SASOD Celebrates 13th Anniversary

 The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) Guyana held a discussion forum for their thirteenth anniversary last Tuesday, June 7, at the end of one of their film screening as they celebrate with a month-long lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Film Festival.
The LGBT human-rights organisation focused the discussions, moderated by Managing Director Joel Simpson on Equality and Rights for LGBT persons in Guyana. The panel included Dr. Jewel Thomas, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Guyana; Antonio Paul, transgender advocate and Director of Candle in the Wind Support Group; Essequibo Islands - West Demerara (Region 3); and Derwayne Wills, University of the West Indies (UWI) student of Sociology and Gender and Development studies, freelance writer, and blogger on gender justice and youth issues. 
Living in a “Difficult Society”
Dr. Thomas expressed that extreme homophobia and punitive laws which are enforced by the state create a difficult society as discrimination and prejudice with extreme homophobia supported by the state stifles and chokes many vulnerable communities, especially in the rural areas. She said that though this is a terrible social ill, it can lead to stronger inter-personal relationships and people who feel weak or voiceless can come together to find community support – much like what is seen in the LGBT community with SASOD and the Guyana Trans United (GTU).
Dr. Jewel Thomas, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Guyana
“Homophobia robs people of the right to speak and participate in societies. What we see is that LGBT people will then have to navigate in their own space and are effectively being made refugees in their own countries. It really is a difficult society when homophobia is left to foster, much less endorsed by the state,” Dr. Thomas lamented.  
Antonio Paul, a community advocate commonly known as ‘Sir Paul’ in her Vreed-en-Hoop neighbourhood reminisced on her experience growing up, knowing since the age of eleven that she – a male-to-female transgender – felt different. She explained that for her there were many challenges in the Region 10 community where she grew up, but she used her education to progress in society and attached to influential community leaders like teachers to gain more knowledge and eventually respect. “You have to establish yourself,” she said. A trained Cyril Potter College of Education teacher, Paul taught in the West Demerara region, sits on the Regional Health Committee, and manages various projects in the Region 3 Administration. “The West Side is one of the best places in Guyana to live and belong, we have a strong transgender community and we are all in it to develop the entire region as a whole,” she commented.  
Antonio Paul, transgender advocate and Director of Candle in the Wind Support Group
Wills pointed out that poverty has a major role to play in how LGBT persons live and express themselves. Generally in cities and for the rich LGBT persons, there are less cases of discrimination, while for the poor and in rural areas, it is far worse, Wills posited.
Politics and Religion
“I often wonder what a gender just society looks like,” Wills openly pondered. “There is an undeniable stall and that needs to change…” he continued. Wills, a University of Guyana Sociology student before continuing his studies at the UWI, when asked where he sees the LGBT movement going responded that it does indeed start with politicians and it is that political unwillingness to make the necessary changes in the fear of them losing their constituencies is why homophobia persists in Guyanese society. 
Derwayne Wills, University of the West Indies (UWI) student
“Optics – How does it look, image and what will people say – this is on a very superficial level,” Dr. Thomas commented, saying this is how politicians think, instead of acting on what is right and what is just. “They are afraid to speak out in defence of the weak and poor because they might lose a few voters,” Wills responded.  
On the point of religion, Wills noted that while the media and society tends to pit religion and LGBT issues against each other, being religious and an LGBT person can coincide. Transgender advocate Antonio Paul made references to her belief in God during the discussion.
Dr. Thomas noted that her view is that we need a truly secular society. ”Given that Guyana is a secular state, everyone has the right to live as a human being. That right should be over everything else and your religion should not force me to be miserable,” the Oxford-qualified sociologist declared.  
Over the years, the Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian, Anglican and Hindu leaders have been supportive of LGBT people having their human rights respected in Guyana, SASOD’s Managing Director Joel Simpson noted. Intolerance tends to come from mostly the Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders and some Muslim groups like the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana (CIOG), he explained.
The Media and Civil Society
The media often comes with its own agenda, while it can be used to change perceptions and educate people, it is often used to reinforce stereotypical perceptions, especially on LGBT issues.  This was expressed by Wills – part of the media fraternity himself – who shared recent scenarios of the media often running to religious groups for their opinions on LGBT-related stories.
“The role of the media, particularly the state media,” Wills continued, “should be really be giving voice to minority groups, marginalised communities, and really legitimizing the existence of these vulnerable groups in our society.” He singled out the Stabroek News for leading the way in doing just that in Guyana and providing unbiased and clear publications on LGBT human rights and other unpopular issues.