Sunday, February 15, 2009

SASOD Statement: Rights Group Urges Government to Repeal Colonial-Era Laws

Guyana has become an international laughingstock for the recent conviction and fine by our Acting Chief Magistrate on February 9th of seven Guyanese citizens for what is commonly called ‘cross-dressing.’ Within Guyana the arrests and charges on February 6th have left reasonable-minded citizens in shock and dismay. The charges were laid under section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act Chapter 8:02 which makes an offence of being a man, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in female attire, or being a woman, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in male attire… ” What is more ironic is that the men pleaded that they were so dressed to attend a well-advertised entertainment event that made fun of cross-dressing.
Such archaic, colonial-era laws, which have no victims other than those who are convicted of them, remain on Guyana’s 21st Century law books, along with others, such as section 153 (1) (xi) of the said Act which renders it illegal to, “in any public way or public place in any town, beats or shakes any mat between six o’clock in the morning or six o’clock in the afternoon” and section 169 which deals with “dancing in town after midnight.” It is past time for our Government to rid the law books of such outdated, victimless offences. Keeping on the books statutes that find illegality in practices where no reasonable or right-thinking person would find any undermines the very rule of law itself and public respect for its authority. Although the colonial era ended when Guyana gained its independence, the ghosts of its past still live on to haunt the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in our society today.
A graver danger of these laws, however, is revealed in what transpired in this case before Acting Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson-Ogle. It is no accident that when on occasion they are arbitrarily invoked these archaic laws disproportionately affect the poor and the powerless. Take, for example, the common trend of ‘cross-dressing’ in local stage plays to ridicule homosexuals. Why are these performances not subject to the application of the law? Is it because those interests have more socio-economic power than the working class? By leaving magistrates wide discretion to decide when cross-dressing is for “an improper purpose”, the law leaves itself open to abuse based on personal and religious prejudices.
The February 6th incident therefore rises to the level of a major human rights concern. Legal regulations which penalize ‘cross-dressing’ effectively criminalize persons whose ways of expressing themselves, in their manner of dressing, goes against certain stereotypical expectations for gender roles. In this regard, dressing, as a form of gender expression, is a question of freedom of expression. Laws against ‘cross-dressing’ therefore violate the right to freedom of expression, as all persons have the right to express their gender freely through the way in which they dress. These insidious provisions should therefore be urgently expunged from the law books given their contravention of basic, democratic freedoms.
Yet another troubling dimension are the comments attributed to Acting Chief Magistrate Melissa Robertson-Ogle as more than one media house reports her as telling the seven men, who are reported as “gay,” that they were “confused” about their sexuality and gender, it was a “curse on the family” and suggesting they “go to church and give their lives to Christ.” This should concern every Guyanese. In a multi-cultural, multi-religious society such as Guyana, all should be entitled to the freedom of religion, which is generally recognized to also include the freedom not to follow any religion. In a democratic society, there should be separation of church and state, and judicial officers in the execution of their duties should exercise impartiality in rendering decisions and professionalism when providing guidance to citizens. The Acting Chief Magistrate’s comments imply otherwise, strike as highly inappropriate and raise questions, which other local rights groups have recently highlighted, about the appropriate role of religion in state institutions, and fair treatment under the law.
SASOD therefore calls on the Government to swiftly remove these insidious, colonial statutes from the law books, honouring Guyana’s independence as a democratic nation.