Ten years ago, when I became a lawyer, I believed that the single most important civil rights issue of our day was racial equality. Over the past two years, a tooth-and-nail fight for gay rights in Belize has broadened my outlook. It has made me understand the need for a truly humanistic approach to ensuring minority rights on a global scale.
While racial relations are still the nemesis of social progress in many countries, the fight for gender equality and gender expression has become the new civil rights struggle—and for good reason.
When deeply ingrained stereotypes and cultural mores exclude gay persons from society in regions like the Caribbean, law itself becomes as essential to eradicating discrimination as it was for America’s Birmingham boycotters 50 years ago.
Belize’s “anti-sodomy law”—part of a vestigial and colonial legal system inherited from the British—is being challenged by one man, Caleb Orozco.
Orozco is an out gay health worker and serves as executive president of United Belize Advocacy Movement, a leading organization that works to eradicate stigma and deliver care and treatment to the LGBT community. His is a David vs. Goliath battle against the government of Belize and the Catholic and Evangelical churches.
The law, which prohibits gay sex, perpetuates a culture of homophobia in which gay persons are expected to “keep their nastiness to themselves,” and where politicians and evangelical leaders compare gay men to people committing acts of incest, bestiality and even murder.
To help even the odds, local attorneys working with the Faculty of Law University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP)—a team of human rights lawyers, teachers and researchers who work to provide pro bono legal services in human rights causes like this—have taken the case. The Supreme Court of Belize will hear their arguments from May 7 through 10.
Orozco took his fight to court in 2010. The road to legislative reform had been blocked from all sides, and not much has changed in Belize since then. Orozco argues that the law, which prohibits gay sex, perpetuates social taboos and a culture of homophobia in which gay persons are expected to “keep their nastiness to themselves,” and where politicians and evangelical leaders with no chagrin compare gay men to people committing acts of incest, bestiality and even murder.
The problems of rights, stigma and criminality have repercussions that go deep into the justice system. According to a local news report in 2011, 78 percent of transgender persons in Belize believed that the law did not protect them, and close to 90 percent of men who had sex with men (MSM) did not trust law-enforcement officials to provide equal treatment under the law. Research has revealed a similar trend in other Commonwealth countries that outlaw gay sex. In addition, many MSM in Belize and other countries fail to seek treatment for HIV/AIDS due to stigma and poor treatment in the health sector.
Only when we consider these violations of the personal dignity of sexual minorities as one of the worst forms of human-rights abuse are we able to stretch the boundaries of our laws to reach the aspirations of our Constitutions. This is a historic moment for Belize, one when civil rights, human rights and democratic governance converge in a way that will force even the most conservative Belizeans to consider what a truly inclusive society would look like.
For me, the heart of the matter is this: When I hear the vitriol being spewed against gay persons in Belize, or the police force’s ambiguous defenses of a law that still has gay persons living in fear, I see the shape of the insidious violence that lies beneath our society. It is the violence that manifests on the face of an abandoned youth. It is the violence in the misogynistic lyrics of the dance hall music we celebrate. Ignored and accepted, it is a threat against freedom and human life.
The suppression of gender identity expression is a form of gender-based violence. When we sanction this violence in our laws, we weaken the fundamental freedoms on which the Belizean Constitution is based. If we don’t speak up against this as women and racial minorities, we put our lives at risk too. And we undermine a humanistic approach to democratic governance.
On May 7, I will stand with Caleb Orozco for the dignity of gay and transgender persons in Belize, and their right to live full lives free from harassment, vilification, violence and stigma.
How do LGBT rights related to your rights, whether or not you are LGBT? Make connections in COMMENTS.