For many people, the Caribbean is the perfect holiday destination with an ideal combination of sun, sea, beaches, and historic sites. One of these tourist destinations is Belize, the former British Honduras, which is fully independent since 1981. A combination of natural circumstances, the climate, the Barrier Reef, numerous islands, excellent opportunities for fishing, safe waters for water sports, snorkeling and scuba diving, and the beautiful flora and fauna, has created a thriving tourism industry in the country.
A few years ago, Belize was already the destination for nearly a million tourists, some fifty percent from the United States. Most of these tourists do not realize that in a number of Caribbean countries the remnants of the colonial sodomy laws are still in place.
In Belize, the Supreme Court has abolished the criminalization of “sodomy” on August 10, 2016 in a landmark ruling in a lawsuit that had been filed in 2010 by gay activist Caleb Orozco. Orozco, who is president of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), challenged Section 53 of the 1981 Criminal Code of Belize.
Section 53 states that “every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for ten years.” Although a precise definition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is missing, this is often interpreted as referring to anal sex between two men or between a man and a woman, irrespective of possible mutual consent.
Orozco argued that the article is unconstitutional and a violation of his rights to human dignity, privacy, equality before the law, and the freedom of expression. Admittedly, this section of the law was rarely enforced, but its presence in the law, the opponents argued, caused adverse effects in Belize’s society in general, while also serving as ammunition for the homophobic rhetoric of the Church. Belize’s predominantly religious population is openly hostile to GLBTs and transgender people, while the social stigma and hostilities are significant. Various denominations have therefore thoroughly thrown themselves in the debate about this section of the law.
The proceedings took place in 2013, and the verdict has now followed about three years later. Orozco argued that this section of the law infringes on the “Protections of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms” guaranteed in the Constitution of Belize. The Chairman of the court, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, endorsed Orozco’s challenge on all counts, and found that the statutory provision infringes the right of dignity, privacy, equality and non-discrimination based on sex. Judge Benjamin also stated that there is no justification based on public morality, that international legal obligations must be respected, and that the law should therefore be amended. Section 53 will now be worded in such a way that sexual acts by mutual consent between two adults of the same sex is no longer punishable.
“The decision today is deeply fulfilling, I am elated for myself, but more so for all of GLBTIQ people in Belize. The Supreme Court set a historic precedent in the country, and in the Caribbean more widely, by upholding the dignity and equality of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. Though I know much has yet to be done to change attitudes in my country, this is a momentous step, and I could not be more proud.
Taking the case to court was a call to action for the GLBTIQ community in Belize and beyond. The community started coming together and organizing, recognizing that standing in silence and allowing injustices to prevail could no longer be the norm. We had support from so many people from within the country and internationally; this victory is all of ours to share. We have won in so many ways; we are stronger than ever before, but we are nowhere near done,” Orozco stated after the verdict.
Judge Benjamin’s ruling is historic as this was the first ever lawsuit filed in the Caribbean against the outdated colonial sodomy laws. It is also the first ruling in which these laws are abolished. Kenita Placide, Caribbean Advisor of the human rights organization OutRight Action International, relayed the hope “that this will contribute to a shift in the Caribbean as a whole, where ten countries still have remnants of colonial sodomy laws. But the laws are only part of what needs to change. We need a stronger movement across the region that can push for a change in societal attitudes. This historic win will push us forward!”
Mary Sjodin, the Deputy Chairwoman of the same organization, added that the fight does not stop at the borders of Belize, but still needs to be fought elsewhere: “The court ruling in Belize means that the number of countries that criminalize same-sex behavior is now down to seventy-two, and hopefully this downward trend can continue. But it is important to remember that laws are only part of what impacts people’s lives - the fight to change societies must continue worldwide and this can only happen with strong GLBTIQ movements.”