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Tuesday 18 December 2018
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Commentary

Is justice for one, justice for all?

Diary of a mothering worker

Entry 309

DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN

IN THE Caribbean, we have a way of dividing ourselves from each other, and from each other’s struggles. What if, instead, we thought that each of these struggles nurtured better chances for fair treatment for others. How might that make us invest in each other’s pursuit of rights, even when they seem at odds with our biases, differences or fears?

It’s a good question to ask in response to last week’s historic ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Four Guyanese transwomen, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, spent almost ten years challenging a charge and fine for “wearing women’s clothing for an improper purpose” in a public place. They spent four nights locked up for this minor crime. They pressed on despite the prejudice of the trial magistrate who lectured them about being confused about their sexuality and their status as men, and urged them to go to church.

This wasn’t the first time they had experienced the painful edge of a post-emancipation law, established in 1893 as another oppressive act of legal coercion. Such vagrancy and loitering provisions aimed precisely at denying freedom to Africans regarding their bodies, labour, gender, intimacies, religion and rights.

Indians, Chinese, Portugese and others were also in Caribbean colonies by this time, with their own intersections of gender, sexuality, class and religion. All were now also brought again under the iron fist of colonial authority and its limits on our fundamental desires to be respected as self-determining individuals and, despite formidable hurdles, to be free.

Imagine for a second, then, that Gulliver, Angel, Peaches and Isabella showed unbelievable valour to end another vestige of colonial authority that continued to sharpen its blade right up until the 21st century. Imagine that, in doing so, they didn’t win a victory just for themselves or for transpeople or for gender diversity.

Step out of your biases, fears and framework of us and them for long enough to also see that their struggle edged forward free Caribbean people’s resistance to colonial rule, discriminatory laws and dehumanising policing practices.

The highest Caribbean court struck down Guyana’s cross-dressing law, arguing that it violates the Constitution of Guyana and is void. It found that the law invalidly criminalised intentions, not proven actions. It illegitimately defined some forms of clothing as objectionable. It lacked sufficient clarity for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited. It gave police wide and almost arbitrary discretionary powers, creating real risks of victimisation. It treated transgender and gender non-conforming people unfavourably because of their gender expression and gender identity. Finally, the CCJ affirmed the validity of inclusion of advocates and social justice movements as interested parties.

The judgment affirmed a powerful promise that those most poor, marginal or powerless could, nonetheless, legitimately expect the system to defend them. As CAISO director Colin Robinson put it, “This is an historic ruling, particularly because it was brought by working-class, transgender women who had the bravery and courage to seek justice from a system that does not usually work for them.”

Haven’t so many, particularly among the working classes, looked around and felt as Isabella Persaud, one of the appellants, said? “We are always treated like trash.” Their cause shares ground with Hindus, Muslims, Spiritual Baptists, Rastafarians, and poor Indians and Africans around the region who have turned to the courts for protection against being unfairly targeted or denied equality, respect and inclusion.

To quote Justice Saunders, newly appointed president, “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

This line, and its logic, is one with which we all can agree, for it speaks not just to these four Caribbean citizens, but to each of us, and an ideal we surely must enshrine as necessary. Justice, however, isn’t only won in the courts. It’s also won in our nod to each other’s humanity in the streets. AS IGDS lecturer Angelique Nixon acknowledged, “as important as laws are, we also have to work to transform the culture to create more acceptance and tolerance” locally and regionally.

Regardless of who is expanding our access to justice, but especially when they are poor, working class and beyond the pale of respectability, being Caribbean requires us to value the victory of those creating our regional future of greater justice and equality.

motheringworker@gmail.com

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