By Sueann Wickham

Joel Simpson, the esteemed Founder and Managing Director of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), has cemented his position as a well-respected figure in Guyana’s LGBTQ+ rights movement. For more than two decades, he tirelessly fought for LGBTQ+ rights and has a slew of achievements to show for it. Born and raised in Guyana, Simpson’s journey as an activist has been shaped by an unwavering commitment to justice and equality for all.

From his early experiences advocating for constitutional reform to his tireless efforts in raising awareness and fostering acceptance, Simpson has become a beacon of hope and inspiration for the LGBTQ+ community in Guyana.

Simpson’s story began at the Suddie Hospital on the Essequibo Coast, where he was born. However, it was on Bent Street, Georgetown, and during his cherished moments with his grandmother at Johanna Cecelia on the Essequibo Coast, that he developed a profound connection with his Guyanese heritage.

Equipped with his education, which included a Chevening Scholarship in Human Rights Law, Simpson returned to his homeland with an ardent desire to effect positive change.

In a recent interview with the Guyana Standard, Simpson revealed that his pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ rights activism occurred during his law studies at the University of Guyana in the early 2000s. At that time, as Guyana grappled with constitutional reform, Simpson witnessed the objections raised by religious leaders against the inclusion of “sexual orientation” as a protected ground.

Inspired by Dr. Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte, a passionate advocate and his Jurisprudence lecturer, Simpson found his voice and passionately spoke in favour of the amendment. This marked the inception of his transformative journey as an activist.

In the nascent stage of his activism, Simpson encountered numerous challenges, primarily stemming from the lack of information and visibility surrounding LGBTQ+ issues in Guyana. Nevertheless, SASOD Guyana undertook extensive research, while empowering the community to share their stories and enlighten the public.

Simpson’s unwavering commitment to building confidence and fostering a sense of community has resulted in the formation of a vibrant network of individuals ready to speak out and raise awareness. Under his inspiring leadership, SASOD achieved significant milestones, notably the landmark case of SASOD Guyana versus the Attorney General. This groundbreaking ruling by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) declared the law against cross-dressing as discriminatory and a violation of the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. The legal battle led to the establishment of Guyana Trans United (GTU) in 2012, providing crucial support services such as safe housing, entrepreneurship opportunities, and improved healthcare access for trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

In 2018, SASOD hosted Guyana’s inaugural LGBTQ+ Pride Parade, igniting a wave of inspiration throughout the Caribbean region. The event played a pivotal role in fostering visibility and acceptance, while prompting other nations to follow suit.

Additionally, LGBTQ+ community centers have been established, serving as safe spaces that offer support and educational programmes tailored to address the unique challenges faced by the community. Through advocacy efforts, policy changes, and engaging with key stakeholders, SASOD Guyana challenges societal prejudices and promotes inclusivity.

Throughout his remarkable advocacy work, Simpson has achieved significant milestones, including contributing to the decriminalization of cross-dressing, transforming attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, and providing training on gender, sexuality, and human rights to law enforcement agencies. Simpson’s dedication, spanning two decades, has without question, paved the way for a more inclusive society.

Acknowledging the persistent hurdles faced by LGBTQ+ activists in Guyana, including the lack of political will and limited resources, Simpson remains undeterred. Despite collaboration with both major political parties, he acknowledges that progress can be slow. Nevertheless, Simpson continues to persevere, unwavering in his determination to overcome these challenges and advocate for transformative change.

Speaking about the remarkable shift in public opinion over the years, Simpson recognizes the significant changes in social attitudes. He remarked, “Public opinion has undergone tremendous change. We only began measuring social attitudes 10 years ago, but in just a 9-year period, acceptance of LGBT+ people have soared immensely, while hatred has significantly diminished. Though there is still a long way to go, with politicians lagging behind the general population, the social landscape is undoubtedly changing for the better.” But, while progress continues to be made, the evolving attitudes of the general population does offer hope for a more inclusive future.

Highlighting one of the groundbreaking campaigns he spearheaded, Simpson was keen to provide insights on the SASOD Cine Campaign. By showcasing short films featuring personal stories of discrimination and violence faced by LGBTQ+ Guyanese, Simpson and his team effectively brought these issues into the homes of the nation.

Employing various creative strategies, Simpson and SASOD Guyana have fostered awareness and understanding among the general public. Harnessing the power of filmmaking, initiatives such as the annual “Painting the Spectrum” film festival and impactful documentaries have educated and engaged audiences, facilitating a shift towards acceptance and inclusion.

Simpson also acknowledged the demanding and often thankless nature of LGBTQ+ activism. He emphasized also the importance of balancing personal and professional challenges and places great value on self-care as a means of maintaining resilience. Taking breaks, spending time with friends, and prioritizing well-being enable him to continue making a positive impact.

To aspiring LGBTQ+ activists, Simpson offered valuable advice: “_**Get involved and learn from experienced activists who have paved the way. Understanding the history of the movement and seeking mentorship from admired individuals can provide valuable guidance and inspiration.”**_

The selfless activist was keen to share that he is always open to mentoring individuals who share his vision of an inclusive Guyana.

With unwavering determination, Simpson envisions a future where Guyana wholeheartedly embraces LGBTQ+ rights. He foresees the decriminalization of same-sex intimacy and the repeal of discriminatory laws through constitutional amendments and updated anti-discrimination legislation. Simpson also envisions a just and inclusive society, free from hatred and violence.

Joel Simpson’s journey as an LGBTQ+ rights activist in Guyana spans over two decades, characterized by passion, resilience, and unwavering dedication. Through SASOD Guyana and numerous initiatives, he has spearheaded significant change, fostering acceptance and understanding among the Guyanese population. His tireless efforts have paved the way for a more inclusive future, where LGBTQ+ individuals can live their lives freely and without fear.

His story stands as a testament to the power of activism and the transformative impact it can have on society. As Guyana continues its path towards equality, Joel Simpson remains at the forefront, fighting for justice and a better tomorrow.


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