Guyana: Challenge to colonial era cross-dressing ban after 7 convicted

1893 law that makes it a criminal offense for men to wear female attire and for women to wear male attire “in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose.”

By Cathy Kristofferson, June 06, 2013

guy_flagQueue up another constitutional challenge outcome to await, this time from Guyana.  On May 10th and June 4th hearings were held for a case challenging the constitutionality of a nineteenth century ban on cross-dressing still on the books in Guyana.

Four (4)  Guyanans and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) are challenging the 2009 arrest, conviction and fining of seven (7) individuals for violating an 1893 law that makes it a criminal offense for men to wear female attire and for women to wear male attire “in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose.”

Karen De Souza, National Coordinator of Red Thread, makes a point at a debriefing meeting at Moray House Trust with SASOD and Guyana Trans United immediately following the court hearing on Tuesday. Courtesy SASOD.
Karen De Souza, National Coordinator of Red Thread, makes a point at a debriefing meeting Tuesday. Courtesy SASOD.

The Faculty of Law University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) is coordinating litigation in this case questioning the random application of outdated laws and how that can increase the vulnerability of poor and powerless people to others’ prejudices. They are arguing that the law is unconstitutional because it violates fundamental rights to equality and non-discrimination.

SASOD’s Co-Chair, Joel Simpson, stated:

“Tuesday’s full-day court hearing is really the culmination of more than 4 years’ work between SASOD, U-RAP, Guyanese human rights attorneys and the transgender folk who suffered egregious abuses and enduring injury to their human dignity during the February 2009 police crackdowns on cross-dressing. Justice can only be served by the court declaring this insidious law unconstitutional, null and void.”

guy_urap
U-RAP’s Dr. Arif Bulkan, debriefing Guyana Trans United after the court hearing. Courtesy SASOD

U-RAP co-founder, Dr. Arif Bulkan, explained that this colonial law “was part of repressive penal regimes instituted in the second half of the nineteenth century throughout the Caribbean to severely constrain the lives and actions of recent freed Africans and the newly arrived indentured servants.”  And yet despite the fact that they discriminated against and repressed the majority colonial populations they are still kept on the books for convenient discriminatory use.  Some might remember Mitt Romney similarly unearthing a 1913 law to discriminate against same-gender non-resident couples.

Showing a bit of humorous one of the litigants in the case, Seon Clarke, questioned:

“How can we still have these laws today? They are used to harass a particular set of Guyanese and it is not right. All the lawyers in court today, were in gowns that looked very much like dresses, shouldn’t they be charged too?”

Male and female same-sex sexual acts remain illegal in Guyana.   In 2000, their National Assembly did pass an amendment to their Constitution that would have prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation but efforts of religious leaders kept the President from giving his assent.  Subsequent efforts have also failed.

The litigants and all those interested in constitutionally guaranteed freedoms now await notice from the Chief Justice for the date on which his decision will be announced in court.

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