[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for contributing several items on transgender persons in Guyana. This is the first of two posts.] In Stabroek News’s column, In the Diaspora, Rae Wiltshire—writer and theater director pursuing literature and linguistics studies at the University of Guyana—writes about the experiences of Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, a transgender woman who continues to fight discrimination and to demand basic human rights. Below are excerpts from “Transgender is not my only identity.” [Also see a related post, “Tolerance is for starters, but I prefer acceptance” by Alessandra Hereman (Stabroek News).] It is important to see these testimonies in the following context; this year was the very first time Guyana’s LGBT community was able to host a gay pride parade (on June 3, 2018).
“Everybody came to see this trans person, and when they realised it was just a normal human being, everybody left; because they felt it was this big show, this big performance to be a transgender.” Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan laughed as she remembered the response of an audience. [. . .] Prior to 2009, Gulliver hid herself away to avoid the insults she would receive just walking down the street. Any task she needed to get done, her siblings had to do it. Today, however, people see her as female and no longer hurl insults. She is comfortable in her skin as a trans woman. [. . .]
Cooking is an integral part of her identity. When she’s in the kitchen, Gulliver is herself. Cooking is a skill she used to feed her siblings when her mother worked 12-hour shifts. It is what earned her a job at Barama Company Limited. And it is a talent she uses now to empower the trans women whose rights she fights for as director of advocacy group Guyana Trans United (GTU). After Barama, Gulliver opened her own canteen at the Cyril Potter College for Education. The business thrived and she was able to hire employees – even do the catering for the College’s 75th anniversary. However, fear of stigma caused her to abandon the business.
This fear was warranted. On February 6, 2009, Gulliver and seven other trans women were arrested for cross-dressing under the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, which makes it an offence for a man to wear female attire for an “improper purpose.” Stabroek News reported that the Acting Chief Magistrate heard the case on February 9, 2009, at the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court and told the group of eight that they were men and confused about their sexuality. They were ordered to pay a fine of $7,500 each.
In 2010, four of the arrested persons – Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud – with the support of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), put forward a constitutional claim that the law was inconsistent with the Guyana Constitution (1980). They argued that the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act – which uses terms such as “improper purpose”, “male attire” and “female attire” – is vague and fails to give “the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited”, as laws must do. The litigants argued that the Act violated their right to freedom of expression, since clothing is a form of expression, as well as the constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination and equality before the law.
Gulliver believes the law that prohibits trans women from cross-dressing is discriminatory. Only trans women are affected by the law, she said, whereas women wearing male clothing and actors in the theatre dressing as women are not criminalised. In 2013, then-Chief Justice Ian Chang ruled that trans persons have a right to express their identity – as long as it is not for an improper purpose. In an interview with SASOD in 2013, Gulliver said, “The Chief Justice was relatively clear that once you are expressing your gender identity, it’s not criminal for a man to wear female attire,” she continued. “But the law really stifles us, because what could be an improper purpose? [. . .]
[. . .] Fortunately for Gulliver, her family did not treat her as a pariah. “Growing up in a large household was fun to me because family were the only friends that I had.” Her identity as a trans woman is not the sole title that defines her. “I am a human rights activist. I am a good chef. I am a caregiver. I love nature. I raise my siblings and I continue to look forward to looking after my niece and nephew. I am also a caregiver for a child, so I am a good mom.” These characteristics have guided her onto a path of love and caring, not only for trans persons but also for women who are victims of domestic violence and children who are at risk of abuse. She is often seen standing in solidarity with other advocacy organisations, such as Red Thread.
Gulliver believes her future in Guyana is dependent on continuing to fight for human rights, and she is determined to keep the battle going.
[Photo above: Rainbow flag photo by Jaime Pérez (CC BY-NC 2.0); source: https://wp.caribbeannewsnow.com/2018/06/18/guyanas-lgbt-community-hosts-its-first-ever-gay-pride-parade/]