GEORGETOWN (Reuters) - Guyana's top judge has ruled that cross-dressing by men is not a crime, but some of those affected said on Monday they feared their legal victory would not stop them being arrested.
In 2010 a group of transgender men asked the Supreme Court to strike down laws that left them open to arrest following a police crackdown the year before on male cross-dressers.
Homosexuality and transgender dress have been illegal for decades in the small South American nation, and the crackdown had drawn the criticism of international human rights groups.
The ruling on Friday by Chief Justice Ian Chang said men could now dress in women's clothes - but not for any "improper purpose." It did not say what constituted an "improper purpose," leading to concerns over how it will be interpreted.
"The chief justice was relatively clear that once you're expressing your gender identity it's not criminal for a man to wear female attire," said Quincy McEwan, a commercial sex worker in the capital Georgetown who uses the street name "Gulliver."
"But the law really stifles us because what could be an improper purpose? The trans(gender) community is very worried, and still fearful of arrests in light of this decision."
Guyanese law also prohibits women from appearing in public dressed as men, although they are allowed to wear trousers, and the law appears in a section of the legal code that makes homosexuality a crime.
The chief justice also ruled the police had violated the rights of four men arrested during the 2009 crackdown. But he said he did not believe the law amounted to "discrimination," which would have been in violation of Guyana's constitution.
SASOD, a non-governmental organization which represents sexual minorities, filed the challenge against the law in 2010. It said it would appeal against last week's ruling because it wanted the whole cross-dressing law declared discriminatory.
"I feel the court lost a golden opportunity," said Zenita Nicholson, an executive of SASOD.
A more robust ruling would have shown all Guyanese were entitled to fundamental freedoms, Nicholson said, "including our transgender citizens, who unfortunately will continue to be vulnerable to human rights abuses with this dubious decision."
Reporting by Neil Marks; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman