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The Abominable Crime: Belize’s Sodomy Law

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Political map of Belize. Map by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (University of Texas Libraries), via Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Just a few days after the Frameline film festival officially announced that The Abominable Crime was part of their festival line-up, I started receiving emails from around the world.

One of the most intriguing came from the organizers of the Belize International Film Festival, asking to see a copy of the film.

My geography being a little shaky, I went online and looked up Belize on Wikipedia.

Belize, I discovered, firmly planted in Central America, with a western coastline that embraces the Caribbean Sea. It is also the “birthplace of chewing gum.”

A little more digging, and I learned that Belize was once a British Colony – and just like Jamaica has retained its colonial anti-sodomy laws.

Laws which are currently in the process of being contested in Belize.

I suddenly understood why the folks in Belize were so interested in our film.

Our title comes directly from Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law which criminalize “The Abominable Crime” of buggery, and make it punishable by up to 10 years of hard labor. Our film is the first to explore the human consequences of these laws – and how they translate into violence and the everyday persecution of gays and lesbians.

Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code, written in 1888, declares “every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years.”

Human Rights Watch, in a report titled “This Alien Legacy” published in 1988, found that more than half of the “sodomy laws” around the world derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that the British imposed on India in 1860.

The law, known as Section 377 under the Indian penal code, was designed to set standards of behavior, both to “reform” the colonized and to protect the colonizers against “moral lapses”. This law became a model replicated in British colonies across Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa.

Belize, with a population of 330,000, achieved independence from Britain in 1981.

The irony, of course, is the British repealed their anti-sodomy law long ago, with homosexuality becoming legal in England and Wales in 1967, in Scotland in 1980, and Northern Ireland in 1982.

The legal challenge to the law in Belize is being led by Caleb Orozco, the leader of the United Belize Advocacy Movement. Orozco has argued that the law runs counter to Belize’s Constitution, which grants freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and the right to non-discrimination to all citizens.

He also says that the law has a chilling effect on the gay community, and negates Belize’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and later signed by Belize in 1996. This treaty requires its signatories to “respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial”.

Interestingly, arguing alongside Orozco is Lord Goldsmith, the former UK attorney general, and Godfrey Smith, Belize's former attorney general.

Opposing Orozco is Wilfred Elrington, Belize's current attorney general, with backing from the country's Catholic, Anglican and evangelical churches.

Religious groups in Belize are actively organizing resistance to this legal challenge. See a short film that was recently created to campaign against any change in the law.

Belize is not the only former British Colony where legal challenges to the law are taking place. Singapore’s top court upheld a challenge to its sodomy law in March, and India’s highest court is currently reviewing a 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court striking down its sodomy law.

There are also similar legal challenges currently underway in Jamaica and northern Cyprus.

Currently, 78 countries around the world still criminalize homosexual acts.

The Abominable Crime screened in Belize City at the Belize International Film Festival on Sunday July 14. It won the festival's prize for best documentary.