As I mentioned in my last post about Minister Louis Farrakhan, during his recent visit to Belize he did tone down his conservative (or as I see it, racist and homophobic) rhetoric. But one thing he did have a none-too-subtle attack on was religion’s favourite scapegoat, homosexuality. He described governments’ and people’s acceptance of same-sex relationships as “sanctioning something that God don’t sanction”, and berated Belize for bowing to foreign pressure and becoming “a whore to American aid”! And he echoed many religious leaders around the world (including those in Belize) when he said that ordinary people should be afraid of the LGBT “agenda”. Another ‘conspiracy’ to keep the paranoid minister awake at night…
Of course, Farrakhan and his religious kin are suspicious of the LGBT movement, for the simple reason that they do consider gay people to be sinners (they don’t believe that nonsense about “God loving the sinner but not the sin” any more than anyone else does), and they do think that homosexuals should be punished (or should be threatened with punishment at the very least). And in Belize they have the law (or a common interpretation of the law) on their side – Section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code states that any person who has “carnal knowledge” with any other person that is “against the order of nature” can be imprisoned for ten years.
“Carnal knowledge that is against the order of nature” – no matter how many times I read it, I still don’t know exactly what it covers, I only have my own interpretation of ‘nature’ to base my decision on (I get the ‘carnal knowledge’ bit, though). But others might have a different definition of ‘nature’, and who’s to say that their idea of what’s ‘natural’ isn’t the correct one? And that’s part of the problem – the wording of the law is so vague that it allows for multiple interpretations of it to be held simultaneously, all of which are equally valid (or equally invalid). And you don’t have to be Perry Mason to know that the rule of law in a country can only ever fully work so long as its citizens know exactly what is (and isn’t) legal (In Europe, there’s the well-established principle of legal certainty, where the law has to be specific enough to allow those subject to it to regulate their own conduct – so it’s part of the law that the law shouldn’t be vague. I hope that’s not too vague for you all).
So perhaps the first thing that should be done is to clear up this terrible ambiguity and clearly define what is and isn’t legal, and not leave it up to individuals to interpret the law in their own way, potentially breaking it (or incorrectly accusing other people of breaking it) in the process (and change ‘carnal knowledge’ as well, we’re not living in biblical times!). Because so far, the people who’ve been shouting the loudest about what’s ‘natural’ are (surprise surprise) the church leaders and other religious people, the people with the strongest views on morality, the ones who believe that their interpretation of their holy book is the right one, and that their definition of what’s ‘normal’ should dictate what everyone else should do, and what laws should be applied to everyone else. And they’ve been using their position of influence and power in Belize to conduct a campaign of such ignorance, misinformation, and hatred that it catches the breath.
Nor do you need to be Perry Mason to know that when you apply any law selectively it becomes inconsistent with the point of having a law in the first place. That’s why the legal action initiated by UNIBAM (United Belize Advocacy Movement), challenging the constitutionality of Section 53, is so important. It’s been suggested to the UNIBAM members that they could’ve just carried on as before (and after their leader was hit in the face with a bottle by a stranger on the street, maybe that thought crossed his mind!). And it is true that UNIBAM’s high profile over the last few years has had the unfortunate side effect of bringing the latent homophobic sentiments of some people into the open.
But that’s not really the point – what we know about the world changes with time, and what’s considered acceptable and moral changes with time too; and laws are designed to be created, discarded, and amended in order to reflect those changes (That’s why we don’t have slavery any more, and why we don’t burn people for saying that the Earth goes round the Sun. And that’s why Belize is now one of only ten countries in the Americas, and the only Central American country, who still have this law). So Belizeans (like everyone else) would’ve come to this point eventually. At the very least the creation of UNIBAM and its forthcoming court case forces people to examine their convictions and their biases. And to remind everyone of just how shaky the foundations of some people’s beliefs are, and how ridiculous those people can be when their beliefs are challenged (Belize Action, the church-organised counter-organisation to UNIBAM, has described the decriminalisation of homosexuality as “an orchestrated plan of demonic darkness to dethrone God and open a gateway to destruction”!). Seriously. Someone actually said that.
Over the past two years that I’ve lived here, I’ve heard many people express their intolerance for homosexuality, and then defend that intolerance with the wildest of claims, and all whilst simultaneously expressing concern for the rest of Belize’s innocent population (to get an idea of their paranoid hysteria, imagine Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, shrieking her catchphrase of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”). Some of these anti-gay crusaders are concerned that gays and lesbians won’t do their part to keep Belize’s population growing – the Mayor of Belmopan (the capital city) went so far as to suggest that Belizeans would become extinct if the country allowed gays to live freely here! Others are more explicit in their opposition – the spokesman for the Council of Churches claimed that homosexuality and its popular bedfellow abortion are part of an “unacceptable” lifestyle, and one that’s being pushed on Belizeans by foreign countries trying to exert their power (that’s America and Britain, and all their baby-killing queers, in case you didn’t know!). Then there are those who think that all this weirdness is just a lifestyle choice – which, as most (if not all) gay people will attest to, isn’t true. And finally there are those who are downright vicious in their hatred – in the country’s most-read newspaper, The Amandala, there are regular columns by the editor and his readers, claiming that homosexuals are naturally sexual predators who’ll nail anything that moves if they’re given half a chance, and latent child molesters for whom paedophilia is a natural recourse, as they’ll turn to younger partners once their mates’ bodies become “worn out” (I wished I’d kept the article to quote it verbatim, I’ve never read a more detailed comparison of human orifices in a newspaper!).
The Belizean media (who traditionally fill most of their pages and airtime with sensationalised accounts of the latest crimes, many of which are shocking enough without the overblown reporting) are full of this garbage, particularly the aforementioned Amandala, which began as a newspaper associated with the struggles of black Belizeans in the 1960s (ironically, and sadly, being part of a group that’s the victim of discrimination doesn’t stop people from enthusiastically practicing it towards another group).
The people who write this hate-speech often say that Section 53 (or at least the anti-gay interpretation of it) is never used to actually punish anyone for being gay (and it’s true that there’s never been a prosecution of any gay person, or any person committing homosexual acts, under this law). So why are they so insistent on keeping it? I think it’s to act as a reminder to everyone that (at least as far as they’re concerned) homosexuality is abnormal and wrong. In a similar way to how, in medieval times, a severed head would be publicly displayed to serve as a warning to anyone considering criminality. Of course the religious conservatives don’t want to punish people for their lifestyle choices (after all, they have their God to do the punishing!) – they just want those people to feel intimidated, and to be constantly reminded that they’re going to hell for their wickedness.
So what do the religious people of Belize consider to be ‘natural’? Well, from a quick glance at The Bible (when it’s not defending slavery, condoning murder, oppressing women, advocating child abuse, encouraging genocide, and making demented pronouncements that it contradicts several chapters later), it’s clear that God intends men and women to be together for the purpose of procreation. And woe betide anyone who tries to circumvent that plan – remember poor Onan and the result of his seed-spilling shenanigans?
But that produces another problem – if it’s ‘natural’ for a man and a women to be together to produce children, then I’m unnatural, I’m a sinner along with all the gays. And if it’s a crime to go against ‘nature’, then it’s not just the homos who are breaking the law – I’m a criminal too.
Why? Because I’m a heterosexual man and I’m childless. I’ve had sex with women many times, yet I’ve never once had it for the purpose of creating life. I’ve never left it up to God to decide if His plan is for me to have a baby or not – quite the opposite, I’ve been deliberate in avoiding pregnancy my whole sexually active life. Oh the blasphemy! I’ve been going against God’s will every time I’ve been with a woman. I’ve been thumbing my nose at the supreme being of the universe every time I’ve got jiggy with a lady.
And that’s just sex with a partner. If Onan was struck down by God for spilling his seed a few times, imagine what holy retribution the Lord has planned for a man who’s been enthusiastically blowing his baby gravy all over the place since he was a teenager? Think of the genocide I’ve committed over the years, with millions of potential lives lost in the course of every profane monkey spank.
Clearly I conduct my sex life against the order of nature, contrary to the social norms of the country, in flagrant breach of the law of the land, and against the intentions of God. But none of the religious conservatives have ever said (or even implied) that a person like me should be imprisoned for ten years. None of them have reprimanded me for my reluctance to breed, or questioned my lifestyle choices, or compared me to a paedophile. They seem content to allow me to make my own choices of who to be intimate with and how. But only because I happen to do it with someone of the opposite sex. Religious people cherry-pick their holy books and discard the parts that seem strange or immoral to them – that’s why no one makes a big deal today about picking up grapes, wearing clothes made of mixed fabrics, allowing dwarfs into church, and all the other bizarre things that are banned in The Bible. But they’re still unnaturally obsessed with what other people do with their junk.
Another possible reason why the Christian (mainly Catholic) Church in Belize is so against changing the law is because it’s one of the most powerful forces in the country – and much of its power derives from the fact that it funds (and therefore controls) the country’s education system. And as all parents desire the best education for their children, they’re careful to keep on the good side of the clergy. Even when they’re told that their kids are to have mandatory religious instruction, and are required to attend a religious service every week, or they can’t graduate from high school!
Without going into a critique of religion (that would take too long, and I only have 3GB of free space with this blog), that’s another situation that should be changed as soon as possible (and everywhere, not just Belize) – school should be about learning facts and gaining knowledge (and equally importantly, learning how to think – understanding the importance of scepticism, questioning, and examining evidence). And they’re the opposite qualities of the blind faith and incuriosity that all religion is based on, and the intolerance that religious leaders have for anyone who questions that faith. Reason and religion have never been BFFs (ever since two nudists took dietary advice from a talking snake), and maybe if the church wasn’t so heavily involved in such an important aspect of Belizean life, perhaps it wouldn’t feel the need to publicly moralise on everything (and perhaps it wouldn’t be given the authority to do its pontificating); and as a result the dialogue might be slightly more reasonable and slightly less hysterical? And what with them denouncing condoms, opposing stem cell research, and covering-up child abuse, morality isn’t exactly the Catholic Church’s strong point…
Nor does the Belizean church seem to know that the rest of its religion has finally wised up and accepted that discrimination of all kinds is wrong – even the last Pope (mini-Führer Joseph of the Hitler Youth) issued a statement opposing it. And if The Pope is against anti-discrimination, that must be because God’s against it (good old papal infallibility eh?). So, far from contradicting God and Christianity, UNIBAM’s case is actually sanctioned by the Vatican itself, and it’s the Belizean church that’s going against what The Man Upstairs wants.
So let’s hope that UNIBAM wins next month – not so that they can turn the country gay and paint the flag pink, but simply so that they can carry on doing what they were doing before, but without being criminals. Let’s hope that Belizeans appreciate the chance to examine an issue with intelligent, public debate (something that the citizens of some countries aren’t allowed to do). Let’s hope that Belizeans who’ve been the subject of discrimination in the past realise how important it is to not discriminate against other Belizeans in the present. Let’s hope that people realize that, for the good of everyone, universal human rights law must always prevail over the archaic commands of religion. And let’s hope that, after all this, Belizeans can concentrate on the really important issues facing the country.