PNCR, GAP MPs free to vote conscience on gay rights bill
By Johann Earle
Stabroek News
June 11, 2003

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The PNCR will allow its members to vote their conscience on the controversial Constitution (Amendment) Act of 2001 which seeks to prevent discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and other grounds.

A number of religious organisations are opposed to the passage of the bill because it includes sexual orientation as one of the grounds. They are concerned that it could lead to a legalisation of homosexual relations and demands for recognition of gay marriages among other things.

PNCR Member of Parliament (MP) Vincent Alexander told a forum at the National Library on Saturday, that the Bill did not seek to legalise homosexuality, but to ensure that persons would not be discriminated against based on their sexual preferences.

He was one of two parliamentarians who showed up - the other being PNCR member, Myrna Peterkin.

The forum was organised by Students Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), a group comprising fifteen students from the University of Guyana which was formed about two weeks ago.

Alexander expects the vote on the bill to come up before the National Assembly in a matter of months.

Paul Hardy, Leader of the Guyana Action Party (GAP), told Stabroek News that his party would not be using the so-called parliamentary whip. He added that GAP took a decision that every member should vote according to his or her own conscience. “We have no right to deny the rights of others based on sexual orientation. [The Bill] will guarantee rights to the homosexual.” GAP is in Parliament as part of an alliance with the Working People’s Alliance. GAP/WPA has two MPs.

The bill was met with rejection from some members of the religious community in 2001 and as a result of this, the President did not assent to it.

In a statement on Monday, the Central Islamic Organisa-tion of Guyana (CIOG) said that it stood in firm opposition to the Bill. The CIOG says the general purpose of the bill may be commendable and that the organisation’s objection is not based on a willingness to promote discrimination. Rather, the CIOG said, it was based on the fact that specific legal protection on the basis of sexual orientation without definition or qualification gives tacit legitimacy to practices which are considered criminal in Islam. “It is foreseeable that such a legal nod of approval (subtle as it may be) of these practices may pave the way for greater social (or even legal) acceptability in the future which, from the perspective of all Muslims including those in Guyana, is an undesirable and sinful outcome,” the CIOG statement said.

At Saturday’s event, Muslim teacher Moulana Mohamed Ali Zenjibari spoke of instances of abuse, discrimination and harsh penalties meted out to gay and lesbian persons in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia and noted that the Quran did not sanction such punishments for homosexual behaviour.

President of the CIOG, Fazeel Ferouz told Stabroek News that a meeting to discuss a strategy with regards to the bill was planned for tomorrow with various religious groups.

Stabroek News tried to get a comment on the issue from the PPP/C but to no avail.

ROAR leader, Ravi Dev said that his party was now having discussions on the issue. ROAR feels that it is an important question which has to do with morality and should be discussed across the country. He added legislators had to be in tune with their constituents on the issue.

SASOD is lobbying for the legislation through the sensitisation of MPs.

Keimo Benjamin, a law student at UG, gave a presentation based on the jurisprudential aspects of the discussion on sexual orientation. He argued that morality should not be the only guiding principle on which to base the laws. Sexual activities between two consenting male adults in private could not be equated with a violation of a person’s rights, he said, making the point that the thrust of his presentation was not whether homosexuality was wrong, but whether it violated the rights of others. He said that the attitudes of some towards this subject were based on preconceived notions and prejudices. He cited studies to show that the suppression of certain perceived deviant sexual impulses in persons might do more harm than good. One Harvard University study of teens who said they were gay indicated that those teens were three times more likely to commit suicide.

Vidyaratha Kissoon, of Help and Shelter, in his contribution on Saturday, expressed his displeasure at the low turnout at the forum and urged the parliamentarians who showed up to take the message to their colleagues. He noted that because of homophobia, the numerical minority was terrified of speaking out against instances of discrimination. Gays and lesbians in Guyana were subjected to ridicule and abuse, and walk the streets at night not looking for sex necessarily, but for the companionship of persons who empathise with them.

During his presentation, Joel Simpson, another member of SASOD, outlined a number of changes made within national jurisdictions that had international implications. One such crucial change was South Africa’s 1996 adoption of a new constitution, making that country the first in the world to expressly include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. It was the first time a developing country had taken the lead with respect to the rights of sexual minorities.

He also said that according to Douglas Sanders, a Canadian jurist, the rights of homosexual, bisexual or transsexual men and women had never been officially recognised by the United Nations, despite the fact that international laws on the issue began to emerge at the close of the Second World War.

Simpson said that under Article 170 (5), as amended by Section 8 of the Constitution (Amendment) (No. 4) Act 2000, the President is required to assent to any bill which is returned by the National Assembly unaltered after a two-thirds majority within 90 days of its presentation to him. To the parliamentarians present, Simpson stressed that the onus was now on them to adequately represent their constituents which include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual Guyanese.

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