BELIZE CITY, Belize — As a growing number of US gay couples exercise their new right to legally wed, here homosexuals wait for the day when they're no longer criminalized for being gay.
This tiny Central American nation is one of numerous member states of the Commonwealth — former British colonies from Tonga to East Africa — where colonial-era laws banning “buggery” (sodomy) and “gross indecency” remain in effect.
Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code mandates up to 10 years in jail for anyone convicted of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal.”
Meanwhile, immigration laws here bar gay foreigners from even entering the country.
Although prosecutions are rare, that legal status has kept the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community living in the shadows and may even encourage homophobic violence.
But now Section 53 faces an unprecedented court challenge over its constitutionality as an alleged human rights violation of LGBT Belizeans.
After hearings in May, Belize's Supreme Court is expected to rule in late July or early August on the lawsuit brought by Caleb Orozco, who heads local gay rights group the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNiBAM).
The International Commission of Jurists and the London-based Human Dignity Trust, which campaigns to decriminalize homosexuality around the world, are backing the suit.
Former British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith is one of the lawyers arguing the groundbreaking case on a pro bono basis.
Anti-apartheid hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu — an Anglican archbishop — has also submitted a supporting statement comparing Section 53 to the racist system he once dedicated his life to overturning.
Whatever the court's ruling, the case is then likely to head to the Caribbean Court of Justice, based in Trinidad & Tobago, the region’s highest judicial authority.
The government and the country’s Anglican, Catholic and evangelical churches oppose scrapping the law.
“The people making the most noise are the evangelicals,” Orozco told GlobalPost. “The people defending this law are not a reflection of society or culture in Belize. They just think they are.”
Orozco has paid the price for standing up for his rights as the country’s leading gay activist. Over the years, he has had a beer bottle smashed in his face, necessitating surgery, his car has been vandalized, and he has received numerous death threats.
The loudest voice defending Section 53 is Scott Stirm, an evangelical pastor originally from Texas who heads conservative Christian group Belize Action. He’s calling for a referendum on the issue.
He claims to condemn the violence against LGBT Belizeans but, in an interview with GlobalPost, it did not always sound that way.
At one point, Stirm even suggested that Orozco had brought the bottle attack on himself by deliberately walking down a “dangerous street known to be full of gangbangers.”
He believes most Belizeans back him, and he might just be right. There remains widespread confusion here about homosexuality, including the popular misconception that all gays are prone to commit child abuse.
That ignorance is encouraged by the campaigning of Stirm and other religious activists, gay rights campaigners say. The pastor insists that homosexuality is “risky behavior” and accuses Orozco of demanding “special rights” for the gay community to spread “propaganda” in Belize’s schools.
“Incest is against the law and that happens in the privacy of people’s homes,” the pastor added. “I have a friendship relationship with many homosexuals and they have told me that Caleb Orozco is making life worse for them by stirring up this issue.”
Although Orozco plays down the violence, he does believe that Section 53’s effects on Belizean society are deeply corrosive.
“It is mainly psychological or verbal, rather than physical attacks,” he said. “Unless you are prepared to deal with that, most people prefer to be discrete about their sexuality, and they even lie to family and friends.”
Jonathan Cooper, of the Human Dignity Trust, added: “If you are in a jurisdiction that criminalizes your sexuality then you are an un-convicted felon and with that goes vulnerability and stigma. People will not have you as their tenant or give you a job, or you are bullied at school.”
The legal discrimination does not just affect locals. Section Five of the Immigration Act of Belize bars entry to “any prostitute or homosexual or person who may be living on or receiving or may have been living on or receiving the proceeds of prostitution or homosexual behavior.”
In a separate case before the Caribbean Court of Justice, Jamaican activist Maurice Tomlinson is now challenging that ban.
But Belize is so diverse
A laid-back tourist destination, especially for scuba divers checking out its spectacular reefs, Belize is ironically in some ways a model of tolerance.
Racial tension is these days virtually unknown here although the population of 300,000 is a melting pot of ethnicities, including indigenous Mayan, Afro-Belizeans speaking Creole or Garifuna, and immigrant communities hailing from Taiwan to the Middle East.
But, according to Cooper, Belize is also one of 42 British Commonwealth members — out of a total of 54 — that still outlaw homosexuality, including 11 of the 12 Caribbean members.
Legislators in London imposed the laws in the late 19th century, but in the UK the equivalent legislation was taken off the statute books in 1967. (Several US states still have anti-sodomy rules in writing even though America's Supreme Court struck it down a decade ago.)
Other European imperial powers, such as France, Belgium and Portugal, did not share Victorian Britain’s obsession with supposedly aberrant sexual behavior, Cooper added.
Yet the situation is slowly changing. One Commonwealth country that has recently struck down laws criminalizing homosexuality is India. (To see an interactive map giving the current legal status of homosexuality around the world, click on the link at the top of the Human Dignity Trust home page.)
But homophobia remains deeply rooted in much of the Caribbean, according to Colin Robinson, of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS), based in Trinidad & Tobago.
Few countries in the region host even embryonic public gay events such as pride parades. And Honduras and Jamaica are two countries where homophobic attacks can be particularly brutal, although Robinson is careful to point out that that is also a reflection of generally high levels of violence in those two countries.
And through the years, globally recognized performers of Jamaica’s dancehall style of reggae, such as Buju Banton — whose 1990s hit Boom Bye-Bye glorified murdering gays — have reveled in extreme homophobia.
Dancehall lyrics have attracted international condemnation. But believing progress in the region must be driven by locals, Robinson notes: “You have to love Jamaica, or the Caribbean, in order to change them.”
That is exactly what Orozco is now attempting to do.