrewarding and fosters a lack of appreciation for the personal sacrifices many of us make in order to do this thankless work. Successes have been small wins like filing the cross-dressing constitutional suit – the first legal challenge in the Caribbean region to challenge laws which discriminate against our community – and the inroads we have made in the Inter-American human rights system on LGBT issues. I had the distinct honour of representing the Caribbean region at the first-ever thematic hearing on sexual orientation issues at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2008. I also lead a project which culminated in a thematic hearing specifically on LGBT issues in the Caribbean in October 2010. I managed the production of SASOD’s first documentary short film, “My Wardrobe, My Right” which looks at the cross-dressing crackdown in Guyana. There have been very many ‘firsts’ of this sort that I would consider as organizing successes.
I struggle to think of any diaspora collaboration in which I have been involved. At the regional level, there have been many effective collaborations. One of the first success stories was the Grenada Shadow Report project in 2007. At the time, I was a steering committee member of CFLAG and some INGOs wanted to engage Caribbean activists on producing a shadow report for Grenada’s review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in a manner which would see the work being done in the Global North by persons who were not from the Caribbean. CFLAG intervened, mobilized other regional partners and garnered resources to have the report produced and edited in the region by Caribbean people to build our own capacities. The media furor around Grenada’s ICCPR review saw their government take a pro-LGBT position publicly, for the first time I believe, in light of a possible tourism boycott.
In terms of less effective collaborations at the regional level, I think the ongoing international Stop Murder Music campaign could benefit from more Caribbean leadership and involvement, though it has had its fair share of global successes. The deficiency in that one, I think, is that Caribbean LGBT activists outside of Jamaica were not originally envisioned as key stakeholders in a campaign which largely saw North America and Europe as the sites to contest hyper-violent, anti-gay music from Jamaica, which was largely penetrating and becoming part of the wider “region’s psyche,” to quote some of the scholarly words of the late Dr. Robert Carr.
Definitely! I think the level of debate has risen in many of the larger territories like Jamaica, Guyana, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago and even some of the smaller islands like St. Lucia and Grenada. This is in large measure due to the unwavering advocacy of local LGBT groups. The more reasoned, rights-oriented debates I think signal progress in the level of tolerance and respect for LGBT Caribbean people. Our issues are now highly visible in the region’s media. Even in notorious Jamaica, the incidence of homophobic violence does not appear to be as high as a few years ago. But there is still so much more work to be done. We have only just begun.
For Guyana, I would like to see the laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing repealed. I would also like to see “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” enacted as grounds for discrimination in our constitution. Attitudes will not change over-night and public education is long-term work. But if we do not strip away institutional forms of homophobia and provide means of protection and redress, then LGBT Guyanese cannot even hold the state accountable for violating their fundamental rights. Legal and policy reforms are important first steps to full equality and citizenship I believe. In the Caribbean region, we can only achieve these with the development of highly sophisticated advocacy strategies and powerful agents and allies, which strengthen the movement by winning hearts and minds and becoming politically significant. The region’s political leaders seem to be following public opinion on these issues, so we have work to do in this regard; but also, the movement needs to become a political force that cannot be ignored by prejudiced politicians where the populace is supportive of our humanity and rights.