Guyana is one of the few Caribbean countries that is not an island. Still, homophobia is as rampant as sunshine in the country that is nestled between Venezuela and Suriname.
Guyana has recently been singled out as the only South American country bearing strong anti-gay legislation. Laws there make same-sex sexual acts illegal and are punishable by imprisonment — in some cases; gay sex is even punishable with a life sentence.
Zenita Nicholson is the Secretary for Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana, a human rights organization dedicated to achieving equality and justice for all Guyanese, especially those suffering discrimination based on their based sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Nicholson says homophobia is ingrained in Guyana’s society. Simply walking the streets attracts insults, derogatory remarks, and threats. Sometimes it even invokes strangers to pelt known or suspected homosexuals with bottles.
“I recall an incident where I was walking down the street in downtown Georgetown and suddenly I heard very derogatory remarks coming from behind me. I looked back and saw two young schoolgirls, no more than 15-years-old. At first I didn’t know it was me they were speaking to, as the comments did not make sense. ‘Aye yuh' antiman,’ yes you yah’ bugga' battie, you should be dead.’ I began looking around to see whom they were talking to since I am female. I looked back, and they said, ‘Yes, it’s you we talking to.’ That’s just one of many memorable discriminatory moments from the trip,” Nicholson recalled. “At that point I started walking faster because they were also walking faster and I was afraid. I walked faster, until I saw some taxi drivers who knew me and I stopped to talk with them. The girls went in another direction after they saw this.”
But the harassment didn’t stop there.
“Most recently, a female friend and I were walking down the road. There were about eight men sitting on the corner. As we passed, one said loudly, ‘Girl I would love to rub that bald head in bed.’ We kept walking, with no answer. He began following us while intensifying his advances. Then he said, ‘Well, wait, you doan’ like men, nah? Is girls you like, I could show you what you missing.’”
Despite these incidents there have been some signs that attitudes towards homosexuality in Guyana are progressing. But Nicholson says it’s not nearly enough. She has a list of initiatives she’d like put “on the books.”
1. Protection for LGBT people from all forms of discrimination and harassment so they can walk the streets without fear or feeling threatened.
2. Optimal healthcare for the LGBT community. To date, there are health care workers who are discriminatory in their manner and attitude towards LGBT people. As a result many LGBT people do not have access healthcare services.
3. Optimal education for the LGBT community. Many young LGBT persons drop out of school due to homophobic bullying from both their peers and teachers. In higher learning institutions, homophobia is also prevalent, particularly for those who express their gender identity or cross dress.
4. Equal employment opportunities. Many LGBT persons are not being employed based on their gender identities and gender expressions, despite being qualified for the job.
5. Many LGBT persons suffer at the hands of landlords. Few persons are willing to rent LGBT persons an apartment or home regardless of their ability to pay. This results in LGBT people having to put up with the demands or inadequacies of the landlords who do rent to them since other welcoming places are hard to find.
6. Many LGBT people are often exploited by those who provide transportation services. Some taxi drivers demand double or triple fares for transportation, or threaten to leave them stranded on the road.
But, there are some reasons to be optimistic, Nicholson said.
“There are more conversations about LGBT rights and issues as compared to a few years ago. There are many people such as the Roman Catholic bishop in Guyana who are speaking out against the discrimination and human rights abuses as well as Guyana's archaic discriminatory laws,” Nicholson said. “LGBT rights are human rights. We are all entitled to same rights regardless of our differences including our sexual orientation, gender identities and gender expressions. Each one of us has an important role and responsibility in building an inclusive, supportive future with equal rights and justice for all. Let's do it now.”
Visit www.sasod.org.gy for more information on gay rights in Guyana.