Americas / Commentary

Caleb Orozco sets a valuable Caribbean precedent

Caleb Orozco and his sister, Golda Orozco Neal, celebrate the court victory. (Photo courtesy of Breaking Belize News)

Caleb Orozco and his sister, Golda Orozco Neal, celebrate the court victory. (Photo courtesy of Breaking Belize News)

Caleb Orozco struck me as nervous but determined when we first met in 2007.  We were among only a handful of Caribbean civil society delegates at an Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Panama.  In the very Latin space that is the OAS, I affectionately referred to our grouping as the “English ghetto” because not only was our language need secondary, but we also lagged far behind the other countries in the hemisphere with regard to human rights for LGBTI people.

While our Central and South American colleagues were advocating for greater transgender rights, we from the Anglophone Caribbean were still waiting for decriminalization of sodomy.  And our cause often seemed hopeless.  The small micro-states from which we hailed were/are collectively in the grip of powerful right-wing fundamentalists who controlled all levers of power.  Distance and strategic differences often made it difficult for us to collaborate and present the unified front that our LGBTI siblings in other parts of the Americas had managed to accomplish.

But Caleb was not daunted.  He wanted change.  And he was visibly impatient with the slow pace and seeming risk-averse nature of many persons in the Caribbean LGBTI liberation movement.

Caleb Orozco and attorney Lisa Shoman.

Caleb Orozco and attorney Lisa Shoman.

Caleb was/is about action and he was ready to take the lumps for his activism.  Maybe it was because of how and where he was raised.  He was already so “out” in his humble community and had bravely stood up to vicious bullying and attacks that he had little fear of reprisals anymore.  His family was also a source of strength and he frequently acknowledged their impact on his advocacy.

When Caleb decided to be the claimant in a challenge to the Belize anti-sodomy law I was elated and a more than a bit nervous for him. We had known for some time that Belize is one of only a few Caribbean countries where a direct challenge to this British colonially imposed statute could be mounted.  This is because in most of the other states unique constitutional arrangements appear to save the law from any judicial review.  However, even in Belize where that constitutional impediment was absent the difficulty was finding a claimant.

The individual and their family would come under intense scrutiny and endure abuse because of the high-profile nature of the case.  However Caleb didn’t hesitate to commit.  And, as expected, he was met with a calculated and coordinated attack by the powerful religious groups in Belize who called him and his organization, UNIBAM, every derogatory name in the book.

The usual hateful rhetoric was unleashed, but Caleb kept his head up.  In fact, he became even more determined with each attack.  And after he was physically assaulted he successfully sought and secured the prosecution of the perpetrator.

At Caleb’s request, I was honoured to lobby my previous organization, AIDS-Free World, to provide financial support to his lawyers.  I also gladly accepted an invitation to visit Belize and provide advocacy sessions for the local groups that were supporting his case. This was before I knew of Belize’s ban on the entry of gays, which I subsequently challenged at the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Perhaps the greatest indignity meted out to Caleb was the three-plus-year wait for justice that he had to endure. The court took that long after fully hearing Caleb’s case in 2013 to finally deliver its judgment on August 10, 2016.  Thankfully, it was a resounding victory that has sent shock waves across the region.  Although the decision is not binding on the rest of the courts in the region, it will provide very persuasive precedent.  Among other things, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin ruled that the anti-sodomy law violates Caleb’s constitutional rights which are common across the Caribbean, and he also declared that majority religious views must not trump these fundamental rights.  The negative health impact of this archaic law was also highlighted by the court which found that the fight against HIV is hampered when gays are criminalized.

As the claimant in a constitutional challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law I was greatly pleased with the decision in Caleb’s case.  I can also relate to the price that he has had to pay.  I previously acted as counsel for another claimant challenging this same law but he withdrew after threats to his life and that of his family.  I therefore became the claimant and I was able to do this because, like Caleb, I am so outed in my country that I have very little to hide.

My own parents are very supportive and  perhaps most important is the fact that I am a permanent resident in Canada, which allows me the flexibility to come and go from Jamaica, where homophobic violence is significantly worse than Belize. I also work for a wonderful organization, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, that is supporting my case, and through them I also have invaluable access to Canadian pro bono counsel.  Jamaica’s 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, that I will be relying on in my matter, is largely based on the Canadian Charter of Rights, and so Canadian jurisprudence will be of great relevance.

Caleb and his brilliant legal team have won a victory for the entire Anglophone Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth where the vast majority of states still retain these British colonially imposed laws. We must now leverage this jurisprudence to complete the liberation project for ALL our peoples.

On Aug. 16, an incorrect name was fixed in the caption on the photo of Caleb Orozco and Golda Orozco Neal.

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