07/2013

Eye of the Storm: An LGBT Activist in Belize

Belizean Caleb Orozco has been fighting for the rights of LGBT people in his Central American country for nearly a decade. In 2006, he and a few allies founded the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) to help stem the tide of AIDS in Belize. Four years later, in 2010, Orozco and UNIBAM brought suit in the Supreme Court of Judicature of Belize to challenge the constitutionality of Belize’s draconian Section 53, a criminal statute that bans “unnatural sex” (punishable by 10 years in prison) and is part of Belize’s colonial legacy of British “anti-buggery” laws. The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project with the support of the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, and the Human Dignity Trust. On the other side, backing Section 53, is an alliance of Catholic, Protestant and evangelical Christian churches, as well as Belize’s prime minister and attorney general.

Orozco’s activism has been met with violence and verbal attacks, and the case he filed has roiled highly homophobic Belizean society. Facebook pages dedicated to the controversy overflow with anti-gay rants, as does the Amandala newspaper, which has editorialized savagely against Orozco and UNIBAM. Belize-based pastors Louis Wade Jr. and Scott Stirm, who is affiliated with Phoenix-based Extreme Prophetic Ministries, have accused UNIBAM of trying to bring the gay “agenda” to Belize with the aim of harming children. In addition to Extreme Prophetic Ministries, other American evangelicals have joined the fray, with the U.S. legal group Alliance Defending Freedom reportedly advising the Belizean religious alliance supporting Section 53. All of this has meant that Orozco finds himself forced to live and work out of a heavily fortified office. His situation is so dangerous that his attorney told the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that she wishes she had additional clients in the case because of the very real possibility that Orozco will be killed. Such a murder would not be unprecedented. In Uganda, a country going through a similar battle over laws criminalizing gay sex, a newspaper in 2011 published photos and home addresses of gay men, including LGBT activist David Kato, under the headline “Hang Them.” Twenty-three days later, Kato was murdered at his home.

The SPLC interviewed Orozco about his activism, the dangers he faces daily, and the role of American evangelicals in fomenting hatred in Belize.

Describe your experiences with threats and violence.

About a year ago, I was trying to make my way from the bank when one fellow says, “Tell him faggots don’t walk my street here.” Then a second fellow says, on the other side of the street, “Friend, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I tried to move up to the police substation to try to get away from all that, and then I saw two guys on bicycles in the middle of the street, looking at me. I knew that they were up to no good so I tried to divert into a smaller street. When I did, I saw one of them pass me, and as I was thinking I was safe, a second one came up to me. Knowing that I was on the streets alone, I decided to turn, looking for a bottle or a gun or something. I didn’t see one. And the second I turned my head back, I was hit with a beer bottle that knocked out two of my teeth.

The result of that was intense stress. The stress was so intense that I couldn’t concentrate. I became nauseous.

About a week or so ago, I was going to the bank when somebody started yelling “faggot” and that kind of thing at me. A little later, I was out and some guy made a gesture like he was holding a gun and said, “Bam,” while I was driving past him.

I cannot walk the streets among a crowd any more. I get really anxious. And I remember this parade that was done at either Christmas or New Year’s, where I was trying to get to a bus, walking through a crowd and, every few feet or so, someone would yell, “See UNIBAM there, see UNIBAM there.”

Because of this national debate, quite a few people are not saying “batty-man” [a derogatory term for gay men] or “faggot” anymore. They’re saying UNIBAM.

What inspired you to become an activist in such dangerous circumstances?

I suppose I’m one of those obvious gays. I can’t help that. I realized growing up I would be labeled, criticized and insulted, threatened, even if I wasn’t a public figure.

My realization that social change doesn’t come without sacrifice and a personal cost came about a decade ago, when I attended a meeting on discrimination at the Alliance Against AIDS. I realized that I was perpetuating my own discrimination by remaining silent. So I decided from then on that if I was going to be insulted, threatened or killed, I was going to be insulted as a human rights defender.

Given the situation, how do you protect yourself?

Freedom House [a U.S.-based nonpartisan human rights group] has sent me some money for transportation. I don’t walk in the mornings; I ride a lot. After the attack, I gave up my bicycle and purchased a car, and because I don’t drive, my sister drives me around. She’s exposed to a lot of what I’ve experienced. And my house and office are fenced off, so for the most part I no longer walk very far in the streets.

How has your life changed since you became the de facto spokesman for LGBT people in Belize?

I didn’t feel as vulnerable [before]. I used to have a very clever mouth. I would answer back everything. But over the years, I have learned to selectively answer people and move on.

Now, when I experience insults or threats, my worry isn’t for me. My concern is for my family members, because they are not used to experiencing the hate along with me. My two sisters and my mom, they’re the rock that keeps me standing.

Aside from violence, how does homophobia affect LGBT Belizeans?

The issue of discrimination isn’t just about violence. It’s about losing basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter.

If, for example, you’re living with a family and they don’t agree with who you’re attracted to, you’re likely to lose your house. If you’re in an environment where you are working for a family member, they can let you go.

In education, not every school is horrible, but [there are some] which will penalize you for the way you express yourself.

For the police, the issue of your orientation or your gender identity becomes paramount instead of the crime you’ve been subjected to. They may laugh at you for reporting the crime because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, and you will feel discouraged that the institutional support just isn’t there.

In my mind, these are the social and structural issues that need to be addressed. And our work is made more difficult by the lack of confidence our people have in the justice system. And there is no definition of rape [in Belize] that is inclusive of men, so though gay sex is criminalized, rape [of men] is not.

Can you say what is driving anti-gay hatred in Belize?

The people who are riling up things or speaking up the loudest are the evangelicals. And part of the problem is, because they have a platform on TV stations, it allows them to deliver their visceral message in a way they couldn’t otherwise.

The people from the Alliance Defense Fund [renamed Alliance Defending Freedom in 2012] came down to do some training, and they infused [these anti-gay] ideas. They’re using [anti-LGBT sentiment] as a tool to coordinate or organize and mobilize membership. They’re advancing [the American idea of] dominion theology, which speaks to [religion] controlling politics, business, education, arts and culture.

Beyond the evangelicals cultivating fear, people don’t understand how LGBT people are. And LGBT people are in a Catch-22 situation. If they make themselves visible, they really don’t know the outcome that will be. At the same time, not making themselves visible, they perpetuate their own mistreatment. And [in Latin America] there’s this idea that you shouldn’t violate what a man is supposed to be, that violation is unacceptable.                                            

So things were better before the ADF came to town?

I didn’t feel as insecure. The majority of people had a live-and-let-live attitude toward gays, which is, “Do your thing, just don’t bring it to my house.”

But the controversy really gave people permission to express their hate in a way they didn’t see they had permission to before.

Are there small victories that help you keep going?

I got a package from New York from someone I don’t even know to say, “I admire you and your work.” I don’t know who that is. When I was assaulted, $600 was raised for my transportation needs, from people I didn’t even know. There’s a lot of that. A lawyer from London who wants to help with the legal review. And a woman who wanted to see if she could organize a mom’s march. That was yesterday.

And what are the hardest parts?

Being so public means everybody shies away from you. You have to be really strong and that is the price I pay.

The work continues, but because I’m in the middle of it, I’m not blinded by admiration [for what has been done so far]. I’m blinded my own frustration, because I’m in the middle of something that isn’t moving fast enough.