Gay rights activists hope to sway popular opinion, political action against colonial era buggery laws

Last Updated on Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 13:40 by Denis Chabrol

Presbyterian Pastor, Reverend Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth

The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) on Wednesday launched a “Guyana Together” campaign to increase public tolerance of gays as well as convince government and opposition politicians to change laws that violate the human rights of members of that community.

“I think the next phase- we are assuming that we’ll achieve our goal in two years- which is to have these laws criminalised and then repealed because of the significant impact the campaign will have public education and the roll-on effect of people pressuring the legislature, ordinary legislators,” SASOD’s General Manager and Founder, Joel Simpson told the launch of the campaign at the Marriott Hotel.

The campaign has so far been endorsed by 63 organisations and businesses, including the Black Entrepreneurs Association, Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Guyana Presbyterian Church and Help and Shelter.

Simpson said Sections 351 to 353 of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act Chapter 8:01 criminalise intimacy between consenting, adult men in private by regarding those acts as gross indecency, attempted buggery” and buggery. Referring to a 2022 poll, he said 54 percent, or more than half of Guyana’s population supports repealing laws that criminalise intimacy between consenting men in private.  “That was a very significant finding for us,” he said.

The survey says acceptance had grown from 19 percent to 34.5 percent “significant change” “so many more Guyanese said that they accepted a Lesbian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in their lives and overall, acceptance and tolerance together was 72.4 percent.

Simpson said the “Guyana Together” campaign was developed based on figures from the 2022 poll that show 49.4 percent of Guyanese who did not know an LGTB person personally, “we needed to bring real life stories of people to them- to their homes, to their workplaces, to their communities, to their faith groups.” The poll states that 50.6 percent of Guyanese said they knew an LGBT person and there was a co-relation between knowing someone and acceptance of LGBT persons.

“Friends, we all know in our hearts that all Guyanese deserve nothing less than full equality under the law and freedom from discrimination. Guyana cannot progress without addressing discriminatory laws, which hurt individuals, families, communities and the nation as a whole,” he said.

Presbyterian Pastor, Reverend Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth supported the Lesbian, Gays, Bisexual and Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) community. She said Guyanese have a moral obligation to stand up for our common humanity as well as join in solidarity with siblings who are marginalised, caste out and denied equal rights under the laws of Guyana. “As children, we were taught the golden rule of treating others as we would like to be treated but currently our laws allow some of us to be treated with disregard, disrespect and even with disdain and we have seen here in Guyana great prejudice and harm against LGBTIQ persons,” she said.

Ms Sheerattan-Bisnauth warned that Guyana could not progress with discriminatory laws that hurt individuals and said the time has come for Faith communities to support a review of the legislation in the quest for full human dignity. She recommended that national dialogue start on the basis of respect, a key ingredient to overcome fear and prejudice.

Pamela Nauth, a Board Director of the non-governmental organisation, Health and Shelter, said “it is time for the laws of our country to match the values of our people and to treat our gay and lesbian neighbours with respect and dignity.”

Chair of the membership and diversity committee of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kerri Gravesande-Bart (left)

Chair of the membership and diversity committee of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kerri Gravesande-Bart said her organisation was eager to arrange events, workshops and discussions as well as find “tangible solutions and actionable steps towards a more inclusive society.” She urged other private sector organisations to come together to “create a nationwide conversation to revise Guyana’s laws where diversity is celebrated and equal treatment is a norm.”

Gross indecency between males is criminalised under section 351 of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act, Chapter 8:01 of 1893 which provides that: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission, or procures or attempts to procure the commission, by any male person, of any act of gross indecency with another male person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and liable to imprisonment for two years.”

SASOD says “gross indecency is a vague, undefined offence, which is wide enough to encompass and criminalise sexual activity between men that falls short of the offence of
“buggery” captured under the Act. The vagueness of the offence leaves it open to selective enforcement by law enforcement.”

Attendees at the opening of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) on  “Guyana Together” campaign on September 5, 2023. 

Attempted buggery is criminalised under section 352 of that Act which provides that everyone who attempts to commit buggery or
assaults any person with intent to commit buggery or being male, indecently assaults any other male, shall be guilty of a felony and liable to imprisonment for ten years.” And, buggery is criminalised under Section 353 of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act, Chapter 8:01, which provides that everyone who commits buggery, either with a human being or with any other living creature, shall be guilty of felony and liable to imprisonment for life.” In SASOD’s view, unlike the offence of gross indecency, the offence of buggery is not expressed to be restricted to sexual activity between men, therefore, anal sex between a man and woman is also criminalised.”

Top diplomats and other senior representatives from the United States, British, Canadian and European Union diplomatic missions attended the launch of the “Guyana Together” campaign. Those countries have at various times called for legislative reforms to end discrimination against LGBTQI persons.

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) a few years ago struck down Guyana’s cross-dressing law as unconstitutional, after several gays, who has been arrested for wearing women’s clothing, had filed constitutional actions.