Transgender campaigners in Guyana celebrated on Wednesday after a Victorian-era law banning cross-dressing in public “for an improper purpose” was struck down by the South American country’s highest court.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) said the vaguely-worded law was unconstitutional and violated transgender citizens’ right to equality and non-discrimination. In a judgment delivered on Tuesday, it said the law must be removed.
Guyana is the only country in South America to criminalise gay sex, which carries a punishment of up to life in prison. Activists said the law against dressing as the opposite sex was used to target transgender women, many of whom are sex workers.
“This is a monumental victory for transgender people in Guyana,” said Joel Simpson, managing director of the LGBT+ charity Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.
Simpson spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Guyana’s capital Georgetown.
“For far too long, this particular law has been used to target and harass especially working-class, transgender women.”
Guyana’s attorney general was not immediately available for comment.
Guyana, a country of some 778,000 between Venezuela, Suriname, and Brazil, has widespread conservative values.
Many transgender women work as prostitutes, with activists saying that widespread discrimination across society leaves few other options for them to earn money.
The court challenge was brought by a group of four transgender women, who were arrested in 2009 under the 1893 cross-dressing law and jailed for three days.
All pleaded guilty at court and were fined. The magistrate promptly advised them to go to church and give their lives to Jesus Christ, saying they were confused.
The four instead challenged the law, which they argued was discriminatory, and did not specify enough detail about what an ‘improper purpose’ might involve.
After an eight-year battle through Guyana’s courts, a panel of five judges at the CCJ ruled the law was too vague, violated citizens’ rights, and could not stand.
“Difference is as natural as breathing”, said the CCJ president, Mr. Justice Saunders, in the ruling.
“No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”
The ruling also condemned the remarks of the magistrate involved in the earlier case, saying “judicial officers may not use the bench to proselytise, whether before, during, or after the conclusion of court proceedings”.
Gulliver McEwan, one of the women who brought the case, said “the whole trans community in Guyana is very happy today… It was very important for us to be heard and get justice”.
However, activists said they were concerned that police might not immediately stop using the defunct law, and that other anti-vagrancy offences, dating from the same period, might be used to target transgender and other potentially vulnerable people.
“The big challenge is to change hearts and minds”, said McEwan, adding she was ready to work with Guyana’s government on further reforms.
-Sonia Elks, Thomson Reuters Foundation