In Guyana, Transgender People Fight for Visibility—and Respect
Three times my taxi sailed past the matronly woman in a purple ankle-length dress, flowing locks, and chunky gold jewelry. I was there to meet Quincy “Gulliver” McEwan, plaintiff in a case to end a ban on cross-dressing here in Guyana, in South America’s northeastern corner, along the Atlantic Coast. “I still don’t see it,” I said, speaking into a cell phone, quickly scanning both sides of the crowded, narrow, residential street.
On the phone a rich, husky voice explained that the headquarters for Guyana Trans United was across from the power company, next to a church, in the country’s capital, Georgetown. When I got out of the taxi, it finally registered that the full-figured woman standing on the street in the purple dress—one ear on her phone—was McEwan.
When someone’s appearance clashes with expectations, it has a way of rendering the individual invisible.
This is why McEwan’s organization of roughly 100 members was founded in 2012. It has been renting this modest basement office since last November. For transgender women in this English-speaking Caribbean country of nearly 800,000 nestled between Venezuela and Suriname, visibility draws out hatred—and worse. In the last two years, at least seven transgender Guyanese women have been murdered, McEwan says—with no follow-up investigation. Bible-quoting public officials call transgender women a sinful abomination. Some less-educated villagers believe gayness is a sin that has brought God’s punishment to Guyana, the third-poorest country in the Americas.
Though it’s on the northern edge of South America, Guyana is culturally closer to its Caribbean neighbors that were also colonized by the British, who brought in African slaves to harvest sugar and rice and mine the country’s considerable mineral resources. (The Dutch and French once ruled Guyana as well as neighboring Suriname and French Guiana.) Today, Guyana’s largest ethnic group consists of descendants of Asian Indians brought to work the fields after slavery was abolished in 1834.
Modern Guyana is an often bewildering cultural stew: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are dominant religions, and there remains a visible indigenous Amerindian population. As in much of the rest of the world, policy makers and citizens here are struggling to integrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into society.
Many transgender people in Guyana are rejected or harassed in the traditional workforce. So they often turn to sex work. That’s what McEwan does for a living when she isn’t passing out condoms, coordinating cooking and sewing classes, and seeking to create a refuge for some of the most vulnerable people in Caribbean society.
McEwan, 36, is waiting for a court date appealing a decision that upholds Guyana’s ban on cross-dressing and she is hopeful. “I see positive change,” she said. “We are seeing a very large amount of LGBT youth. They feel there is more visibility. They say to me, ‘I see you, Aunty Gulliver. I see you on TV.’ I say, 'At that age, I could not identify.' ”
“But laws to support those changes would be great,” she said.
Change is coming to other parts of the region too. In nearby Trinidad, Jowelle De Souza, a hairstylist and an animal rights advocate, is breaking barriers as the country’s first transsexual candidate for public office. Jamaica, whose sometimes homophobic music exerts a strong influence on the region, has faced pressure to repeal colonial-era laws that criminalize gay sex. President Obama praised an LGBT activist during his recent speech there. Elsewhere in South America, this is a moment of tremendous progress for LGBT people: Earlier in June, Colombia moved to begin allowing its transgender citizens to legally change their name and gender on government documents without enduring intrusive physical examinations. Mexico has effectively legalized same-sex marriage.
Guyana’s election in May brought to power a new political party that vows to keep religion out of governance, especially around LGBT issues. The country's new president, David Granger, a former army general, has indicated that he is comfortable with LGBT people serving in the military.
Growing up in the church in the village of Buxton, McEwan tried to “pray the gay away.” She worked in a factory and once had a family business making pastries. But pervasive homophobia—from colleagues and customers—forced her to abandon both jobs. With no other way to support herself, McEwan turned to sex work. That’s basically how she ended up involved in a case that’s now before Guyana’s Supreme Court.
In 2009, McEwan and six of her colleagues were standing at the corner of Georgetown’s North Road and King Street when police arrested them. “ ‘Don’t you know it’s a crime to be dressed as a female?’ ” McEwan recalls the magistrate telling her in court. Solicitation is illegal but sex work is not a crime in Guyana. “[The judge] went on to say some very hurtful things: ‘Don’t you know it’s an abomination under God?’ ”
McEwan and her colleagues challenged the law with the help of the Georgetown-based Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination. In February, I visited SASOD’s rainbow tent during Mashramani, Guyana’s biggest street festival. Guyana’s LGBT community is overrepresented among float designers, choreographers, and other creatives who’ve built the festival. “Without us, there would be no Mashramani,” said SASOD’s founder, Joel Simpson.
McEwan said SASOD is an effective advocate but even in this small country that is 80 percent rain forest, with small villages and the Georgetown capital lining the Atlantic Coast, there is a need for an organization to focus exclusively on transgender issues. “Trans people are the most vulnerable within the LGBT community,” she said. “Many times our needs are not taken seriously. Even when we have a voice within those LGBT movements, our voice is stifled.”
Just past the doors of Guyana Trans United’s headquarters is a tiny kitchenette where meals are prepared. On another wall are a bunch of condoms and literature about how to practice safe sex. Inside another tiny room with donated furniture, there are photographs of McEwan and other litigants—all part of a 2014 exhibit at the National Library of Guyana to mark the International Transgender Day of Visibility. A short bookshelf is stocked with weathered romance novels and dusty Guyana social studies textbooks.
“We wanted a safe space,” said McEwan, gesturing around her, a black shawl knotted around her shoulders, all soft curves and rounded cheekbones. “We realize a lot of colleagues that we serve have a lot of needs. Health care. Family support. Legal support. Sometimes they just need a safe space from the community when they are traumatized. Someone might attack them. Sometimes the landlord might lock them out.”
The need to change attitudes and laws came into sharp focus last July, when two sex workers were murdered. Just a few days earlier, Bishop Juan Edghill, Guyana’s finance minister, gave a radio interview in which he said gay people should go off to an island to prevent the spread of their lifestyle. Guyanese LGBT groups protested and demanded Edghill’s removal. “You are a minister of government,” McEwan recalls saying at the time. “We wanted to hold him accountable. If there is a law in place that we could get redress on the matter, the bishop wouldn’t be saying certain things.”
For years, wealthy Western governments have pumped money into HIV/AIDS work in developing countries like Guyana. This is welcome but “sometimes it does not always filter down,” McEwan said. She is waiting for a grant to be able to pay the building’s landlord, who agreed to allow the group to stay there in the meantime.
McEwan got funding to travel to Washington, D.C., in 2012, for the World AIDS Conference. She believes people need to be educated on how to stop the spread of disease but more urgent economic needs can undermine those efforts. “Poverty plagues this community. It leaves you vulnerable. You do desperate things,” she said.
McEwan recalls a transgender sex worker describing her plight during a Guyana Trans United support group meeting. The woman was behind on her weekly rent, which the landlord suddenly raised to $24. Gender-conforming tenants in the same building, meanwhile, paid $19. The woman hadn’t eaten in two days. She could see that one client had a sexually transmitted disease but refusing the job was not a real choice. “How can I tell you not to do the business?” McEwan asked. “This is actually a bread and butter issue.”