I deeply admire the spirit of the people of Guyana, a nation that has led the Caribbean on many social policy and protection issues, including ones related to sexuality. So I was puzzled when a young Guyanese friend here in Trinidad told me her mother’s church members back home were chattering excitedly about the upcoming referendum, all eager to mobilise others to turn out to vote against LGBTI rights.
I was very, very puzzled by this idea of people in Caribbean nations, composed of diverse minorities, relishing the idea of voting away the rights or equality of any one group, based on the whims of others. I wondered if our long histories of having had that done to us over and over were no longer on the 21st-century school curriculum. And I puzzled, too, whether having referenda on rights meant we also got to vote on who gets to vote in the next referendum.
What puzzled me more was that I’d read the manifesto promises the Guyanese parties on both sides had made on social equality for LGBTI people in the last election, which were historic for the region. And I was even more puzzled as I began to read the statement the Guyana government sent to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) the day after the state participated in a hearing there last month, which started all of this:
“The Government of Guyana has one position on the cross-cutting principles of discrimination towards members of the LGBTI community…we believe ‘the principle of universality admits no exception. Human rights truly are the birthrights of all human beings.’”
Then I read further, and got to the part near the bottom where “it was deemed unfit for the legislature to decide on the matter. As such, it was recommended, that the matter be taken to a vote, where the people of Guyana will decide by a referendum on these matters.” So that’s why headlines across Guyanese media were screaming “Homosexuality to Go to Referendum.”
But then I got all the more puzzled. Because I could not remember when any Caribbean government had taken that position on another development or fiscal or foreign or domestic policy issue, apart from constitutional amendments. Instead, I knew a history of Caribbean parliamentarians who had taken leadership on complicated and contentious policy issues. That 34 years ago Billie Miller had decriminalised abortion in Barbados, ahead of Guyana; and that 26 years ago, Lynden Pindling decriminalised homosexuality in the Bahamas; and that 17 years ago Kamla Persad-Bissessar had prohibited school flogging in Trinidad & Tobago; and that in 2015 Jamaica Mark Golding had decriminalised marijuana in Jamaica. So I thought any Caribbean politician not wanting to take such a decision was really saying he or she was not ready to be a leader.
I was puzzled enough to look back at the results of a professional public opinion poll I had worked on in 2013 with the Barbados-based firm Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES), on public attitudes to sexual diversity in all three countries, which the United Nations later repeated. And that’s what left me most puzzled of all.
Now, the Guyanese state guaranteeing “enforcement and the system of the protection of every Guyanese citizen, including the LGBTI community” (as the Government statement to the IACHR says) is an obligation, no matter how unpopular it is. However, for the Granger Government, the political stakes of doing the right thing seem pretty low. The 2013 poll does hold up their view that “much more has to be done regarding a collective and consensual approach and the implementation to fulfil” rights for LGBTI persons in Guyana. But what they also make clear is that four out of five Guyanese do not believe people should be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. And a majority think that homophobia can cause harm to young people (three out of four suicide, and three out of five school absenteeism). The UN called similar figures in T&T “A Mandate to Act.”
And then it made sense. Like Guyanese President David Granger, I was raised Anglican, and taught the Easter story in all four gospels of how Pontius Pilate had had Jesus Christ crucified to placate the will of the crowd, although he found no evil in him. And I understood better how good people make tragic historical decisions.
I remembered as well that here in T&T evangelical pastors had boasted in a paid newspaper ad that a prime ministerial candidate had promised them she would put any changes in rights for LGBTI people to a referendum. And I remembered that one had been announced in Parliament in early 2011, on same-sex marriages. Right after the Government’s Senate leader, a Hindu, had invented a 52nd chapter to the book of Leviticus.
But I also recalled that right-thinking citizens, including parliamentarians, had shut the idea down, the people whose rights were being proposed to be voted on had said a loud “No Thank You,” and a planned press conference at the Ministry of Planning on the measure was cancelled.
So I am still holding out faith in the people and leaders of Guyana, and their capacity for regional leadership.
This also appeared as a May 1st letter to the editor of Guyana’s Stabroek News