What changing laws mean (and don’t mean) for LGBT+ equality

By Alessandra Hereman

A young gay man talks about being discriminated against at work. He recalls a time when he wore a pink shirt to work. “Are you an antiman?” his employer asked. “I felt so embarrassed because it was done in front of the entire office,” the young man later reflected.

Millie, a transgender activist from Guyana made the observation that many LGBT+ individuals who are unable to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity are forced out of the formal employment sector. She noted that discrimination has a significant impact on LGBT+ people’s way of life. Because “we do not have secure housing, secure finances, or secure livelihood,” LGBT+ persons are vulnerable, she explained. 

I have been reflecting on these experiences and all the legal changes the English-speaking Caribbean has seen over the past six years while  questioning what these developments meant for the average LGBT+ person who does not have secure livelihood opportunities, secure housing, or secure finances.

The English-speaking Caribbean has experienced a surge of legislative reforms since 2016. In Belize, the Supreme Court in its August 2016 decision on Orozco v. Attorney General accepted the claim that the country’s statute criminalising same-sex consensual sexual contact violated the individual’s rights to privacy, equality, non-discrimination, and freedom of expression. In early 2018, the High Court of Justice in Trinidad and Tobago ruled that the country’s laws criminalising same-sex intimacy between consenting adults were unconstitutional. By the end of 2018, the McEwan et al. v. The Attorney General of Guyana case received a favourable decision from the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). In the McEwan et al. case, a group of poor, transgender sex workers challenged colonial-era legislation that had made cross-dressing illegal since 1893. 

The 2020s continue to see an upswing in legal reforms following two years of a global pandemic. Antigua and Barbuda’s High Court struck down the country’s discriminatory provision criminalising same-sex intimacy in July 2022. St. Kitts and Nevis followed suit in August, and by December, the region saw Barbados decriminalising similar legislation that had previously made same-sex intimacy illegal.

However, writing over two decades ago, Prof. Tracy Robinson, a Caribbean legal scholar and educator, reminded us that although the legislative focus on creating “equality” in laws is not wrong, it can occasionally divert attention away from the daily circumstances of people. In other words, legal equality does not necessarily result in better social and economic conditions for the most vulnerable people. . The recent legal victories for LGBTQ+ communities across the region raise a number of questions in this regard. How are we using these legal victories to benefit people who are most impacted by violence and discrimination in their everyday life? What opportunities do these legal reforms present for us to transform our culture so that LGBT+ persons can live better lives? 

Changing attitudes and perceptions from multiple approache

There is no denying the importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) in promoting the human rights of vulnerable and marginalised people in the region. For instance, organisations like the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), Guyana Trans United (GTU), and the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE), have played a key role in advancing recent  legislative developments. Others, such as the United Caribbean Trans Network (UCTRANS), CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice Trinidad, and SASOD Guyana, have conducted research about the communities they serve and utilise it to advocate for change.

In addition to legislative reform and research, community-based interventions are also necessary to change people’s attitudes and perceptions about  LGBT+ persons and their rights. While the cross-dressing case has made transgender persons more visible in Guyana, GTU’s outreach work shows that they continue to face discrimination from law enforcement and the general public. GTU was able to hold a series of community education sessions on gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual health at the beginning of last year. These discussions have helped increase public understanding of the drivers and manifestations of GBV against trans individuals as well as the current referral systems in Guyana. Recent conversations about gender identity and the protection of transgender people in the region have been led by UCTRANS through their social media platforms. These kinds of community interventions and discussions, led by civil society, can be found throughout the region.  

The significance of civil society-led interventions is that they encourage regular people to have difficult conversations in a manner that legal change cannot. Additionally, some of these interventions are designed to meet people where they are, like their place of work, their community, and spaces of socialisation. It is important to note that the majority of funding for LGBT+ organisations in the region comes from international funders with little to no funding from governments. Civil society across the region lacks sustainable funding yet governments depend on them to provide much-needed social services, support, and education for those most marginalised. 

Across the region, LGBT+ people face discrimination and a lack of protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in workplaces, healthcare, housing, and social services – even in places where there are non-discrimination policies. In Guyana, LGBT+ people continue to face stigma in accessing healthcare even though Guyana has a non-discriminatory Health Policy. GTU has collaborated extensively with the Ministry of Health to educate medical professionals about how discrimination affects the health of vulnerable populations. As a result of these training sessions, attitudes have changed over time, making it easier for members of the LGBT community to get the healthcare treatments they require.

In Trinidad and Tobago, LGBT+ persons continue to face discrimination in the workplace, health care, housing, and access to goods and services, despite the historic ruling in 2018 (which is currently being appealed by the Government). The T&T Equal Opportunity Act (EOA) explicitly excludes sexual orientation (the definition of sex specifically  “does not include sexual orientation”), which means that there is no protection against discrimination. CAISO has long called on the government to amend the EOA to extend protection to the LGBTI+ community. Reckoning with the lack of protection, CAISO offers legal and psycho-social support for LGBTQI+ persons who experience human rights violations, while calling for policy and legislative changes. They have also developed and launched a model LGBTQI workplace policy with training workshops and a toolkit to support organisations that want to create safer workspaces and combat stigma and discrimination in the workplace. Related public education campaigns and support are offered through services and programmes for LGBTQI+ people and communities. 

These approaches make the case  that for legal and policy change to be effective, education and dialogue with the laypersons we encounter must also take place along with continuous professional development training for service providers. 

Adopting a multi-sector strategy that emphasises access to employment, housing, education, healthcare, public goods and services is another way to maintain the legislative gains we have achieved thus far. Using existing human rights laws, legislative gains can be incorporated into other sectors such as health, education, social services, and violence prevention and response, which will allow for their full realisation and enjoyment by all.


Imagining a just future – beyond violence and discrimination

What might a just future look like for the average LGBT+ person? Does it mean decent work and, safe and affordable housing? Does it mean using public transportation without the fear of discrimination? Going to school without being bullied? Feeling safe at a bar while having a good time with friends? The answer is all the above and more.

Everyone deserves to live a life that is dignified and fulfilling. Noone  should be subjected to  violence or be refused access to public goods and services on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. . LGBT+ people deserve to experience joy and a chance to realise their aspirations. The existence of LGBT+ people and the call for inclusion and justice for all do not take away any of the legal rights or protection from any other groups in society.

While e governments and civil society organisations have a part to play in influencing attitudes and behaviour, it is ultimately up to us – the average individual  members of our society – to bring about change. On the basis of our humanity, everyone has a responsibility to treat others  with respect and kindness regardless of the labels they use to describe  their gender or sexuality. Respect and kindness go beyond any intervention the state or civil society groups can ever provide. It is the only way we can reform  societies throughout the region  at the most fundamental level–an evidently difficult task amid a variety of cultural differences.,

There is still hope! The legislative reforms, the accompanying work of civil society organisations, and the advocacy efforts of concerned people mean  a just future is still possible.


Author Profile

Alessandra Hereman is a Trinidad-based, Guyanese trans woman, feminist, and community-based researcher. She is a current student at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) at St. Augustine. I have many dreams. One of my dreams is to have my own house with a backyard that has a kitchen garden and a gazebo. To create a space where I can enjoy warm tea while the aroma of budding tomato plants swells the air, listening to the birds chirping, and butterflies dancing. These are the moments I hope to share with my own family. Everyone deserves to experience joy and have a chance to realise their aspirations.