“He was burned to death in a house . . . They burned him to death. They tied him up and then burned the house . . . [The police failed to properly investigate] . . . How bad is it going to get before good comes?”
This story has haunted me since I returned from Guyana. Grace, a pseudonym, is a 44-year-old transgender woman who lost one of her best friends; he was murdered for being transgender and the police refused to investigate. While in-country, I witnessed this discrimination firsthand and bore witness to the scars and stories LGBT interviewees revealed. Another interviewee lost a friend the week we conducted interviews. Trishell, a 28-year-old transgender woman, was killed on Feb. 17, 2018, after a festival celebration in Georgetown. Her death was reported as an accident caused by a car crash — despite interviewees who reported the wounds were wholly inconsistent with this explanation.
Our research team interviewed nearly 70 stakeholders — including LGBT persons, religious leaders, human rights defenders, civil society representatives, law enforcement officials and other government officials — and uncovered a cycle of violence, discrimination and abuse that permeates all aspects of life for LGBT individuals in Guyana. The discrimination and violence start at home, continue through the education system, into the employment sector and affect their ability to access quality healthcare, safety in public spaces and justice.
The government boasted statistics demonstrating that Guyana is a tolerant country. I take issue with this: Tolerance is not acceptance. Human rights guarantee more than being “tolerated” by one’s government — human rights mean being empowered to lead a dignified life. However, at this juncture in Guyana the distinction is rather moot — stories like those above clearly indicate that Guyanese society is not even tolerant of LGBT persons. The truth is more nuanced, hidden in the same closet in Guyana where LGBT individuals seek refuge.
Guyana, a small Caribbean country located in South America, is the only country on the South American continent that still criminalizes same-sex intimacy. The country also criminalizes “cross-dressing” for an “improper purpose” — whatever that means. (Guyana’s Appeals Court upheld the law recently but refused to define the term, making it impossible to know what constitutes a violation.) These laws, which form part of the fabric of Guyanese society, perpetuate and legitimize violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals. One need not look further than the title of the article where Trishell’s murder was reported to see this connection: “Cross-dresser Killed in Vreed-en-Hoop Accident.”
While government officials preached tolerance, deep-seated discrimination was evident in their remarks. Minister of Social Protection Keith Scott — a very friendly and jovial man — proudly shared societal attitudes toward LGBT persons: “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.” He didn’t recognize that this was less-than-ideal. It also did not mesh with the accounts LGBT individuals provided — including being prevented from entering police stations to report crime, waiting for hours to be seen in emergency rooms while their non-LGBT counterparts were ushered ahead of them, and being verbally and physically attacked for being who they are in public.
Similarly, Crime Chief Police Officer Paul Williams affirmed that anyone “can come to my office to seek justice,” some of his other comments were less than welcoming. While Williams acknowledged that some officers are disrespectful and let their own biases interfere in their work, he underscored, nonchalantly, that LGBT persons should recognize their place: “Don’t fool yourself, you’re a minority in a large group, you have to cooperate […] conduct yourself in an appropriate manner.”
Accounts from LGBT interviewees largely comported with Williams’ assertion — they noted that they are relatively safe as long as they actively hide their true identities from most of their family, friends and government. Yet finding safety in the proverbial closet is not experiencing the full panoply of human rights — it’s oppression. Preventing persons from living a life of dignity is a violation of human rights.
Rethinking their duty to uphold human rights, some Caribbean countries have recently repealed or overturned laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy — including Belize in 2016 and, very recently, Trinidad and Tobago on April 12. It is not too late for Guyana to join them and embark on the road to changing archaic laws and dangerous attitudes. Instead of preaching tolerance, it’s time to offer acceptance.
To learn more about LGBT rights in Guyana related to education, employment, health, violence and safety in public spaces, and impunity for perpetrators and access to justice, keep an eye out for the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute Fact-Finding Project report: Trapped: Cycles of Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT Persons in Guyana. It will be available online by mid-June.
Ashley Binetti is the Dash-Muse Teaching Fellow at Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute. She co-teaches HRI’s Fact-Finding Practicum, directs the Human Rights Associates Program, and leads all human rights programming at the Institute. These are the author’s reflections from HRI’s 2018 Fact-Finding Project research trip on LGBT rights in Guyana.