Top Court Strikes Down Guyana’s Anti-Trans ‘Cross-Dressing’ Ban

The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, which has jurisdiction over several Caribbean nations, has struck down a colonial-era Guyana law that banned “cross dressing”, ending one of the ways in which trans people in the country are discriminated against.

The law, known as Section 153 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, made it illegal for a person to appear in public wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex for so-called “improper purpose(s)”. The law was increasingly used to penalize trans people, in particular trans women, many of whom are sex workers.

Guyana is a country in South America but has a number of political and cultural ties to the Caribbean region. It is marked for its religious conservative views, and it retains its ban on homosexuality. As is often the case, while Guyana’s law didn’t specifically ban trans identity, it used this law and other so-called “decency” and “vagrancy” laws to create bans against trans people — until now.

The CCJ Says No To Anti-Trans Policing

This latest judgement involved arrests dating back to 2009 and saw several trans people, together with the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), face off against the Attorney General of Guyana. They argued that Section 153 is discriminatory and unconstitutional. They lost appeals of their convictions in several lower courts before finally arriving at the Caribbean Court of Justice.

At long last justice was served when the CCJ agreed with their appeal, saying that the law is far too vague to have any legitimate aims and that it has directly harmed trans people.

The court opinion detailed how the law was used to deny trans detainees their rights, saying in part: “While in custody, Fraser requested legal counsel, medical attention, a telephone call and that the police take a statement. However, those requests were not granted. McEwan, Clarke, Fraser and Persaud spent the entire weekend in police custody and they did not receive any explanation as to why they had been arrested and detained. They first learned of the charges, of loitering and wearing female attire in a public place for “an improper purpose”, when they were taken to the Georgetown Magistrate’s Court on Monday 9th February 2009.”

Perhaps most critically for the trans community of Guyana, the ruling also specifically speaks to trans people as an oppressed class, noting, “A majority of the judges, President Saunders and Justices Wit and Barrow, also upheld the appeal on the basis that the law resulted in transgendered [sic] and gender nonconforming persons being treated unfavourably by criminalising their gender expression and gender identity.”

Other justices also noted that the law was used to criminalize a person’s state of mind, which is unconstitutional.

The justices also specifically condemned lower court justices for condemning trans people, saying that the bench is not a place from which to proselytize. This refers to the Magistrate who handed down the original sentences, who reportedly told the four trans people in this case that “they must go to church and give their lives to Jesus Christ”.

The Court has ordered that this aspect of the law be struck down, rather than reformed, something that speaks to how unworkable the Court has viewed the law to be.

Putting the Ruling In Context: A Big Win But Still Far to Go

This is a significant win for the people of Guyana. ”This is a monumental victory for transgender people in Guyana,” Joel Simpson, managing director of the charity Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, told Reuters. “For far too long, this particular law has been used to target and harass especially working-class, transgender women.”

However, the group emphasized at a press conference that other so-called vagrancy laws could still be used to effectively criminalize trans people. “Trans persons remain vulnerable to arrest for small crimes like loitering in Guyana. Colonial vagrancy laws are still on the statute books…it is a victory for human rights and justice in the Caribbean,” a spokesperson said.

LGBT people in Guyana still have no formal protections, but the CCJ recognizing LGBT identity as a disfavored class does grant countries within its remit some fuel to further challenge institutionalized discrimination. To be sure, at the ground level this does not make things better immediately, but this is freedom’s gathering storm, and it is growing.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

38 comments

Emma L
Emma L2 days ago

thank you

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Janis K
Janis K6 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Shae Lee
Shae Lee10 days ago

Thank you.

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John W
John W13 days ago

TYFST

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Janis K
Janis K14 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Dave fleming
Past Member 16 days ago

Good move.

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Carol C
Carol C19 days ago

A step in the right direction. I hope that more steps will follow.

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson20 days ago

Thank you.

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Janis K
Janis K20 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Danuta W
Danuta W21 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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