When Maurice Tomlinson heard his son had made it to the spelling bee championships, he wanted to witness the 12-year-old take the prize. But his sexuality got in the way.
The 43-year-old Jamaican-born father wanted to visit his son in Belize but knew he'd be breaking the law if he tried. In a statute dating to the 19th century, during the country’s colonial past, homosexuals are lumped in with prostitutes, the “mentally deficient” and the “deaf and dumb,” all of whom are prohibited from entering the country.
Tomlinson could have tried for an exemption but decided against it. “Do I go and break the law and compromise everything I stand for?” he said, describing his frustration.
Belize is among 11 Caribbean countries that have anti-sodomy laws where men can face up to 25 years or even life imprisonment for having anal sex with other men. Almost half of the countries have laws that prosecute women for having same-sex relations, and at least two have immigration laws that ban gay people from entering the country.
“We are now at the stage the U.S. was 40 years ago,” Tomlinson said, referring to the current climate toward gay rights in the Caribbean.
While the laws are not normally enforced with jail time, activists say they are commonly used to marginalize those in the gay community.
“The law is used to extort gay men,” Tomlinson said, pointing to instances where police see men in a “compromising position” and demand bribes in exchange for silence. Tomlinson, a Jamaican attorney, says he’s heard of several instances in Jamaica where police have driven men to ATM machines and made them withdraw the maximum amount the machines would allow.
Caleb Orozco, 39, executive director of United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), said he has witnessed similar episodes in Belize, his homeland. As the only visible activist in Belize, he has been engulfed in a three-year court battle to abolish the former British colony’s anti-sodomy law.
“They don’t want to put any attention on themselves and let their mistreatment slide,” he said of episodes in which individuals have allegedly faced discrimination based on their sexual orientation, but whose complaints never proceeded beyond initial reports. Orozco points to Belizean cases he knows of where a teacher was fired for his sexuality and another of a person accused of “transgender expression” who wanted the case dropped and “no trouble.”
Charlene Smith, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and author of the academic paper “Homophobia in the Caribbean: Jamaica,” explained that silence is key to surviving as a gay person in some Caribbean communities. “If gay people act right, they don’t get focused on. It’s only when they are flamboyant and show affection in public do they get focused on,” and harassment ensues, she said.
Jamaica, which was dubbed “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth” by Time magazine in 2006, remains a hotbed for anti-gay thought and violence, she said. Smith points to instances where gay men frequent “Hooters-like” establishments in Jamaica to “watch shows alongside straight men” to keep their sexuality a secret. In the cases of lesbian women, there have been reports of “correcting rape” where women are raped by men to “cure” them.
The recent death of Dwayne Jones points to such violent instances. The 16-year-old was killed in July after he was seen cross-dressing at a party. He was spotted dancing with a man while wearing women’s clothes and a mob reportedly “chopped and stabbed him to death” for it.
While Jamaica’s justice minister condemned Jones’ brutal death, pointing to the need for tolerance toward those who “manifest a lifestyle that differs from the majority of us," most of the country continues to harbor negative feelings toward the gay community.
In a 2012 national survey, 46 percent of the study’s participants felt “repulsion” toward homosexuality, while just 5.6 percent felt “acceptance” toward those who identify as being gay. Both figures had increased by 6.4 and 2 points, respectively, compared with a similar survey conducted in 2011.
In Trinidad and Tobago, 36 percent of the population identifies as being homophobic. But unlike in Jamaica, 57 percent of the country claims to be “tolerant” or “accepting” of the gay community.
“Trinidad and Tobago's culture is one of multiethnic and multi-religious diversity, where prejudice and public accommodation coexist,” said Colin Robinson, executive director of the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation in Trinidad and Tobago. While the nation doesn’t have a history of public violence related to homosexuality, as Jamaica does, nor does the country’s Soca music promote anti-gay speech, as dancehall music does, Trinidad and Tobago has become a “target for the export of U.S. fundamentalism and ex-gay ministry” that keeps homophobia alive, Robinson said.
Jamaica and other former British colonies in the Caribbean that inherited colonial anti-sodomy laws have become fertile ground for homophobic thought for several reasons. Smith points to the prevalence of hate speech found in Jamaican dancehall music, cultural values drawn from Caribbean countries’ colonial pasts, and Christian evangelical proselytizing as “tendrils” that have reduced tolerance for homosexuality “that was already there.”
“I think it’s awful because it’s been popularized,” Smith said of the homophobia in Jamaican popular songs that call for the deaths of gays. “Forty years ago we didn’t have pop singers singing anti-gay songs with horrible rhetoric,” she said, comparing the current situation in Jamaica to the attitude towards the gay community in the United States. “Our music, arts, culture for at least 40 years has been openly gay friendly. That’s not the case in Jamaica.”
The most notorious example of this took place with the 1992 release of Jamaican Buju Banton’s smash hit “Boom Bye Bye.” Sung in Patois, the song’s lyrics describe killing “batty boys,” a slang term for gay men: “Boom [the sound of a gunshot] bye-bye. In a faggot’s head,” the song starts. “The tough young guys don't accept fags. They have to die.”
But dancehall music is just a symptom of a larger problem, Tomlinson said. “All Jamaicans went to church, heard homophobic rhetoric on Sundays and wrote what they knew -- producing homophobic songs,” he said. Jamaican churches, which are primarily evangelical Christian, are “more fundamental than radical,” Tomlinson said. Their views towards fringe issues like homosexuality are heavily influenced by American religious groups that see same-sex relations in direct conflict with biblical principles that describe homosexuality as immoral, unnatural and wrong.
“The local evangelicals are parroting what was said by American televangelists of the 1980s and 1990s,” Tomlinson said. “This is typical of what’s happening in the Caribbean.”
In a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., six American religious groups including Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance for Defending Freedom and United Family International were cited as anti-gay Christian groups that have spread their message in some capacity -- whether financially, socially or politically -- to foreign countries in the Caribbean.
“They have pulled in Christian rights groups in the U.S. to show that homosexuality erodes morals in society, to show that homosexuality can be cured. TV ads have done a good job propagandizing the case,” Orozco said about the situation in Belize.
While the six groups listed in the report did not comment on the issue, Belize Action, a religious group founded by American pastor Scott Stirm, described their position toward the organizations that seek to amend Belize’s law.
“In a nutshell, this issue is not about the bedroom as much as it is about the classroom! The goal is to legitimize their lifestyle, get it into the curriculums in school, indoctrinate the children, all this while classifying it as a ‘human rights’ issue,” a spokesman for Belize Action emphatically declared. “Two foreign groups have helped some with counsel and strategy because this is an international battle. They’ve seen what works in other countries and other regions and have helped in that way. Their financial role has been minimal.”
But the so-called “religious-right organizations” in the U.S. aren’t the only American groups involved in the gay rights fight abroad. Several human rights organization from Western countries such as the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Human Dignity Trust -- all of which have joined Orozco’s case as interested parties -- have become involved in the cause. And neither side -- the religious or LGBT groups -- is enthusiastic about the idea of Western influence in their domestic affairs.
Robinson, whose organization has worked with American groups, said while he admired the work SPLC has done, he admits involvement from gay rights groups abroad “can often hurt the domestication and national ownership of LGBT inclusion in the Global South by making it seen as a similar export.”
Smith agrees. “Home grown is best,” she wrote in her paper. “One of the best ways to get change is for it to come from the inside.” She points to New York City’s Stonewall uprising in 1969 as an example of how a grassroots community enacted change. “Slowly but surely the same will happen in the Caribbean,” she said, pointing to the few who have jeopardized their own safety by demonstrating support for gay rights.
Orozco finds himself in the same predicament. After being assaulted on the street, he experienced a home invasion and hate mail including a video death threat entitled “kill the asshole,” his own lawyer expressed concern for additional clients to be included in the case because Orozco faces the “very real possibility” that he will be killed.
“LGBT people are in a Catch-22 situation,” Orozco said. “If they make themselves invisible, they really don’t know the outcome that will be. At the same time, making themselves visible, they perpetuate their own mistreatment”
In some ways the cultural climate surrounding gay rights is very much homegrown. Despite the fact that both the Church of England and the Vatican have denounced the criminalization of homosexuality, leaders from both denominations in the Caribbean continue to spread anti-gay sentiment.
“It’s called ‘stay the course’ and don’t be distracted by what different branches who have abandoned biblical foundations for church say or do in their compromised states,” a Belize Action spokesman said about the apparent contradiction, pointing to England as an example of how changing church doctrine has led to a liberal society that allegedly goes against biblical principles.
For Belize Action, which wants the country’s anti-sodomy law to remain in place, homosexuality’s immorality is evident in statistics taken from “gay friendly websites” that show “homosexuals have a lower life expectancy, higher suicide and depression rates, higher STD rates, higher chemical addiction and substance abuse rates” than the straight population.
Similar arguments are held by evangelical groups in Jamaica, where homosexuality has been linked to earthquakes like the one in Haiti, the eventual extinction of mankind, and how it is an “imported Western thing” that can lead to disease, Tomlinson said, describing language he has seen preached.
“If you do a study in areas where evangelicals have imported their thoughts by proselytizing, it will show they have been fairly successful at convincing religious communities that homosexuality is an anathema,” Smith said.
In Belize, a non-binding gender policy exists aimed at gender equality. A revision added this year to the United Nations funded document titled “respect for diversity” describes equality for individuals from different sexual orientations. A separate section suggests the expansion of health care services for men who have sex with men. Both items have been a source of heavy debate for religious leaders and a frequent subject for protests in major cities throughout the country.
But the Belizean anti-sodomy law has remained virtually the same since the 19th century: "Every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years".
Like other anti-sodomy laws around the world, Belize’s Section 53 stems from British imperial rule where sodomy or “buggery” with consent and bestiality were considered "public nuisances." In England, most historians believe the legislation came into effect from a 16th century act that called buggery a “detestable and abominable vice” that was punishable by life imprisonment.
As England began to explore and conquer, this act was extended to its colonies over concern that the naval fleets will become “contaminated” by the new cultures they were encountering. The Caribbean colonies, being close to the equator, made the British even more wary, Smith said. “Heat, according to British lore, promoted promiscuity and certainly the potential for same-sex activity,” she wrote in her paper.
Once slavery was abolished in countries like Jamaica, and independence eventually gained -- the rigorous British infrastructure remained in place to ensure the freedom gained by revolution “wouldn’t fall at the seams,” Smith explained. A culture dominated by the idea that “men have to be macho and women subservient” was established that permeated culture and laws, Smith said.
This legacy is what remains on the books in former British colonies. But laws need a social structure or mechanism in place to support them, Orozco says. This is what’s missing in these former colonies and remains a large impediment towards removing discrimination based on sexual orientation. “There implies the work,” Orozco said.
Orozco points to other Caribbean countries that have remained under British rule such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Anguilla -- all of which legalized same-sex activity in 2001 after the British government unilaterally repealed local laws against homosexuality. Similar laws were repealed in French and Dutch territories.
While the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in June that bolstered same-sex marriages in the country, it was only in 2003 that the court struck down the anti-sodomy laws that existed in several states.
“We’re way behind places like Canada and in Europe,” Smith said referring to gay rights around the world. According to ILGA Europe, a group that studies equality for LGBTI people, the United Kingdom ranks the highest out of 50 European countries in terms of respect of human rights and full equality for its gay citizens.
“It’s a double-edged sword, this independence thing,” Tomlinson said, reflecting on the comparison between the former and existing colonies.
Still, he has hope that the Caribbean will follow the way of the West, pointing to Caribbean diaspora communities living in the United States and Europe as the key to spreading acceptance. “These people will begin to influence discourse at home,” he said.
Despite coming out decades ago, Tomlinson still finds himself struggling with acceptance within his own family. His son, who has grown up Catholic in Belize, has had a difficult time reconciling his faith with his father’s sexuality, Tomlinson said.
He tells his son that being gay in the Caribbean is like being left-handed in the Middle Ages, which was believed to be an abomination and influenced by the devil. “In the 21st century, people like me are considered an abomination,” Tomlinson said.