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Losing the War to Criminalize Gay Sex in the US, Religious-Right Groups Are Taking Their Fight Abroad

A legal contest in Belize over non-heterosexual sex laws is only the latest in a wider struggle being waged in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America.
 
 
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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. TexasSupreme 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.

 
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