Julia Scott

The Loneliest Man in Belize 

New York Times Magazine
Friday, May 22nd, 2015

‘Rozco! Love you, hon!” cried a man in baggy jeans. His shout, insincere and taunting, was aimed at the back of Caleb Orozco, a 41-year-old man walking along a row of tarp-covered souvenir stands near one of Belize City’s ferry terminals. Orozco’s only acknowledgment was to walk a little faster, car keys clutched in his hand. It was a hot December afternoon, a week before Christmas, high season in the city’s tourist zone. Two policemen appraised Orozco but said nothing as more taunts flew. “Saw you on TV!” a woman dressed in white jeered from her craft stand, where she sold carved wooden boats. Farther down the sidewalk, two men snickered. “Caleb! You done rub too hard!” leered a man in a blue baseball cap, pointing to Orozco’s crotch.

Batiman!” someone called from the shade of a food­-cart umbrella.

In Belize — a small Anglophone Caribbean nation tucked into the eastern flank of Guatemala and Mexico — “batiman” (Creole for, literally, “butt man”) has long been the supreme slur against gay men, the worst possible insult to their personhood and dignity. But now another slur is beginning to take its place: “Orozco.”

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Five years ago, Orozco’s lawyer walked into the Belize Supreme Court Registry and handed over a stack of papers that initiated the first challenge in Caribbean history to the criminalization of sodomy. Caleb Orozco v. the Attorney General of Belize focuses on Section 53, a statute in the Belize criminal code that calls for a 10-year prison term for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” If Orozco won, his supporters hoped, it would establish a moral precedent across the Caribbean and even create a domino effect, putting pressure on other governments to decriminalize sodomy. But it took three years for the Supreme Court to hear the case; two years later, the nation still awaits a verdict.

In the meantime, Orozco operates the United Belize Advocacy Movement, or Unibam, the only gay ­rights advocacy and policy group in Belize, out of his home in a thick-walled compound on Zericote Street, where stray dogs nose for food scraps in the dirt. The walls are topped with broken shards of glass and rusty, upside-down nails. A seven-foot-tall security gate barricades his driveway. When home, he must remember to lock all six locks — two for his house, two for his office and two padlocks on the gate for good measure. Those precautions do not prevent Orozco’s neighbor or people walking by his house from throwing rocks and bottles over the walls, shouting, “Aala unu fu ded” (“All of you should die”). Other residents have picked up two-­by-fours and chased him in the street. People stone Orozco’s house frequently enough that he rarely bothers to call the police at this point. (This being Belize, a country with a population of just 360,000, he sometimes knows whoever is throwing the rocks on Zericote Street anyway.)

Orozco’s natural habitat, the place where he feels powerful and at ease, is in front of his pink laptop in his office, a squat outbuilding with barred windows. Inside these walls, no one will disparage his manner of dress: snug graphic tee, stylish camo-print shorts and black Keds that hug his feet like shapely hooves. No one will comment on the way he styles his hank of hair, with a flip to the left and some highlights that tend to come out looking gray. He greets clients and funders with a soft handshake and a wry joke — usually at his own expense. When they leave, he spends hours online in the growing dark, sometimes past midnight.

“Did you know we caused the floods in Belize?” he remarked airily, scrolling through headlines on a local news site. “There’s an actual comment from a man who says so.” Later he double-­locked his office doors and led the way across a yard strung with empty clothing lines, dry grass crackling underfoot. He paused for a few moments, listening for unrest from his neighbor’s house, before mounting the heavily sagging steps. He jerked open the sticky door. The floor tipped at an angle, and the ceiling was patched and moldy. One window had holes big enough for him to poke his head through. “My house is like my life — a hot mess,” he said, making his favorite joke with a wan smile.

He is Belize’s most reviled homosexual and its most ostracized citizen, a man whom fundamentalists pray for and passers-by scorn; a marked man at 30 paces. His weary face is on the evening news and in newspaper caricatures, which have depicted him in fishnets and heels. His name is now a label, one used to remind other gays that they are sinners and public offenders. Win or lose, Orozco’s fight for his fundamental rights and freedoms will follow him for the rest of his life.

Americans and Europeans visit Belize for all the things that make “the Jewel” an ideal place to relax: coral reefs, paradisiacal white beaches, a green-azure sea. It is a deeply Christian country, with a Constitution that proclaims the “supremacy of God” as a first principle. Recently, it has seen a surge in Pentecostalism and other proselytizing strains of faith. Although bounded on two sides by Latin American countries with more liberal attitudes toward same-sex relationships, Belize retains a culture more closely aligned with Caribbean countries whose perspectives were colored by 200 years of British occupation. There is an ethos of “live and let live,” but only as long as the gay community remains invisible. Gay couples cohabitate and quietly raise children, but without demanding legal recognition. Couples don’t hold hands in public. No hate-crime laws exist to punish targeted assaults.

Formerly British Honduras, Belize gained independence in 1981, inheriting most of its governing documents from its former master. Section 53 is an artifact of Belize’s colonial past dating to the 1880s. The British bequeathed similar “buggery” laws to all 11 other Caribbean countries once ruled by the crown. (The Bahamas has subsequently removed them.) Buggery became a criminal offense in the England of King Henry VIII in 1533. Of the 76 countries that still criminalize sodomy around the world today, most do so as a holdover from British colonial rule. (Britain repealed its buggery laws in 2003.) In Belize, anti­gay laws extend beyond the criminal code: Homosexuals are still technically an explicit class of prohibited immigrants, along with prostitutes, “any idiot,” the insane and “any person who is deaf and dumb.”

Much as with Lawrence v. Texas, the case whose resolution in the United States Supreme Court invalidated anti-­sodomy laws still on the books in 13 states, Orozco’s challenge is less about sodomy than about discrimination. Even the most zealous Christian leaders, the ones leading the crusade to keep Section 53 on the books, acknowledge that law or no law, sodomy does happen in the privacy of bedrooms in Belize — and not just between gay men, either. Despite the fact that the law is rarely enforced, Orozco and his lawyers say that the threat of indictment encourages public harassment, threats and occasional violence against many gays and lesbians, who have little recourse. The police sometimes charge hush money not to turn people in, according to Lisa Shoman, one of Orozco’s attorneys. The Belize attorney general told me that he personally believes that Section 53 is discriminatory, though his office is obligated to defend it in court.

Orozco is an unlikely instigator of this challenge. He wasn’t politically galvanized until he was 31, when he went to a workshop for gay men and people living with H.I.V. at a public health conference in Belize City. One by one, the men stood up, spoke their names and added, “I have H.I.V.” or “I have sex with men.” Orozco was bowled over. “I got up and said, ‘By the way, I like men.’ I realized that you perpetuate your own mistreatment by remaining silent. And I decided I would not be silent anymore.”

A year later, he helped found Unibam as a public-­health advocacy group for gay men. Until that point, Orozco had never paid much attention to the H.I.V. epidemic in his country. Even after one of his uncles, who was gay, died from complications related to AIDS, Orozco didn’t fully grasp what had killed him. He couldn’t acknowledge being gay — to others or himself — until well into his college years. “People would ask me, ‘Are you gay?’ And I would say stupid things like: ‘I’m trisexual. I’ll try anything just once,’ ” he recalled. “The truth was, I wouldn’t try anything.” He didn’t have sex until he was 23, and when he did, he felt pressured into it. He has never had a long-­term boyfriend. The men Orozco knows won’t be seen with him. “There was one man who would only want me to pick him up after 8 o’clock at night,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I think about it all the time — is this the price I’m paying? To have no love life? To be the one publicly gay man in Belize? To be the most socially isolated?”

Caleb Orozco in Belize City. Photo credit Julia Scott

 

Orozco did not have litigation on his mind at an H.I.V. conference in Jamaica in 2009 when he spoke to two law professors — one Jamaican, one Guyanese — with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project, which they had recently founded with a colleague to focus on human rights in the Caribbean. They had been studying bans on same-­sex relationships, laying the groundwork for a test case that, if successful, could encourage similar legal challenges in neighboring countries. Belize was ideal: It had a Constitution with stronger personal privacy and equality protections than other Caribbean countries. From a human rights point of view, it was a case they thought they could win.

When Orozco heard this, he recalled, “I put up my hand — literally — and said: ‘What about me? I’m ready since yesterday. How can we do this?’ ” But even as he signed the legal papers, litigation itself was never the point. “I realized the case was simply a tool to create a national dialogue,” he said. “It isn’t just Section 53. It’s adoption. It’s Social Security. It’s not having the first say of the health of your partner. There’s the dignity issues, which haven’t been recognized.”

The legal challenge was a controversial move in Belize’s gay community, where the question of gay rights — what they are and how to get them — is a conversation that has just barely begun. Belize has never had an inciting incident to catalyze a movement, like the 1969 Stonewall uprising. There is no annual Gay Pride parade. No member of government or other prominent figure has ever come out. No gay bars or ritual “safe spaces” exist as places for people to meet, just carefully organized house parties and private encounters on Facebook. The L.G.B.T. community in Belize, with the exception of a dedicated corps of organizers and supporters, remains timid, fractured and apolitical. Unibam itself has only 128 members, in part because of people’s concern that their names could be made public. “Don’t ask, don’t tell — that’s the way with just about everything here,” said Kelvin Ramnarace, a Unibam board member. “It doesn’t mean progress. It’s one thing to not have rights and know it. Here you think you do, because it’s not so hard to live here. But we don’t.”

But Orozco’s lawyers had reasons to hope that a softening was at hand. The tone had already begun to shift across much of neighboring Latin America, where activists were laying the groundwork for a string of victories. Today, six Latin American countries recognize same-­sex marriage or civil unions. Eleven countries have banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and seven countries protect L.G.B.T. citizens against hate crimes.

“Even though people said they anticipated some backlash in Belize, almost all the groups I spoke to seemed favorable,” said Arif Bulkan, the Guyanese lawyer Orozco met at the H.I.V. conference. Bulkan and his colleagues spoke to a range of Belizean civil-­society groups and local leaders, including those in the church establishment. He recalled an important meeting with the president, at the time, of the Belize Council of Churches, which encompasses Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. “He said they wouldn’t support us openly,” Bulkan said, “but they wouldn’t oppose us either.”

So Orozco had few reasons to think he might regret putting his reputation, and Unibam’s, on the line. Today, he shakes his head like a man in a dream. “I just thought it was going to be some litigation,” he said. “I didn’t expect opponents, didn’t expect propaganda and all that other stuff that happened.” He paused. “I really didn’t.”

In Belize, church leaders are granted deference in the press and by lawmakers on social issues. But in large part, the ecclesiastical focus has always been on the spiritual rather than the political realm. So Orozco was blindsided by the announcement, soon after the suit was filed, that the Roman Catholic Church of Belize, the Belize Evangelical Association of Churches and the Anglican Church had together joined the case on the government’s side as an “interested party,” a legal distinction that allowed them to hire lawyers, file motions and be heard during the trial. More than 400 church leaders and ministries came together to mobilize their adherents in the name of public morality. In another first for Belize, church leaders founded a nationwide activist campaign, Belize Action, and began drawing thousands of believers to rallies that denounced the “homosexual agenda.”

The churches also flexed their legal muscle in a pretrial motion to remove Unibam as a claimant in the case; as an organization, they argued, it had no standing to challenge the law. Their motion succeeded. Suddenly Orozco was the sole claimant. The case would come down to whether Orozco’s personal human rights had been violated. He was hounded for interviews, and his name was broadcast all over the world. Someone posted a video to YouTube called “[Expletive] Unibam dis da Belize,” with a photo of Orozco. He received death threats when his name was printed. Shoman, an opposition senator in the National Assembly of Belize as well as one of his lawyers, received explicit rape threats. One day, Orozco was walking downtown, alone, when a man on a bicycle, shouting antigay slurs, threw an empty beer bottle at Orozco’s head. It smacked him on the jaw and cracked two of his molars. After taking his statement, “the police said, ‘If you find who did this, tell us, and we will pick them up.’ Why is that my responsibility?” he asked me with a sardonic smile.

Before the churches joined the case, Orozco allowed three organizations to join forces as an interested party on his side: the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the International Commission of Jurists and the Human Dignity Trust, major transnational nongovernmental organizations with global standing, large budgets and access to the best human ­rights lawyers in the world. “I thought that using interested parties from the international community would have brought some kind of leverage,” he told me.

But the presence of these foreign groups, even on paper, allowed Orozco’s enemies to reframe the case as an act of cultural aggression by the global north. According to Bulkan, “a lot of the negative press after that was about foreigners coming in.” Prime Minister Dean Barrow told a local news station: “One of the things that we have to be grateful for in this country is the culture wars we see in the United States have not been imported into Belize. Well, obviously, this is the start of exactly such a phenomenon.” The United States and Europe were meddling colonizers, Orozco their traitorous pawn. Orozco’s religious opponents referred to victories for same-­sex marriage in California and Canada as further evidence of the true agenda at work in Belize. “It puts a lot of pressure on us,” Orozco said. “When we started this, we weren’t thinking about gay marriage.”

Opponents made much of the fact that Unibam receives all of its budget, around $35,000 a year, from foreign governments and foundations, including the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Swiss Embassy in Mexico City and the Open Society Foundations. “Is Unibam being used for a foreign gay agenda?” one news station asked. The Amandala, the nation’s largest newspaper, published a page-­long editorial under the headline “UNIBAM DIVIDES BELIZE.” “Homosexuals are predators of young and teenaged boys,” wrote the editor in chief, Russell Vellos, in a separate column. “Woe unto us, Belize, if homosexuals are successful in our court. Woe unto us! In fact, since ours is a ‘test case,’ woe unto the world!”

The headquarters of Unibam. Photo credit Julia Scott

 

Six days a week, Orozco drives to his mother’s squat rental in a Belize City suburb and sits down at her glass kitchen table. Perla Ozeata, a matter-­of-fact woman with the same dark eyes as her son’s, serves up his favorites: steaming dark bowls of chimole, a Belizean specialty; escabeche with chicken and whole jalapeños; and her special cheesecake. Strangers have cursed her for “encouraging” her son to be gay, but she is proud of him. The first day Orozco went to court, he wore clothes his mother bought him. She ironed his shirt and tied his tie. Sometimes when she looks at him, she still sees the friendless schoolboy who played in the yard by himself, catching lizards and trying to avoid his bullies and his father’s chronic disapproval. She intends to one day tear down the house on Zericote Street and rebuild, so she can move back in with him and protect him. “Somebody have to live with Caleb, because people take advantage of him,” she told me one afternoon. “Caleb no fighter. He can fight out the mouth, but he can’t fight physical.” At one point, when Orozco was out of earshot, she said in a low voice: “Every time he walk the street, they promise to kill him. Win or lose the case, they’ll kill him.”

These days Orozco leaves his compound on foot for only two reasons: to walk to the bank (10 minutes) or to the market for groceries (five minutes). On good days, he can make the 10-minute walk in seven and the five-minute one in three. But even inside a place of commerce, things can go awry. “A gentleman said he wanted to push his bat up my you-­know-­what,” Orozco told me at one point. “I was at the bank. I had my nieces with me.”

He was sitting on his messy bed, his knees pressed together. His clothes were jammed into a dresser decorated with peeling children’s stickers. Twice a day, Orozco brushes his teeth over the tub because he doesn’t have a sink. The walls are a single run of wooden slats with holes like gapped teeth, so pests are a problem. “Compare rats to spiders, and I prefer spiders,” he said.

Coming out is supposed to broaden your world. Orozco’s world has narrowed to the space between these walls. Some days the tension in his neck hurts so badly that he resorts to painkillers. Other days he just feels numb. He doesn’t answer his cellphone when it rings and just watches TV until he drops off to sleep. “I don’t like feeling trapped,” he acknowledged. “But I cannot afford to lose myself in this work. I create my own social space, completely.”

Once in a while he takes a chance on a night out at Dino’s, a dance club in downtown Belize City. But he never goes without a friend. At midnight one Saturday, Orozco parked near a faded billboard with a picture of a sad-looking woman and the message “ABORTION: ONE DEAD, ONE WOUNDED.” With his sister Golda, her husband and a friend, he ascended a narrow concrete stairwell to a long, dark room with earsplitting Caribbean dance music. “This is what we do,” Orozco said, shrugging. It’s an in-­joke that Belize City’s only gay-friendly club is on Queen Street. Drag queens have performed as dancers and singers, but on most nights, like the night we visited, the club is filled with straight couples grinding up against the plywood walls. “Not a lot of gays here,” I said. Orozco replied, “That’s the challenge.”

There were a lot of watchful eyes at Dino’s. Camo-clad security guards, grim-faced and armed, scanned the crowd for troublemakers. Hand-painted brontosaurs and stegosauri stared out from the walls, rendered with cartoon menace in Day-­Glo colors under black light. As the dancers watched one another, they took in Orozco, taller than most Belizean men at 5-foot-11, as he stood by the door for a long time in burnt-­orange slacks and natty brogues, sipping a Coke over ice. He watched them back, seeming very ill at ease.

Orozco counted eight members of his tribe in the room that night. He knew all their names, professions and stories. But in four hours, only one, a contractor who had done some work with Unibam, approached Orozco and his group to say hello. Orozco approached no one at all. “I don’t have many friends,” he acknowledged later on. “You turn left, you have criticism. You turn right, you have indifference.” He has warm relationships with his clients and colleagues, but he doesn’t socialize.

Ramnarace, the Unibam board member, told me that he supports Orozco as a leader, but that others in the gay community have their doubts. “Internationally, I think he is more accepted than he is locally,” Ramnarace said. “Because when he says certain things here, he doesn’t always come across well.” In interviews, Orozco can appear peevish or overly cerebral, seeming impatient with his interviewer or else resorting to the programmatic lexicon he uses at human rights meetings. “But still,” Ramnarace went on, “he’s a brave little bitch to go do that, even to fumble. It isn’t easy to do, not here, not alone, a little Hispanic guy.”

Orozco used to love going out dancing late at night. One memorable time at Dino’s, he made out with a man in public, right there on the dance floor. Tonight, he and his small group formed a circle in the darkest part of the room. Golda began to dance in her gold sandals and light flowered dress, smiling at her older brother in an encouraging way. Her husband and their friend danced at her sides. Orozco, expressionless, planted himself near a pillar and began moving in place, gazing down at the floor. “As long as I don’t see an eye looking at me, I can lose myself in the music,” he said. “I just don’t want to be conscious of anyone’s eyes looking at me.”

It has now been 24 months since the hearings on Section 53, with no word on when Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin will deliver a decision. The Supreme Court does not have a calendar for decisions, and sources close to the case have refused to speculate as to the cause of the unusual delay. The Supreme Court Registry did not answer a request for comment. “Unfortunately, civil matters in this country do proceed at a very slow pace,” Shoman said. “But I could never have imagined that something of this magnitude, a case regarding the personal liberty of the citizens, should take so long.” She and the rest of Orozco’s legal team have sent multiple letters to the registrar general but received no reply.

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Jonathan Cooper, the chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, is just as eager for results. “The ramification of the Belize decision will be felt across the Commonwealth, if not beyond,” he told me. Because either side is likely to appeal any decision all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court for not only Belize but also Barbados, Dominica and Guyana, the controversy (and Orozco’s notoriety) is likely to spill over into those nations as well. And then there is the matter of international human rights law. The legal groups invoked the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their argument, with the knowledge that should the appeals court rule in Orozco’s favor on that basis, other jurisdictions would find the criminalization of sodomy very hard to justify.

After waiting so many years, Orozco has made a decision of his own. Shortly after the court hearings, he quietly stepped down as the president of Unibam. He stayed on as its executive director, but he told me that he hopes to leave that post next year. “I’ve come to realize that I’ve sacrificed my life to this work,” he said. “And I wake up to an empty bed and a pillow. And what does that say about me?”

These are not the words of a Harvey Milk revolutionary, and in fact Orozco doesn’t see himself in the mold of Milk, who was murdered at 48. But Orozco has believed for some time now that he won’t outlive his middle age. “My larger goal is to survive to the end of my case,” he said. “They said that if something should happen to me, the case would be over. I’ve invested seven years of my life in this thing, and I don’t want to throw that away.”

Orozco has come to the conclusion that the big changes he thought were within reach five years ago are actually a generation away. Living in Belize as a gay man or woman is like peering across a demilitarized zone with a pair of binoculars. If he took a four-­hour bus ride to Chetumal, Mexico, Orozco would enjoy the right to marry. Someday, Orozco may tear down his house and rebuild it. He may go to law school or pick up the business-administration career he left behind. But he has ruled out leaving Belize. He loves his family too much. He hopes that with time, most of his fellow Belizeans will learn not to judge. “Our opponents have been fear-mongering,” he said. “Most people could care less what I do in my bedroom.”

One afternoon, Orozco took his least favorite walk, to the bank. He rose from his office chair, turned off the fan, cut the lights, locked all six locks and stepped out in a brown tie-dye button-down and knee­-length cotton pinstripe shorts. The narrow downtown streets were clogged with cars short on mufflers, long on horns. He passed bakeries and pharmacies and street vendors hawking bags of peanuts and dried fruit and discount clothing stores blaring pop music.

Stoop-­sitters on Central American Boulevard nudged one another and gestured. A man in a truck driver’s uniform, smoking a cigarette, quietly watched Orozco go by, then spat and uttered a profanity. Two adolescent girls turned to look back at his retreating form, then doubled over with laughter. Three construction workers, legs dangling in a muddy trench, looked up as Orozco walked past. “Hey, Belize bwai!” they shouted. “Hoo da fayri, butt bwai?”

A few steps from the bank, Orozco passed two women alongside a young girl with her hair tied back in braids, wearing gold sandals and a flouncy white dress. She gazed at Orozco with curiosity. Then she looked up. “Mama,” she said, “that’s a batiman.”

Julia Scott

© 2017 Julia Scott.