This is a tricky one. I’ve wanted to write something about Belize’s men and women, and their gender issues, for a while now, but it’s so complicated, and so wrapped up in so many other issues, that I never did start. Plus, I didn’t want to offend some (or maybe most!) of the population of the country that I live and work in. But a few months ago, over the annual carnival weekend, I saw yet more Belizean men rubbing themselves up against Belizean women in an orgy of what I would describe as dry-humping (but what they call dancing), while at the same time having yet more locals inform me of their religious devotion, and then tell me that all gay people are evil and weird. Plus, my ex-colleague Ruth let me in on a disturbing statistic – Belize has an adolescent fertility rate of 8% (in other words, there are 80 births per 1000 women aged 15-19 per year – which means that up to 40% of 19-year-old women have at least one child). The adolescent fertility rate in the UK and the US is 3% (which is still considered high), and it’s just 1% in Canada.
Getting back to the male-female interaction, much of this is a case of different cultures – there are many places in the world where the locals (men and women) are friendly to each other (and to foreigners), and for me to compare Belize (or any other of those places) to my own home is a bit of a non sequitur, as everywhere is different, and I’m from a country that’s famous for its behavioural subtleties, i.e., we’re an unfriendly bunch who don’t speak to anyone unless we absolutely have to.
But there is definitely a different kind of interaction between the sexes here than what there is in Europe or North America. Many men are more forward with their intentions and some can even be quite aggressive with their advances. And foreign women, perhaps by being more noticeable, or maybe by being more ‘exotic’ and attractive to the local guys, get particular attention.
Of all the non-Belizean women I’ve known here, virtually every one has had some verbal attention from some local men, ranging from the respectful (“Morning Miss”), to the not-so-subtle (“Hi pretty lady / Hello baby”), to the offensive (“How would you like to ride me instead of your bike?”), to the downright bizarre (“I want to rub your pork!” [I’ve since been informed by my friend Ruth that ‘pork’ is a Creole term for the, ahem, lady parts]). The chat-up lines and catcalls seem to come from men of every age and race although, unsurprisingly, they come more from the younger guys.
Now, I’m not suggesting that some age groups and races of Belizean men are wholly responsible for this behaviour, and that others don’t even notice women. I have to admit that on occasions I have a look, although at least I wear my sunglasses, so the girls can’t see me perving at them. We’re all men at the end of the day, and no matter what race we belong to or what country we’re from or what age we are, we’re all hostages to our testosterone. Some guys just seem to be more ‘vocal’ with their feelings.
I was once a passenger in a taxi driven by a Creole cabbie, and as he was driving me home, cruising down a main road in Belize City on a quiet afternoon, something took his eye, then he suddenly leaned across me until his dreadlocked head was almost out of my passenger-side window, and yelled at two women walking on the pavement. I don’t know what worried me more, the blatant shouting or the unsafe driving. Afterwards I asked him why he felt overcome by the urge to let the ladies know that they were looking “fine and sexy”. He simply replied, “Well, I’m not going to shout at a man am I? I’m not gay!”
The implication being that, rather than wanting to shout out something, he had to. Perhaps it was a way of showing to everyone else (and maybe to himself too) that he was a real man, a way of asserting his masculinity. In that sense foreign women shouldn’t feel that they’re the only recipients of some local men’s attentions, and that it doesn’t matter how they look or what they’re wearing, as the men who do it are doing it to almost every woman, and they’re doing it almost as an automatic reaction, as though they’re supposed to, they’re expected to. Disturbingly, some of them don’t stop at women, and shout out catcalls to girls who are clearly underage.
As for why, there are probably many reasons. A combination of the aforementioned machismo (and in a country that’s both Latin American and Caribbean, there’s plenty of that around!), ignorance (the men actually think the women like it, or think that they’d like it if it happened to them), and even some reciprocity (like many annoying intrusions into our lives, from telesales agents to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there must be some people that respond positively to it, and as a result help to justify its continued use, i.e., there must be some women who like it, or appear to like it, or at least don’t object to it).
(On a side note, I don’t know if all this bawdy talk, not to mention the highly sexual dancing, is actually translating into promiscuity, or a breakdown in long-term monogamous relationships. But Belize does have a large number of one-parent families [over 30%], with over 80% of them headed by women. So someone’s been putting it about).
And that’s not the only effect. According to a survey of Belizeans of every race aged 16-24 about HIV and STDs, less than half the respondents knew all the ways to prevent disease transmission (although 71% of males and 73% of females knew about the importance of condoms, 70% of females and just 49% of males knew that having one faithful partner could prevent the spread of diseases). Belize now has the 5th-highest HIV infection rate in the Americas. And with the majority of public schools funded and governed by the Catholic Church, there isn’t a great deal in the way of sex education going on.
Ironically, the one group of people who are being subtle and careful in their behaviour are Belize’s small gay community. Belize isn’t a gay-friendly country, and with the heterosexual cultures of its Latin American and Caribbean inhabitants, plus a strong religious element, most locals have a traditional view of the gender roles. The law states that sex ‘against the order of nature’ is illegal (although what’s ‘unnatural’ isn’t defined!), but it’s generally taken to include homosexuality, with a maximum sentence of ten years in prison; and homosexuals are outlawed from entering the country, under the Immigration Act. In practice, the behaviour is known about by everyone (and tolerated by almost everyone), and no gay people have ever been charged, or prevented from entering the country. But that’s not all down to tolerance, it’s also down to the fact that homosexuals here don’t behave in the same way that heterosexuals do – if two gay men started dancing the way many straight couples do, there’d be a riot. And I’m sure many straight Belizeans would invoke certain parts of The Bible to justify their antipathy to homosexual behaviour (while conveniently ignoring all the parts of the Good Book that forbid adultery and immorality among heterosexuals).
But that might be about to change. Last year, an organisation called UNIBAM filed a case in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the anti-homosexual laws. Needless to say, the churches reacted negatively to this, with one group going so far as to describe it as ‘an orchestrated plan of demonic darkness’! And Belize’s newspapers (which aren’t exactly bastions of free speech and unbiased journalism) were full of opinion pieces and readers’ letters, ranging from the intelligent to the abhorrent – otherwise-sensible people stating that homosexuality leads to paedophilia, that gays are sub-human, and that passing the law would usher in the moral breakdown of society.
(Personally, I’ve never been able to understand the thinking – if gay sex was legal, if gay marriage was legal, even if there were gays everywhere, it wouldn’t have any effect on these people’s lives. They wouldn’t suddenly turn gay themselves, the world wouldn’t descend into an orgy of gayness, gays wouldn’t sneak into their houses and steal their children in the night so they could take them off to gayland and turn them gay, and they wouldn’t overthrow the government and declare a gay republic. They wouldn’t do any of these things because suddenly they now have the same rights as the rest of the country, they’d simply carry on as before, only now they’d be fully-fledged Belizean citizens like everyone else).
Barack Obama and David Cameron then weighed in with their criticisms of countries that criminalise gays, and suggested that they would cut aid to those countries (all this did was make the Belizean government even less inclined to change the law, and prompted a flurry of nationalistic chest-thumping in the media).
What all this proves to me is the less-than-perfect state of things in Belize at the moment, the cultural differences that exist across the world, the importance of education in young people (and the counter-productive role that religion often plays) in effecting positive changes, and the pivotal role that men of all ages and races play in the healthy development of children and communities.
Footnote: I’ve done my best to word this post as objectively and sensitively as possible. I’ve also done quite a bit of research into all the numbers, and sourced all my evidence (my journalistic integrity forces me to do that with all my posts!). I’ve also made a point of presenting everything that isn’t a provable ‘fact’ as my opinion. I’m very lucky to know some fine Belizeans of every race, age, and gender. So please don’t think that I’m aiming my views against all Belizeans, or one race or gender of Belizeans, or that I’m saying these sorts of things only happen in Belize (sadly, they happen wherever there are men and women, including the UK, but crucially, these issues have declined as people’s attitudes have changed). And there’s always a chance I could be misinformed about one thing, or ignorant about another. If anyone has any opinions different to mine, I’d love to hear them. If anyone has a different interpretation of things, please let me know. And if anyone knows something I don’t, please educate me.