Cross-Dressing Appeal Case for Judgment in 2017

(Georgetown, Guyana)

The case McEwan, Clarke, Fraser, Persaud and SASOD versus Attorney General of Guyana was heard on Friday, November 18, 2016 before Guyana’s Court of Appeal. The hearing was presided over by Chancellor of the Judiciary Carl Singh, Chief Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards and Justice Brassington Reynolds. Gulliver McEwan, the first-named appellant, other representatives of the Guyana Trans United (GTU) and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) were also present at the hearing.

The Chancellor noted that the Court had received extensive submissions from both the appellants and the state, which did not require rehashing orally. However, Dr Bulkan, counsel for the appellants, noted that there were two issues in the state’s submissions that were raised for the first time and to which he would like to respond. He was permitted to address these issues, but after doing so the Court indicated that these new submissions should be recorded in writing, and both parties were given four weeks to present their further written submissions to the court.

The Court questioned counsel for the appellants on their contention that the law was uncertain, asking whether it was not possible for a Magistrate to define the term ‘improper purposes’ on a case by case basis by reference to its dictionary meaning. Dr Bulkan responded that permitting this would offend the requirement of the rule of law, since penal statutes had to be defined with sufficient clarity to give citizens prospective notice of how to conduct themselves. He pointed out that even if a person was eventually acquitted by a Magistrate, the fact of being charged and subjected to the state’s coercive powers would have already resulted in violations of their fundamental rights. He added that the term ‘improper purpose’ had no boundaries whatever, and thus gave police unfettered discretion in enforcing the law.

University of the West Indies' Faculties of Laws Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) co-coordinator, Dr. Arif Bulkan, and Litigation Specialist, Westmin James, in discussion after the Court of Appeal hearing with Managing Director, Joel Simpson, and Advocacy and Communications Officer, Schemel Patrick.

In his response, Counsel for the state, Kamal Ramkarran, insisted that since the appellants had pleaded guilty before the Magistrate, they were barred from bringing this constitutional action. He added that the case was hypothetical and academic and should be thrown out. Mr Ramkarran further stated that in order to bring a constitutional claim a person had to allege a past, present or future breach of their rights, whereas the appellants provided no evidence that they were likely to be charged in the future. Ramkarran stated that there are far more serious crimes deserving of a constitutional challenge, “like the buggery law”. He pointed out that a conviction for cross-dressing is punishable by only $15,000, whereas a conviction for buggery carries life imprisonment. He concluded by saying that to charge the police would have to peep in someone's room to see them committing the act, at which point the court indicated that it was obliged to consider the case before it

This case was initially filed in February 2010, following the widely reported arrests and convictions of seven trans persons for the 1893 summary offence of ‘being a man’ and wearing ‘female’ attire in a public way or public place, for an improper purpose.’ Four of the convicted persons filed this action, along with SASOD, after approaching the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) for legal advice. Thereafter, with the assistance of U-RAP and local counsel, a constitutional challenge to the cross-dressing law was filed.

Even since the case was filed in February 2010, transgender persons are overpoliced, underprotected and have suffered physically and mentally because of the vagueness of the cross-dressing law in Guyana. The McEwan case argues that the archaic cross-dressing law, found in section 153(1)(xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act 1893, is inconsistent with the Constitution of Guyana. It also argues that the conduct of the Chief Magistrate, who told the individual appellants that they were confused about their sexuality and should follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, was also not consistent with the Guyana Constitution.

The legal team for the appellants included Mr. Nigel Hughes, Dr. Arif Bulkan, and Mr. Gino Persaud.

The Court of Appeal is expected to set a date for judgement in early 2017 after both sides have presented their further written submissions.