Overturning British colonial-era ‘buggery’ law ‘first step’ to protecting LGBTQ+ people in Guyana

LGBTQ+ people in Guyana

Overturning a British colonial-era law criminalising homosexuality is just the “first step in a series of legal challenges” needed to protect LGBTQ+ people in Guyana.

Joel Simpson, managing director of SASOD Guyana, tells PinkNews that anti-LGBTQ+ laws come from a “relatively recent colonial past” because the country gained independence in 1966. 

Like many other places in the former British empire, Guyana inherited a law criminalising consensual same-sex sexual intimacy – prohibiting so-called acts of ‘buggery’ and ‘gross indecency’ – from its colonial past. 

“Guyana is now in a minority of Caribbean Community [CARICOM] states that have these laws because courts have been overturning them in the last few years, saying that they’re unconstitutional, that they can’t stand, they violate peoples’ rights,” they say. 

“Guyana is also the only country in CARICOM where there hasn’t been a legal challenge to those laws to date.”

Guyana is also the only South American country with a colonial ‘buggery’ law criminalising homosexuality.

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There is little evidence of the law being enforced in recent years, but Simpson says it’s being “indirectly enforced” because there are police officers threatening to arrest people for simply “holding hands” or “sharing the same milkshake” if they don’t get a bribe. 

“That’s enough because the legislation speaks to any form of intimacy between men, and for that, for our purposes, can include hugging, touching, kissing, petting, any form of PDA as North Americans like to say,” they explain. 

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“So when you have that happening – and that has happened so often here and continues to happen – you have a real reason to change the law.”

Simpson says having the law on the books “reinforces the hatred that exists” in Guyana, which makes LGBTQ+ people feel ostracised from society.

“The law reinforces the hatred that exists because, at the end of the day, people can tell you that the behaviour that you’re engaging in is illegal,” they say. “So as a gay, bisexual, same-sex practising man, you are really an unapprehended criminal, and legally, that’s true.”

They continue: “The forms of intimacy that I engage with my partner in the privacy of my home is illegal.

“And any time police who want to enforce that law can.”

There’s been some legislative reform, but there’s still more to do

Until 2018, a ‘cross dressing’ law was used to criminalise trans people in Guyana, but the Caribbean Court of Justice deemed the law unconstitutional and struck it out

However, LGBTQ+ people remain unprotected from discrimination in education, employment and housing. There’s also a lack of gender recognition legislation, and queer people face immense stigmatisation under the law criminalising same-sex sexual intimacy. 

Simpson believes overturning this colonial-era law is “just the first step in a series of legal challenges” needed to protect LGBTQ+ people in Guyana.

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“The Western narrative has been ‘OK, decriminalise and then go for marriage and now everything’s great’, but it hasn’t been great as you can see in the US and Florida [with] the anti-drag bills and all of this kind of stuff,” they say.

“Marriage equality doesn’t mean full equality for all of our community … Marriage is not on our agenda.”

They continue: “I say that clearly and repeatedly and without any apology because there’s a host of bread and butter issues [in Guyana].”

This includes LGBTQ+ communities in Guyana facing immense discrimination while trying to find work. Simpson says some people won’t employ queer people – or even look at their qualifications.

Just a few days ago, they got a voice note from a trans man in Guyana who faced immense stigmatisation and intrusive questions during interviews because of their identity.

“When he goes to interviews, people are just fascinated – fascinate isn’t even the right word – but just focused on whether he’s a man or a woman,” Simpson says.

“The interview is entirely about that. Are you a man or a woman? Did you have surgery to remove your breasts? Do you still have a vagina? Do you have a penis? How do you want to be addressed because you have one name on your CV but there’s another name on your ID documents?

“This is not in a way where people are trying to be respectful or affirming … So those are really our issues.

“I keep harping on education because, to me, that’s where it really starts. Education affects everything going down the line, and it’s a rippling effect.

“Because you can’t get a job for which you’re qualified or a good job, get into business and so on if you didn’t finish school because you’re trans … It’s also going to affect housing because you can’t afford to rent a place in a safe neighbourhood so now you’re even more vulnerable.”

Positive attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people have increased in Guyana

In 2022, SASOD Guyana conducted a follow-up national poll just shy of a decade after the first public opinion poll on LGBTQ+ issues was initiated by the organisation and conducted by the Caribbean Development Research Services in 2013. 

LGBTQ+ acceptance in Guyana skyrocketed from just 19 per cent in 2013 to 34.5 per cent in 2022. Over the same period, people who said they hated the LGBTQ+ community decreased from 25 per cent to 12 per cent. 

Additionally, 71.9 per cent of people said they were likely to support legislation to protect LGBTQ+ Guyanans from workplace discrimination.  

“I think social attitudes have gotten ahead of where the politicians are,” Simpson says. 

“And what we do know is more than half of the population is supportive of protections from discrimination related to employment and workplace rights, and more than half are supportive of decriminalisation of same-sex intimacy – but the political will doesn’t match where John and Jane public is at.”

Simpson describes how it’s “quite fashionable for politicians” to say they support LGBTQ+ rights, but there’s “no to low political will” to enact political change.

“I think we’re at that place where – to appease international bodies and so on – even the highest political office holders will make very supportive speeches and commitments,” Simpson says.

They continue: “I can refer to president Irfaan Ali, who took office in August 2020, when he had to do his first speech virtually because of the pandemic at the UN General Assembly special session on AIDs … he committed to changing laws which discriminate against LGBTQ people, to protect people from discrimination by adding sexual orientation, gender identity to legislation and so forth. 

“And none of those commitments have actually been actions by any real effort to draft a bill to bring to parliament and so on.” 

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