By BERT WILKINSON and DAVID McFADDEN
A judge interpreting a colonial-era law has ruled that cross-dressing is a criminal offense only if it’s done for an “improper purpose” such as prostitution, but the partial victory has frustrated gay rights activists in Guyana who are pushing for the 120-year-old statute to be removed from the books.
On Sunday, a group called the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination said the constitutional court’s “dubious decision” means police can continue to arrest cross-dressers and transgender citizens in the South American country for ambiguous reasons. They plan to appeal the judgment.
The rare court challenge of the controversial 1893 law was filed by the rights group after several of its members were hauled before the courts and slapped with minor fines for wearing female clothing in 2009. The transgender litigants were born male but say they identify as female.
Reacting to the decision, Quincy McEwan, the director of transgender rights group Guyana Trans United, said the judge failed to define “improper purposes.”
The litigants were apparently waiting for taxis when they were arrested for wearing female attire. When they appeared before the court the first time, a magistrate told them they were confused about their sexuality and should attend church and give their lives to Jesus Christ.
“The trans community is very worried and still fearful of arrests in light of this decision,” said McEwan, one of the challenge’s litigants.
Police have been accused of randomly applying the cross-dressing law while on patrol in Georgetown, the coastal capital.
In his Friday decision, acting Chief Justice Ian Chang said people can’t be found in violation of the law if they are cross-dressing “for the purpose of expressing or accentuating his or her personal sexual orientation in public.” He said police failed to inform the litigants the reasons for their arrests and awarded them compensation.
But he said the challenge failed to prove the cross-dressing law amounts to discrimination on the basis of gender, which would violate Guyana’s constitution.
The law survived constitutional reforms in 1966 and 1980, so Chang argued that any change must come from the legislature rather than the judiciary.
Zenita Nicholson, a board member with the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, said she believed the court “lost a golden opportunity” to eliminate every form of discrimination.
Transgender citizens “will continue to be vulnerable to human rights abuses with this dubious decision,” she said.