Last Wednesday I attended a public discussion on the theme “Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-gender Guyanese” held by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) at the beautiful Moray House Trust.
Turn out was great – I believe all the seats were taken. The panel began with the background of SASOD and helpful definitions for those confused by terms such as “sexual orientation” and “transgender”.
For your general information:
Sexual orientation is one of the four components of sexuality and is distinguished by an emotional, romantic, sexual or affectionate attraction to individuals of a particular sex. The three other components of sexuality are biological sex (whether we are born as a male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female) and social gender role (the extent to which people conform to what is regarded in our society as feminine and masculine behaviour).
Three sexual orientations are commonly recognized:
- Heterosexual – attraction to individuals of the other sex.
- Homosexual – attraction to individuals of one’s own sex (same-sex attraction). Women of same sex orientation are usually referred to as lesbian and men of same sex orientation as gay.
- Bisexual – the capacity for emotional, romantic and/or physical attraction to more than one gender. That capacity for attraction may or may not manifest itself in terms of sexual interaction.
Transgender is the state of one’s “gender identity” (self identification as male, female, both or neither) not matching one’s “assigned gender” (identification by others as male or female based on physical/genetic sex). Transgender does not imply any specific form of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.
The panel continued with an explanation of why SASOD believes the government of Guyana must decriminalize same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing. In short, laws that criminalize persons for not being heterosexual unsurprisingly result in widespread discrimination of LGBT persons across all sectors – education, health, work, in the home, on the streets. It creates a society in which a section of our population is denied basic human rights and thus does not have access to a life of dignity.
What SASOD wants:
- The inclusion of LGBT issues in all human social development discussions that occur at national and community levels.
- Legal protections from discrimination based on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the repeal of laws criminalizing same-sex intimacy and cross-dressing.
- A society where LGBT persons are accepted and ale to live freely without fear.
At this point, the Executive Director of the Equal Rights Trust, Dimitrina Petrova, introduced her organization by saying that it focused on the most important human right we have: equality. Equality, she said, is not just a right. It is the principle on which all other human rights are based. Petrova said she understood that, coming from the outside, there is a limit to how much she can understand Guyana’s situation. However, she also said that it is not legitimate to say that a human rights issue is just a national problem. She stated that we cannot believe that a concern only belongs to the people affected by this concern if we believe in human rights because human rights are universal and “there is no equality if anyone is left out”. She says that there are many cases of inequality in Guyana but that the LGBT community is “the most unequal group”.
The most interesting point she made, in my opinion, was that this is an issue that affects us all – whichever “identity box” we fall under. I agree wholeheartedly with Petrova when she says that groups cannot only care about themselves to the exclusion of others. I think that this is a very big problem in Guyana even amongst persons fighting the good fight for some cause or the other. People are segregated in their interest/wealth/ethnic/religious based groups and have very low comprehension of other groups, which makes it easy for discrimination to follow.
Closing off the panel was a brave young member of SASOD who shared his sad experience of discrimination growing up. He was a victim of bullying in school, police harassment and even lock up without cause. He said his only supportive family member was his grandmother and even sometimes she would lash out at him because she too suffered for sticking by his side. Once, he said, he was denied a ride across the river to go home by boat after boat after boat. You could tell that those stories were just the tip of the iceberg.
An interesting Q&A session followed which consisted of more comments than questions. Someone reiterated Petrova’s call for cooperation across groups. Someone pointed out that discrimination exists within the LGBT community as well. Someone asked for SASOD to be more “straight-friendly” and was followed by someone asking us to not call heterosexuals “straight” because homosexuals are not (necessarily)“curvy”. Someone shared his experience moving from a discriminatory stance to an accepting one once he found out someone in his family was homosexual. He was almost moved to tears and ended with “We ‘re all humans.”
One question that was most interesting to me was: What advice do our international friends have in order to deal with government’s seeming reliance on religious absolutism on ethical or moral decisions? Petrova responded by saying that the government’s business is to observe the law and international best practices – not to take moral or ethical positions on issues. I disagree slightly with her understanding of “best practices” being divorced of ethics (to the contrary, I believe that ethics informs best practices) but I appreciate her separation of morality and public policy. I hope that the government and society at large heed this message.
All in all, an insightful discussion.