BELIZE CITY, Belize—The air in the tropical lowlands of Belize is alive with wild parrot squawks and the briny scent of the country’s aqua Caribbean waters. Known to most Americans only as a humid cruise ship stopover, Belize is most often visited for its stunning coral reefs. But what tourists likely don’t know is that this tiny country has become Ground Zero in the latest international battle over the criminalization of LGBT sexual relationships.

For three years, a ferocious legal battle has been waged in this nation of some 356,00 people over a criminal statute that can land men and women in prison for engaging in private acts between consenting adults of the same sex. What’s more, the fight over the constitutionality of Section 53 of Belize’s criminal code, which prescribes a 10-year sentence for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal,” has been joined by hard-line U.S. religious-right groups seeking to keep gay sex illegal in as many countries as possible.

This legal contest is only the latest in a wider struggle that is simultaneously being waged in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. But it is a key battle, and the stakes are high. Overturning Section 53 in Belize could lead to the upending of similar statutes in a dozen countries that also belong to the Commonwealth of former British colonies, particularly those in the Caribbean, where several countries are part of a single legal system that culminates in the Caribbean Court of Justice. It is also part of an even larger international battle, with the United Nations increasingly pressuring nations including Belize to live up to commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that took effect in 1976 and outlaws discrimination of many kinds.

But the exact meaning of that treaty remains in dispute — it does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity — and anti-gay religious groups are fighting hard to deny any “special” rights to LGBT people. A large number of these groups are based in the United States, where the Christian Right is increasingly losing its battle against gay rights, especially since the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case decriminalized gay sex. As discriminatory policies in the U.S. military and elsewhere are discarded and a rapidly increasing number of states legalize same-sex marriage, disheartened U.S. activists are taking their battle against the “homosexual agenda” to places where anti-gay hatred thrives.

And Belize is just such a place. The government is blatantly hostile to LGBT people and is vigorously defending Section 53 in court. Violence aimed at gay people is endemic, according to reports, including one issued this March that also charged that much of that violence comes from police. The country’s immigration code specifically bars LGBT people, along with prostitutes and the mentally ill. The editor of the country’s largest newspaper recently editorialized that he could think of “no more obscene, disgusting, wicked or perverted act” than male gay sex.

The situation is so bad that Caleb Orozco, the LGBT activist who formed the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) and is the plaintiff in the Section 53 case, lives and works out of a fortified office. At a court appearance in May, he was protected by armed guards hired with funds provided by foreign sympathizers. On the road, his car is met with shouts of “faggot” and a hail of garbage, and he has been threatened with death and assaulted in the streets. He is so vulnerable, in fact, that his lawyers worry openly about having Orozco as the only plaintiff in their civil case — they need a back-up in the very possible event of his assassination.

The Case

The challenge to Section 53 was filed on behalf of Caleb Orozco and UNIBAM by the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project, with the support of the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the London-based Human Dignity Trust, in September 2010 in the Supreme Court of Judicature, Belize’s highest national court. Orozco’s lawyers argue that Section 53 violates provisions of the Belizean Constitution that recognize individual rights to human dignity, to not be subject to arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s privacy, and to equal protection under the law.

In the May hearing before Belize’s chief justice, one of Orozco’s lawyers, Trinidadian Christopher Hamel-Smith, argued that Section 53 presents a man like Orozco with “an intolerable choice, which no citizen should ever have to make, to live as a law-abiding citizen by suppressing his sexuality, or abandon all hope of ever living as a law-abiding citizen.” Orozco and his lawyers also have argued that Belize’s anti-LGBT laws are simply leftovers from the laws against “buggery” (anal sex) that were imposed by the British. In essence, they are saying that anti-gay legislation is a remnant of colonialism unrelated to Belize’s native culture.

On the other side is the government, including both the prime minister and the attorney general, and an alliance called Church Interested Parties (CIP). CIP includes the Roman Catholic Church in Belize, the Belize Church of England Corporate Body and the local Evangelical Association of Churches.

Ranged alongside those pro-criminalization forces are U.S. groups and individuals that have rushed to join the fight. A local group, Belize Action, is headed by Waco, Texas-born Christian missionary Scott Stirm, who has railed against the “unacceptable” gay lifestyle, attacked alleged LGBT efforts to “go into the schools and teach our kids their lifestyle,” and claimed that gay tourists come to Belize for “a new exotic location in which to corrupt local youth for a dollar or two.”

Belize Action’s website links to various American anti-gay groups. Most remarkable is its citation of U.S. “researcher” Paul Cameron, who has produced a series of defamatory and entirely bogus “studies” that purport to show the depravity, violence and disease associated with homosexuality.

Another U.S. group, Extreme Prophetic Ministries of Phoenix, lists support for Stirm’s Belize Action as one of its projects. Led by Patricia King, the ministry has been known to pray in mortuaries in an effort to raise the dead. One of its ministers, Caleb Lee Brundridge, reportedly traveled in 2009 to Uganda for an anti-gay conference that helped foment a proposed “kill the gays” law there.

Both groups declined to discuss their activities.

Representing the Haters

Other U.S. groups appear to be taking an even more active role, supporting Section 53 by providing American lawyers. Belize Action’s website has repeatedly said that attorneys supplied by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the New York City- and Washington-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) have joined the court fight. “The Christian Community has obtained the legal services of int’l attorneys Terry McKeegan [of C-FAM], Piero Tozzi and Brian Raum [both of ADF] from CFAM and ADF, International catholic [sic] and evangelical organizations that assist in fighting abortion and homosexuality cases internationally,” said one such post.

ADF and C-FAM did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But there is plenty to back up Stirm’s claim that the ADF has been active. The ADF sends out regular E-mail “Alliance Alerts” updating the battle in Belize. Last December, it highlighted a rally by Belize Action under the headline, “Christians ‘Stand Firm’ Against UNIBAM.” On its website, the ADF says it does international work because “radical international allies” of groups like the ACLU are working to foist a “pro-homosexual agenda” on a variety of countries.  It complains that these groups are pushing for “radical new ‘rights’ that will advance the homosexual agenda, destroy marriage and undermine religious freedom.” In response, the ADF says, it “coordinates, funds, and litigates important cases with our global allies that have the potential to set legal precedents that could silence and punish Christians.” The ADF’s most recent available tax returns show it spent $65,000 on “human rights legal work” in Central America and the Caribbean in 2009 and 2010.

 Moreover, the ADF is on record backing criminalization. It submitted an amicus brief in the 2003 Lawrence case supporting the U.S. sodomy laws that were ultimately struck down. The same year, ADF President Alan Sears wrote a book, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, that complains that “once one state law protecting marriage and regulating sex is found to be unconstitutional, all others are fair game, such as laws against pedophilia, sex between close relatives, polygamy, bestiality and all other distortions and violations of God’s plan.” It described gay sex as “deviant behavior.”

The ADF didn’t change its tune after the Lawrence decision. An ADF “Alliance Alert” in 2011 lauded the passage of a Nigerian law that punishes any LGBT advocacy with 10 years in prison.

Like the ADF, C-FAM is heavily focused on global anti-LGBT work, charging that international law is advancing a “radical social agenda” that needs to be stopped. It has claimed that UN efforts to further LGBT rights will lead to “hate crime charges being brought against Christians” who oppose “the homosexual agenda.” In 2012, its president, Austin Ruse, attacked a UN global study of anti-LGBT violence, saying it was a “dishonest” ploy to legitimize homosexuality. The group also has lauded Scott Lively, an American who is infamous for the claim that gay men orchestrated the Holocaust, and who went to Uganda to speak against homosexuality, lending support to the “kill the gays” bill there.

The Echo Chamber

One of the more remarkable aspects of the battle in Belize is how closely the anti-gay rhetoric employed there resembles U.S. activists’ propaganda.

In its amicus brief in the Lawrence case, the anti-LGBT American Center for Law and Justice argued there is “an extensively documented health risk of same-sex sodomy” and added that a ban on sodomy “permissibly furthers public morality.” The ADF’s Jordan Lorence, in that group’s brief, said the “true objective” of the plaintiffs in the case was to clear a path to further gay rights, such as adoption. Groups including Liberty Counsel depicted LGBT people as diseased, promiscuous and self-destructive. The Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, two of the largest Christian Right heavyweights in the United States, argued that criminalizing gay sex was a good way to protect marriage. “States may discourage the ‘evils’ … of sexual acts outside of marriage by means up to and including criminal prohibition,” their joint amicus brief said.

Many of these U.S. groups have also argued that gay sex is essentially the moral equivalent of incest, bestiality, and pedophilia. They say gay people will live short lives, and that they molest children at rates way out of proportion to their numbers (a particularly egregious, and false, allegation). They claim that school anti-bullying programs are subterfuges for LGBT people to “recruit” new partners. And, basing their argument on the idea that being gay is a choice, they assert that because gay people cannot “reproduce” biologically, they must go out and convert straight people to homosexuality to maintain their numbers.

All of these arguments are alive and well in Belize.

An ad published this May in Belize’s largest newspaper warned that overturning Section 53 would result in moral decadence, same-sex marriage, and the loss freedom of speech and religion. The ad was paid for by the Militia of the Holy Spirit, run by Belizean evangelical and anti-gay activist Louis Wade Jr.

The CIP, the alliance of Belizean churches, has circulated a pamphlet contending that gay people are “after the kids,” and want to “lower the age of consent” for sexual activity. It also reiterated the longstanding U.S. argument that “homosexuals cannot reproduce; therefore, they must recruit.”

The Rev. Canon Leroy Flowers, president of the local Council of Churches and head of the Anglican church in Belize, made similar arguments at a 2011 forum put on by Belize Action, according to Amandala, Belize’s main newspaper. “They’re after the kids,” he said. “The UK [United Kingdom] approved same-sex marriage years ago; now they’re having court battles to lower the age of consent.”

In documents filed in court by the CIP, homosexuality is described as “morally repugnant,” “socially undesirable,” and akin to “incest, prostitution and drug use.” And then the CIP makes an argument that clearly originated elsewhere — that the whole Section 53 case is part of an assault by “cultural Marxism.”

The irony is rich. The vast majority of Belize’s population is not white. Yet the idea of cultural Marxism was cooked up by American white supremacists to describe a convoluted leftist conspiracy to manipulate white-dominated societies into expanding rights for people of color, women, LGBT people and others.

To some Belizeans, the derivation of this rhetoric is obvious. “This is all a foreign influence,” said the head of a local foundation who did not want to be named. “These arguments are not from here. They start with pedophilia, and then, ‘They are coming after your kids.’ It’s just about instilling fear about gays.”

Fear and Loathing in Belize

The more terrifying fear in Belize is that experienced by LGBT people.

According to a 2011 local news report, almost 90% of “men who have sex with men” say they do not receive equal legal protection. Another report, this one released in March by the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, found that LGBT people in Belize are routinely subjected to violence, some of it coming from law enforcement officials. It cited the bludgeoning death of an openly gay Guatemalan doctor and the murder of a politician’s gay brother.

The country’s leading newspaper, Amandala, has played a particularly noxious role. In May, Editor-in-Chief Russell Vellos wrote that “homosexuals prey on children and teenaged boys” and went on to describe the “evil” acts that “one man could do to another.” “Get up and help fight this evil in our midst,” Vellos said. The paper’s comment section echoed Vellos’ fury at gay people. “Let them burn!” one poster said. “Let the sharks eat their body parts,” said another.

As the latest hearing in the case opened this May, Amandala ran a screaming front-page headline that played off UNIBAM’s name: “BAMers go to bat today.” The headline was an ugly joke. The phrase “batty boy” is often used in Caribbean countries as a slur for gay men.

The Internet, too, is alive with calls for Orozco’s assassination and other threats.

The idea that a killing could be provoked by such talk is not so far out. After all, it happened in Uganda, where a similar battle over the criminalization of homosexuality has been raging for several years. In 2011, a newspaper in Uganda published front-page photos and the home addresses of gay men, including LGBT activist David Kato, under the words “Hang Them.”

Twenty-three days later, Kato was murdered in his home.

There is virtually no sign of official concern for the fate of Orozco or other LGBT people in Belize. Prime Minister Dean Barrow has vowed to defend Section 53 and slammed President Obama for opposing the criminalization of gay sex. There is not a single major political party or political figure that has come out in favor of overturning or even moderating the country’s draconian statute.

The tone of Section 53’s defenders has been hair-raising. Louis Wade Jr., who runs the Militia of the Holy Spirit and is a close ally of Texan Scott Stirm, said in a May video that the case was about opposing the “false god of carnality.” “Mark my words, it starts with one lawsuit… . If they get their way … the final set of mass litigation will be against people who stand up and say that this … is wrong.” Stirm was blunter, saying the case is part of “an orchestrated plan of demonic darkness to dethrone God from our constitution and open massive gateways to demonic influences and destruction.”

Through it all, the UN has been paying attention. This March, the UN’s Human Rights Committee called on Belize to review its constitution and legal code “to ensure that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are prohibited.”

The global debate over the criminalization of gay sex is increasingly splitting conservative U.S. Christians, who as a group say they are espousing a theology of love, not hate. Many Christian groups, like the ADF, are becoming increasingly hard-line, albeit it only out of the public eye. Others have moderated, although even some of those seem torn. Focus of the Family, for instance, has noticeably moderated its anti-gay rhetoric in recent years, and yet the group’s vice president of government and public policy, Tom Minnery, sits on the board of the pro-criminalization ADF.

In Belize, the debate is not academic. Caleb Orozco is hunkering down, awaiting a court ruling that is expected in August, though there is much to suggest that he will lose the case. If so, he says, he and his lawyers intend to appeal it to the next level and, ultimately, to the Caribbean Court of Justice. The hope, perhaps forlorn, is that the Belize case will become a landmark.

“Everyone in the Caribbean is watching the case closely,” Orozco said. “Our LGBT friends want to know how to succeed.”