Latin America & Caribbean

Guyana's transgender activists fight archaic law

Petronella Trotman stands outside Georgetown Magistrates Court after hearing that her case has been dismissed due to lack of evidence on 2 March 2017
Image caption Petronella Trotman was told by the magistrate to "dress like a man"

As a transgender woman living in Guyana, Petronella Trotman has grown accustomed to violence and daily abuse on the streets.

But when she was physically attacked in January, while walking in Georgetown, the South American country's capital, she decided to seek justice.

"The young man came up to me and asked if it was me who disrespected him the other night," she said, in reference to a previous argument with her alleged assailant.

"And he joock [stabbed] me to my neck with scissors. I fell to the ground and when he left, I ran away. Then he came back with some glass bottles and pelted me down."

"It happens a lot here in Guyana to transgender women," she added. "We live in a very homophobic society."

Ms Trotman reported the matter to the police and the case went to Georgetown Magistrates Court.

But seeking justice as a transgender woman is not easy in Guyana due to a colonial-era law, now 124 years old, that criminalises cross-dressing.


Guyanese Summary Jurisdiction Act

  • Passed in 1893 when Guyana was still a British colony
  • Makes it illegal for men to dress as a woman and vice versa, if done for "any improper purpose"
  • The definition of "any improper purpose" is open to interpretation by magistrates
  • Its opponents say it is open to abuse as its wording is "vague" and "broad"

On her first day in the courtroom, Ms Trotman was told by the presiding magistrate to "dress like a man" at her next court date.

When she returned to court on 2 March to hear the final verdict, she defiantly wore a blue top and a long, patterned skirt.

This time, Magistrate Dylon Bess refused her entry, citing "inappropriate dress".

Image caption A sign outside the courtroom outlines the dress code

"I felt really bad because the magistrate ordered me out of the court and he literally tried the case without me," Ms Trotman told the BBC.

The case was dismissed and, with Ms Trotman not allowed inside the court, she only learned of the decision when her alleged attacker shared the news upon leaving the courtroom.

'Dereliction of duty'

Magistrate Bess defended his demand that Ms Trotman dress in male clothes.

Image caption Activists protested against the decision outside Georgetown Magistrates Court

He said that while it was "a preference and not a requirement" that transgender women dress as men in his courtroom, "sometimes persons commit offences dressed as males and then when they appear in court dressed as a female it can have implications for how a victim can identify his or her accuser, or vice versa".

He also said that it would be up to parliament to abolish Guyana's law criminalising cross-dressing and not a court of law.

The managing director of Guyana's Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), Joel Simpson, strongly disagrees.

"It's really a dereliction of duty for Magistrate Bess to say that parliament has to change the law," he said.

"While he is a magistrate, not a judge, the court should not be applying an unjust, unconstitutional law... Where there's conflict, the constitution prevails."

'Take the lead!'

A former president of the Guyana Bar Association, Ronald Burch-Smith, also questioned the continued application of the law.

Image copyright SASOD
Image caption Activists have been organising marches to demand equal rights

"There's a legitimate concern when it comes to things like crime and robbery, that persons dressed in disguise might take advantage of female clothing," he said.

"But in the [cases] that have come up so far that has never been an issue. It's taking advantage of an already oppressed minority.

"I think the courts should take the lead in recognising that these things are irrelevant to justice."

Opposition to the cross-dressing law was sparked in 2009 when transgender activist Quincy McEwan and six others were arrested and fined for loitering and wearing female attire.

In protest, Ms McEwan founded Guyana Trans United (GTU) and in 2010 launched a Supreme Court challenge against the cross-dressing law, in partnership with sister organisation SASOD and the University of the West Indies' Rights Advocacy Project, U-RAP.

When the case came before the court in 2013, Guyana's then-chief justice, Ian Chang, ruled that cross-dressing was legal unless done for an "improper purpose".

He did not say what constituted an improper purpose.

Seeking clarification, Ms McEwan and her supporters took the matter to Guyana's Court of Appeal, denouncing the law as "discriminatory" and "unconstitutional".

But late in February they received the news that their appeal had been dismissed and Mr Chang's ruling upheld.

'Let our voices be heard'

Although frustrated with the decision, GTU and SASOD are determined to press on.

Image copyright SASOD
Image caption Members of SASOD say they will continue to protest

"Our next step is to continue to have protests, let our voices be heard and then to get a petition before parliament," Ms McEwan said.

"And we're not stopping there. We're going to appeal our matter before the Caribbean Court of Justice."

If the Caribbean Court of Justice upholds their case, Guyana will have to amend its laws. "That's the highest court so we will have to follow the decision," said Attorney General Basil Williams.

LGBT activists will likely face opposition along the way, particularly from religious pressure groups.

"The Church is one factor in all of this," said the Attorney General. "But as time goes by everything becomes more enlightened."

Ms Trotman is hoping change comes soon. Without the money to appeal Magistrate Bess's decision, she said: "I finished with the case. It's sad but what you can do? Certain laws need to be changed. It's very discriminating to us here in Guyana. When you're one thing and people want you to be something else."

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