Meet the men behind legal challenges to anti-gay laws in Jamaica and Belize
Maurice Tomlinson admitted with a chuckle that he’d been a little naïve. When earlier this year he started writing articles about repealing Jamaica’s anti-gay laws and including his email address at the end he didn’t anticipate the vitriol that flooded his inbox.
“I started getting responses like ‘nastiness’, ‘it’s going to lead to men marrying dogs and pedophilia’, ‘it will screw up society’,” Tomlinson listed. Thereafter the depth and dangers of his country’s homophobia quickly unfurled. After writing an account of how 20 police officers raided two gay clubs in Kingston and pistol whipped patrons before a mob took chase, raining bottles and stones, Tomlinson received his first death threat. He reported it to the police.
“The police officer said to me that he hates batty man and they must dead. He said when he goes foreign and see batty man hug up and kiss up he wants to vomit. I came to report a death threat. How does this relate? Then is when it began to click that we really have a problem. I reported it to the assistant commissioner of police and he basically said ‘too bad, so sad’. I could die because of reporting a human rights violation and nobody would care. That made me feel vulnerable for the very first time,” Tomlinson recounted.
Caleb Orozco has never had the luxury of illusions. He’s always had to fight. Memories of a two-by-four attack at school and tussles with a neighbor as a teen remain vivid and raw. He knew first-hand that verbal and physical abuse along with the looming fear of violence were features of everyday life for many sexual minorities in Belize. And when he began volunteering as a health educator with Population Services International it crystallised the idea that health interventions have to be supported by human rights advocacy to work. He would exit his career in entrepreneurship development to commit fulltime to the growth of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), an organisation that is committed to reducing stigma and discrimination.
“I’ve never been satisfied with accepting the status quo. I’ve always been a restless person who is deeply hurt at observing social injustice around me. I’m trying to find a solution. I want to make a change,” Orozco explained.
Both men have trained their eyes on the law. Orozco is the principal litigant in a constitutional challenge to Section 53 of Belize’s criminal code. Tomlinson and AIDS Free World have filed a legal petition at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that by criminalising homosexuality under its constitution, Jamaica is in violation of international human rights law. He’s brought the petition on behalf of two young Jamaican men who were evicted from their homes, subjected to mob attacks and further abused when they went to the police. And he has many more stories of mob attacks, village evictions and even murder on the grounds of being gay.
“The law won’t change how people think about gays but at least the community will have leverage with the agents of the state who are supposed to be protecting them,” Tomlinson explained. “Police officers believe all gays are criminals. The law has impacted the social perception of homosexuality and it is contravening men’s right to life, privacy and health.” He noted that many gay men in Jamaica are afraid to buy condoms and lubricants for fear of being outed by pharmacists.
“We’re sitting on a time bomb,” he said. “It’s no wonder our HIV rate among MSM is 32 percent. We won’t allow them to protect themselves.” While the IAC ruling will not be binding on Jamaica Tomlinson hopes it will bring the people and political directorate closer to addressing the impact of the law and the tragedies left in its wake.
Orozco says there are similar dynamics at work in Belize.
“Instead of stopping crimes against gays they (the police) watch then turn around an use terms like ’bun fire’. It gets people losing faith in the system although the constitution provides for their rights and freedoms,” he said. For Orozco the case is not an end to itself.
“It is a legal tool to show what homophobia looks like. People are accusing us of going after children or saying we are one step away from advancing gay marriage. This was never about any of that. It is an opportunity for the country as a whole to deal with its discriminatory attitudes,” he ended.
Photo Caption: AIDS Free World attorney and advocate, Maurice Tomlinson; Caleb Orozco, Executive President of UNIBAM Credit: Daniel Volmy