How does it feel, I asked Belize’s leading LGBT activist, to have finally prevailed in a six-year-long effort to have his country’s sodomy law declared unconstitutional?
“Stressful,” he replied.
At first, I laughed. I’ve known Caleb Orozco professionally for nearly 10 years, and he’s always cut to the quick, throwing shade on those who deserve it while remaining laser-focused on improving the lives of sexual and gender minorities in Belize and throughout Central America and the Caribbean. It didn’t surprise me that only two weeks after the landmark Supreme Court case was decided, he was already focused on the challenges ahead.
But then he went into details. “Everybody thinks that because you win a court decision, the social concerns and threats of violence end,” Orozco told me. “They don’t.”
As the sole named plaintiff in the case, Orozco is now somewhat famous in his small home country. I asked what it’s like to walk down the street. “I get lots of stares,” he said. “People act like they’ve never seen a gay man before—whispering, or an aggressive kind of silence. A smile or laughter that comes out of nowhere.”
Some of the attention has been directly threatening. “I’ve had to install cameras in my office and essentially isolate myself from socializing with a bunch of people,” Orozco said. “That’s part of the process.”
Changing attitudes in a country with entrenched traditions and gender roles is difficult enough, but Orozco said it is complicated by interference from abroad. “We constantly have to confront American fundamentalists who have been perpetrating lies about the case,” he said. “They force us to mobilize even further with dialogue and engagement work in order to accept the decision.”
For example, the Belize Prayer Network, a Dominionist organization affiliated with the National Evangelical Association of Belize (NEAB), has fervently opposed the ruling. It, in turn, is supported by American pastors including John Eckhardt (Stauron Ministries, Maine), Rick Joyner and Jorge Parrott (MorningStar Ministries, North Carolina), and Nick Harris (Living Waters, Kansas).
Notably, NEAB’s vice president is Scott Stirm, an evangelical missionary from Texas. Its president is Lance Lewis, who works for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, which grew out of the U.S.-based InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
“Seeing a white evangelical pastor up on my country’s television news made me mad,” Orozco said. “How is it that foreign pastors come to my country, use incendiary language in my country, and get away with it? I thought they were here to build schools. But apparently they’re here to make the lives of LGBT people difficult.”
I asked Orozco why so many American pastors were focused on Belize, a country of 330,000 that most Americans probably couldn’t find on a map.
“They presume that we’d be easy pickings,” Orozco answered. “Also, they are worried that we can inspire other pan-Caribbean states to decriminalize sodomy, and so they see us as a strategic point to block progress.”
In that regard, the Americans may have been right. Belize is the first country in the region to scrap its sodomy law, and indications are that the Belizean government will not appeal the decision either to Belize’s own court of appeals, or to the Caribbean Court of Justice. Moreover, the language of the Belize Supreme Court’s decision—recognizing the religious and majoritarian opposition to homosexuality, but affirming that constitutional rights are not subject to either—would also be applicable to other countries.
Legally speaking, the decision rested on the country’s constitutional rights to “the dignity of the human person” and to privacy (neither of which is explicitly mentioned in the United States constitution). Like many former British colonies, Belize inherited its anti-sodomy law, known as Section 53, from a colonial ordinance banning “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Although rarely enforced, it symbolically stigmatized and legally threatened gays and lesbians with criminal prosecution, like the sodomy laws at issue in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas.
Citing a South African case holding that “a law which punishes a form of sexual expression for gay men degrades and devalues gay men in our broader society,” the Belize Supreme Court found its anti-sodomy law to violate Orozco’s human dignity, privacy, and (in forcing him to lie or risk prosecution) freedom of expression.
Moreover, because the decision recognized sexual orientation as a real phenomenon, it opens the door to banning discrimination against sexual and gender minorities as well.
Indeed, some of the most contentious aspects of the case—and the reason it dragged on for so long—were about whether anyone could sue in the first place. Until the end, the state argued that Orozco couldn’t sue unless he’d actually been arrested. They failed, but the organization of which Orozco is a part—UNIBAM, the United Belize Advocacy Movement—was demoted to “interested party” because, said Orozco, “the court decided that organizations can’t have sex.” (The case was supported by a consortium of Belize-based and other Caribbean human rights organizations including the Human Dignity Trust.)
Three church networks—Catholic, Church of England, and evangelical—also joined as interested parties, further delaying the case. And now that it is decided, they have threatened to appeal the decision even if the government does not do so.
“We protest this unjust judgment not for our sake,” the Belize Prayer Network said on its website. “We protest for the sake of the little ones. Many little ones will fall into this sin if LGBT promoters push them. And we also protest for the sake of the LGBT promoters themselves. For their sin will be multiplied by every abused child that they push into sodomy.”
Orozco discounts the likelihood of such an appeal, since Belizean law generally bars “interested parties” from appealing if the parties themselves decline. Rather, his focus is on understanding the decision itself. “We have to work very hard to get people to understand constitutional values, basic human rights, and that they exist in a framework of democratic governance process. The fight around the decision isn’t over.”
And Orozco continues to be brave, refusing to leave, refusing to closet parts of himself, and refusing to let up. “I don’t have rich gay men dropping donations in my lap,” he chuckled. “I don’t do much gay respectability politics. I am simply an intellectual, values-based gay man with effeminate gender qualities who is firmly based in the value of integrity, and a philosophical belief that I have a purpose to make a difference through service to others. And that is through leading by example.”
Returning to my first question, Orozco said “I do also feel pride and hope. But I’m in the middle of it, so it’s a lot more stressful.”