Inside Caleb Orozco’s Fight to Overturn Belize’s Anti-Gay Laws
Caleb Orozco fought, successfully, to overturn Belize’s anti-gay sodomy laws. Now there are appeals against the change in the law—and so his fight goes on.
Once, at a speaking engagement, I said to the audience, “I am Caleb Orozco and I love to fight!”
Fighting is what I do: for an education, for my health, for my spirit, and to find solutions to my fears.
I am also aware of the importance of inspiring others, and my desire to see better for all people who live in Belize. I have come to learn that death threats, physical assault, and humiliation will make a victim out of anyone, but it is principle that will allow you to stand your ground.
Belize is a former British colony of around 370,000 people located in Central America that got its independence in 1981. Its history and development from settlement to nation is filled with threats, disruption, and political struggles that had begun in the 1700s.
I feel that history in my DNA, fueled with a desire to fight for transformation that is strengthen with purpose. My fight to overturn the sodomy laws in Belize began in 2007 when I first met professor Tracy Robinson from the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP), who spoke to me about challenging the sodomy law that existed in Belize.
Belize inherited its anti-sodomy law, known as Section 53, from a colonial ordinance banning “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”
Little did I know what it would mean to be the sole litigant in this fight, running a small nongovernmental organization from the foot of my bed, and what political opposition meant. What I did know was that co-ordination, analysis and strategy were required to amplify our community concerns.
In 2009, I wrote the first shadow report on LGBT issues that was submitted to the UN that revealed how the government of Belize viewed the fundamental rights of LGBT Belizeans.
The government felt any effort to change our sodomy law,” required extensive national consultation,” and felt,” it did not have the mandate” to amend legislation, but also that the government was committed to protecting all members of the society from discrimination.
Then I attended the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) that allowed me further access to Belizean diplomatic thinking. That thinking held that LGBT Belizean did not have a serious problem with violence or discrimination and that our government could be absolved of their responsibility to advance anti-discrimination legislation.
What was clear to me was that Belize’s leaders did not think it was important to ensure protection of their own blood against discrimination or violence, so why should they extend protection to anyone else. Knowing that, I reasoned that I could not expect them to stand up for me automatically, on principle, much less execute their constitutional responsibilities under which we are governed.
My campaigning was far from easy. Listening to the former Housing Minster of Works, Anthony Boots Martinez, attack the constitutional challenge against Belize’s Sodomy law, at a 2011 evangelical rally, I got irate.
At the rally, he said, “My position is that God never placed anything on me for me to look at a man and jump on a man. I’ll be clear on it… Why do you think God made a man and a woman? Man has what woman wants, and woman has what man wants, it’s as simple as that. I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep that law!”
Although I heard the prime minister of Belize say at an Independence Day speech that same year, “What the government cannot do is to shirk its duty to ensure that all citizens, without exception, enjoy the full protection of the law,” I learned quickly that when a politician speaks, it is not always about principle and leadership.
When I was campaigning against our sodomy law I was targeted with cyber bullying, and caricatures in the national newspaper to emasculate or dehumanize me to the general public.
In one cartoon, I was pictured in stiletto heels and fishnet stockings, in another, the prime minister’s head was between my legs Gangnam-style. I complained bitterly to my friends that fishnet stockings are not my style, my ankles were too fragile to walk in heels, and my legs would never be open wide for anything that big as I had a bad back.
One of the things I learned while campaigning is that comfort and conviction cannot live on the same block. I chose conviction and prepared myself for all that was to follow.
The turning point in our litigation battle against the sodomy laws was seeing over 200,000 people voting for a national TV news poll around the effort to render our sodomy law unconstitutional in 2013, although official records showed that we only have slightly over 184,000 people who are eligible voters. While the poll was not scientific, it meant that we had successfully triggered national interest in our cause and that Belizeans were taking sides.
We did not need to win the poll question, “Do you support decriminalizing sodomy?” just to show that the evangelical opposition was not in control of the social narrative about LGBT human rights concerns in Belize.
On Aug. 10, 2016, Belize became the first country among CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) to amend its sodomy law to read, “This section shall not apply to consensual sex between adults in private,” and the last country in Central America to declare its sodomy law unconstitutional.
As Jay Michaelson wrote in The Daily Beast afterward, the Belize Supreme Court, 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,” found its anti-sodomy law to violate my human dignity, privacy, and (in forcing me to lie or risk prosecution) freedom of expression.
Opponents trained by the American right-wing group, Alliance Defending Freedom, nevertheless, have sought to derail equality. The government and Catholic Church have challenged the Supreme Court’s decision in a partial appeal and the full decision respectively.
My response to this was: “When a person like me has been marginalized for over 2 decades and live in a state which does not acknowledge my concern, fighting is a normal part of the process. All I can say as claimant, I’m ready for round 2 and let the fight begin.”
Next March, the Court of Appeals will hear arguments as to whether to allow the Catholic Church standing to appeal in its totality the Supreme Court decision and whether the partial appeal, based on concerns about sex and freedom of expression, is an academic exercise or has merit.
I am keenly aware that our last court is the Caribbean Court of Justice which offers finality and binding decisions among CARICOM states. Time will tell if I can win and our opponents become more constructive. Our struggle continues.
Caleb Orozco is an LGBTQ advocate and a Human Rights Campaign Global Innovator.