Gay Watch: Belize
BY Dan Allen
August 03 2009 12:00 AM ET
Back in 1998, when the Cayman Islands suddenly and famously refused entry of an Atlantis Events cruise to its ports, the ship moved on to nearby Belize. Despite a smattering of religious protest, the all-gay cruise liner was welcomed to Belize City, if with a fair amount of curiosity: Locals were reportedly so unfamiliar with homosexuals that they were surprised to find them actually "dressed as men."
Often overshadowed by its bigger neighbors to the north (Mexico) and west (Guatemala), petite Belize is best known to savvy travelers for its gorgeous east, where a lush Caribbean coast is seasoned with hundreds of offshore islands, making it a paradise for nature lovers, eco-tourists, and divers.
A U.K. colony (known as British Honduras) until gaining its independence in 1981, this small land of just over 300,000 people retains remnants of many old British laws, unfortunately including a statute similar to those that still haunt Jamaica and Guyana, among others, with a 10-year prison sentence for sodomy. Though it's almost never enforced, the law looms over LGBT life in Belize, preventing -- at least thus far -- nearly all forms of organized gay activity.
"At the moment there is no history of gay pride marches and no specific health services for LGBT people with the exception of UNIBAM (United Belize Advocacy Movement)," says Caleb Orozco (pictured), who cofounded the small NGO in 2006 and now serves as its president. "Culturally there are unofficial [gay] hangout spots in Belize City and San Pedro," he adds, though he declines to name them for fear of endangering their clienteles. "We are not at that stage yet to promote those places."
"'Gay rights' is an explosive term in this part of the world, so we tend to focus on arguments that are health-related," he says. "Thus far, parenting, adoption, and employment discrimination are invisible topics that have not been on any local agenda. The church-state system still has a strong hold on information. Some of the media is uncomfortable with the subject matter or downright homophobic -- like Amandala, a national newspaper with a history of printing sensational homophobic story lines."
Despite a dearth of rainbow flags, Belize has much to dazzle the visitor, from one-of-a-kind jungle wildlife to fantastic Mayan ruins to the Belize Barrier Reef, the world's second longest, stretching for nearly 200 miles.