Caleb Orozco walked into the Supreme Court Judicature of Belize, a small Anglophone Caribbean nation tucked into the eastern flank of Guatemala and Mexico, in September 2010. There, he initiated the first challenge in Caribbean history to the criminalization of sodomy, with the support of the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and the Human Dignity Trust.
Orozco is the executive director of the only gay rights advocacy and policy group in Belize, United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM). His supporters hoped his challenge would establish a moral precedent across the Caribbean, pressuring neighboring governments to decriminalize sodomy, as well, many of which are colored by 200 years of British occupation.
Belize, formerly British Honduras, gained independence in 1981, but still carries many of its inherited governing documents—such as, until recently, Section 53 of the criminal code, an artifact of Belize’s colonial past dating back to the 1880s. Section 53 threatened those who engage in “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with up to ten years in prison.
Homosexuality was not illegal, but any sexual act which is not the “sexual congress of a phallus inserted into a vagina,” including oral copulation, anal sex and masturbation, had been. It took three years for the Supreme Court to hear Orozco’s case and another three years later, on August 10, 2016, the nation finally got a verdict. Chief justice, Kenneth Benjamin overturned the anti-sodomy laws after a six-year-long effort. Benjamin ruled that Section 53 of the Criminal Code of Belize contravened constitutional protections of equality, dignity and personal privacy, and ordered that the Criminal Code be amended with the insertion of the phrase, “This section shall not apply to consensual sexual acts between adults,” when challenged that the Belizean constitution must be consistent with international interpretations. The word “sex,” as mentioned in Section 16(3) of the constitution, now includes sexual orientation.
Any kind of sex other than vaginal sex is illegal. So the entire country is filled with unapprehended felons.
The decision, which recognizes sexual orientation as a real phenomenon, paves the way to a total ban on discrimination against sexual- and gender-minorities.
“Any kind of sex other than vaginal sex is illegal,” Orozco says. “So the entire country is filled with unapprehended felons… No police would arrest you for your gender expression, but to be in the closet and be having anal sex with another man—that was illegal. It disproportionately affected the gay community.”
While there is an ostensible ethos of “live and let live” in Belize, a constitution that proclaims the “supremacy of God” as a first principle and the danger of indictment invited harassment, discrimination and violence against the gay community, which had little recourse with no hate-crime laws in place.
“No law on hate crimes, no law on hate speech, no law, no mechanism that addresses discrimination—none,” Orozco says. “And we can’t talk about those things knowing that the government is under siege by the unions—the teachers’ unions, the public service unions demanding a three percent pay raise, a government that has just released an auditory general report that shows corruption in immigration, our government that has links to a gentleman who is allegedly accused of beheading a pastor, a government which has been challenged to our voided disputes with Guatemala, a government that has a physical sharp hold that would affect everything from rising food prices to taxes.”
So, Orozco keeps padlocks on his doors and has four surveillance cameras on his fenced-in home. The fence is topped with broken shards of glass and rusted upturned nails, and his driveway is enclosed with a security gate to deter harassment, though, oftentimes to no avail.
“I learned last night that there were two young people trying to stone one of my cameras,” he says. “Last night. They were trying to stone the cameras that I have on my house that move back and forth to see who is moving on the street. It’s as normal as two decades of harassment should be.”
He doesn’t even call the police anymore because, in a country with a population of 360,000, he sometimes knows who’s throwing the rocks or chasing him with two-by-fours or calling for his beheading.
Last night, they were trying to stone the cameras that I have on my house that move back and forth to see who is moving on the street. It’s as normal as two decades of harassment should be.
“While women may perform or have activities that can be called ‘not natural,’ there is standard practice of dismissing their sexual preferences or turning a blind eye to their sexual preferences because it meets the entitlement needs of men in the system,” Orozco says of lesbians in Belize. “I would say [there are more lesbians out of the closet than gay men] because even when you think lesbians are out of the closet, what they are are the term ‘public secrets.’ Everybody knows they’re lesbians, but no body talks about it. It’s just the hypocrisy of being in a society like ours, that’s all.”
For gay men in Belize, however, harassment is so bad that most do not publicaly identify with the gay community.
“They keep their heads down,” Orozco explains. “They keep their relationships private. They stay out of the crowds. It’s generally a live and let live, but when it’s somebody like me who dared to challenge the system, you’re bound to have violence come your way to ‘put you in your place.’”
Indeed, many Belizeans are trying to put Orozco ‘in his place’—and have been for years, which is why his initial challenge had lasted so long. After the case was initiated, Catholic and the Protestant churches feared that same-sex marriage would be next and, in December of 2011, the Council of Churches organized a “Take a Stand” rally to oppose the UNIBAM case. The Counsel for the Church Interested Parties (CIP) argued in January 2012 that UNIBAM had no standing to bring the case because it had no constitutionally guaranteed rights as an organization. Relying on Section 20 of the Belize constitution, the court denied UNIBAM as a claimant. Finally, in December 2012, Justice Arana made UNIBAM the seventh “interested party”—the same status given to CIP—and Orozco’s case was heard shortly thereafter in May 2013, though not without erupted violence and a slew of death threats.
A morality commission is going to make recommendations to the government policy, which leaves out marginalized populations in that dialogue. The danger is that the government will accept certain recommendations without any regard to the impact on our lives…
Now, even after the 2016 verdict, Orozco’s case is being challenged once again. Weeks after insisting it would not appeal the decision that made sex between consenting homosexuals legal, the Belize government announced that other interested parties may appeal the ruling through September 2, 2016 and rethink the perception of “sex” in the constitution.
“On September 9th, we learned that the government was going to do a partial appeal to seek clarity on the term ‘sex’ and open the door for the Catholic church to seek redress for appealing the whole Section 53,” Orozco explained. “More importantly, we learned on September 9th that the government agreed to form the morality commission with the churches and the Prime Minister’s chair to continue dialogue—over what? God knows. I have been working ever since to reduce the impact of the morality commission.”
The government had until September 16th to file the appeal and it will take about six months from that date for Orozco’s side to be heard once more.
“That should go on for about a year,” he says. “The battle for me really isn’t around the legal case anymore. It’s dealing with the dangerous development of a morality commission that is going to make recommendations to the government policy, which leaves out marginalized populations in that dialogue. The danger is that the government will accept certain recommendations without any regard to the impact on our lives… It means the promotion of discriminatory laws that exclude churches from civil liability when they fire somebody because of their sexual orientation. It allows the church to then further police our fundamental rights to our bodies in a way that it attacks our reproductive rights, which includes access to education, which includes access to economic benefits, which includes, or in this case discourages, the government from implementing hate-crime legislation. These are just examples of the morality commission being a mechanism for further oppression of the LGB population here.”