Bess vs. Equality & Justice

So I recently had a run-in with a magistrate. Sounds exciting right? Wrong!! The experience was equal parts ludicrous and alarming. The utterances that came out of the mouth of this “learned” person were completely disheartening.  This encounter happened on Thursday, March 2 when I appeared at the court to bear witness to Petronella’s case. You’re probably wondering why I was at court and who is Petronella, right? Let me pause my ramble here and provide some basic background information.

Just so we’re on the same page, Petronella is a transgender woman, who dresses in female attire and who has a matter before sitting Magistrate Dylon Bess. The case concerns her and a young man who is accused of assaulting her. She is in effect seeking redress in the matter. On a number of occasions this civilian officer who is supposed to administer the law has denied Petronella and other transgender women access to the court. Why you ask? Well, most simply explained they are denied access to the court because they appear how they identify and how they’re most comfortable – in female attire.

Transgender – adj.: A person who lives as a member of a gender other than that assigned at birth based on anatomical sex. Transgender woman – A person who is born male but identifies as a woman.

According to the laws of Guyana:- Section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act Chapter 8:02: Being a man, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in female attire; or being a woman, in any public way or public place, for any improper purpose, appears in male attire. Fundamentally, what this says is that if you’re a man dressed as a woman for an “improper purpose” or a woman appearing as a man for an “improper purpose”, by law you’re liable to face criminal penalties.

Journey with me …

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In 2009: Seven persons were convicted and fined for violating section 153(1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, which makes it a criminal offence for men to wear female attire and for women to wear male attire in a public place for an improper purpose.

In 2010: The case of Quincy McEwan and others v. Attorney General was filed on the eve of World Day of Social Justice, February 19, 2010, by SASOD and four of the seven persons convicted. The case essentially challenges the apparent uncertainly of “improper purpose”.

In 2013: The Honourable Chief Justice (Ag.) at the time, Mr. Ian Chang delivered his judgment in Quincy McEwan and others v. Attorney General and highlighted that cross-dressing in a public place is an offence ONLY if it is done for an improper purpose. What he really said was this: “It is instructive to note that it is NOT a criminal offence for a male to wear female attire and for a female to wear male attire in a public way or place under section 153(1)(xlvii). It is only if such an act is done for an improper purpose that criminal liability attaches. Therefore, it is not criminally offensive for a person to wear the attire of the opposite sex as a matter of preference or to give expression to or to reflect his or her sexual orientation.”

This is all excellent but we’re still unenlightened as to what really is meant by the term “improper purpose”. Since, nobody really knows the parties appealed the ruling to an effort to garner some clarify on the terminology employed in the statute.

In 2016, the case was called, heard and adjourned for a final judgment to be handed down in 2017. Fast forward to February 2017, the then Chancellor of the Judiciary, Carl Singh in handing down the judgment reiterated in full the interpretations of Ian Chung in this 2013 judgment; repeating that cross-dressing is NOT illegal UNLESS it is done for an IMPROPER PURPOSE. The “improper purpose” is left up to the judgment of the magistrate he said. The case was dismissed. Dismissed meaning that the court has again declined to define for the purpose of those affected the meaning of “improper purpose.”

Now, let’s go back to March 2 and my run-in with Magistrate Bess. Petronella was clad in a long flowing maxi skirt and a blue jersey. What’s improper about that? Nothing! Okay, let’s continue. I was called into the court by a former colleague of mine just as the Magistrate was approaching the bench. The court was empty. He heard us speaking and decided to share his two cents on the matter.

He noted that he finds it extremely distasteful for a man to be dressed as a woman and that it is also scandalous and disruptive to this court (after attending court on three separate occasions to witness this same case I am yet to see how the court was disrupted even once).

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This statement I found to be awfully alarming from someone holding such an office. He basically said that because the February 27 appeal case was dismissed, cross-dressing is illegal and Petronella will not be allowed in court. His interpretation of everything caught me by surprise, since the former Chief Justice, Mr Chang, underscored explicitly that the mere wearing of any particular attire is not a criminal offense. I try to always be outfitted in pants to witness this particular case just to underscore the inequitableness of it all (I was wearing a dress on this last occasion though).

I completely understand personal opinions and values, but as officers of the law and public officials we must be extremely careful not to allow our personal beliefs to hinder the effectiveness of the jobs we were allowed to do. Is accessing justice the improper purpose in this matter? It is troubling to know that he seems to not be aware of the facts surrounding cross-dressing and is just using his own prejudices to deny access to individuals turning to the court for protection and redress. Moreover, what’s equally disturbing is the way young lawyers are also professing their undisguised prejudices and lack of knowledge about the legality of cross-dressing in Guyana. Some of the comments on Facebook are both cringe-worthy and unbelievable.

Just the day before the unnerving comments by Magistrate Bess, persons around the world joined to observe Zero Discrimination Day. This year there was a strong call for people to value and embrace diversity. It’s important of us to understand, open our minds and respect people’s differences. To be real, many might refuse to understand or open their minds but what’s actually important is that we learn and live to respect each other.

Respect and good vibes x

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