Trinidad transsexual praised for suing state

JOWELLE DE SOUZA, a hero in the gay community, sits in her hair styling in San Fernando, Trinidad, April 16. AP PHOTO, May 14, 2001

In conservative Caribbean, transsexuals fight for rights

SAN FERNANDO, Trinidad (AP) Inside Jowelle De Souza's small beauty shop, she's the master of color and cuts. Outside, she's hailed as a champion of transsexual rights in this socially conservative Caribbean country.

De Souza, who had a sex change operation when she was 19, was recently awarded $5,000 by a High Court judge in an out-of-court settlement to pay for charges of unlawful arrest and police harassment.

She is the first transsexual in Trinidad to sue the state for a violation of constitutional rights. Such suits are rare throughout the Caribbean where sexual minorities often stay silent about mistreatment for fear of reprisals.

"It's one of the biggest problems in our community. It primarily affects transsexual women male to female," said Shannon Minter, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a U.S. organization that gives legal aid to gays, lesbians and transsexuals.

Fe Souza doesn't like to talk about the incident that propelled her to heroine status. Her lawsuit was settled after one of the policemen accused of harassing her, Eric George, killed himself and his wife before a trial could be held.

"Between you and me, it's over with now," said the 27-year-old woman, wearing a sparkly blue dress in her second-floor hair salon.

Police arrested De Souza and charged her with assault in March 1997 after she pushed a photographer. She said the photographer knew all about her past and was taking pictures of her without permission.

De Souza said that after officer George took her to the police station, he and other male officers taunted her for hours about her sexuality.

The men insisted on searching her, even though her identification and appearance indicated she was a woman. They eventually relented but insisted on having a female officer strip-search De Souza.

"There was no legal right to search," she said. "I pushed (the photographer). I didn't assault him with a deadly weapon."

Cases of violence and police harassment far more serious than De Souza's can be found everywhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, said attorney Minter.

Activists point to a record of indifference by the justice system toward violence against sexual minorities. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission says the number of rights violations against transsexuals and transvestites in Latin America is staggering.

In Guatemala, gay rights activists have documented six to 10 murders of transvestites every year between 1997 and 1999. In El Salvador, seven similar killings were reported in 1999 and 12 in 1998. Activists say most of these cases were not seriously investigated and none was solved.

Trinidad and Tobago, a two-island nation off Venezuela, has very few transsexuals, De Souza said, and even fewer documented cases of abuse toward sexual minorities. That's in part because gays and transsexuals are afraid to speak up.

"There is no public voice in the community," said Colin Robinson, a Trinidadian member of Caribbean Pride, a New York-based gay rights group.

Robinson, who now lives in New York, said De Souza's case is significant not just legally but in terms of the public response.

He said he was astonished that some Trinidad media reported the case sympathetically.

"The challenge for sexual minorities in gaining equality in developing countries is not just around legal rights but it's fundamentally about shifting the kind of social spaces that people have to operate in," he said.

Robinson said one reason for De Souza's success was that unlike many transsexuals in developing countries who cannot afford good legal counsel, she was able to hire one of Trinidad's most prominent lawyers the attorney general's wife, Lynette Maharaj.

De Souza said she is no longer afraid of being harassed by police and believes her case should end similar fears by gays and transsexuals.

"I know now that police officers are not going to take that chance again," she said.



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