Belize’s Supreme Court Struck Down The Country’s Anti-Gay Law From Colonial Days

Many former British colonies in the Caribbean still have anti-sodomy laws in place from the days when the English controlled the territories. On Wednesday, Belize’s Supreme Court struck down punishments for homosexuality as unconstitutional, becoming the second Caribbean ex-colony to do so. LGBTQ rights group Unibam, which first challenged the ancient law, made the initial announcement on Twitter, writing, “We won on all counts. Speechless. Omg. Speechless.”

The ruling doesn’t legalize gay marriage, or even civil unions, but it does mean the people of Belize can no longer be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for what the old law referred to as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” It took three years for the court to hear Caleb Orozco v. the Attorney General of Belize and another three to actually deliver a verdict. Luckily, the ruling came down on the side of human rights.

Gay rights activists are hoping Belize’s decision will create a domino affect throughout the Caribbean, where 10 other countries still have anti-sodomy laws in place, many of which punish women as well as men for same-sex relationships. Jamaica’s homophobic laws are currently being challenged by attorney Maurice Tomlinson, who recently got the Caribbean Court of Justice to eliminate discriminatory laws keeping gay people from entering Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. Time magazine dubbed Jamaica “the most homophobic place on Earth,” so changes are certainly needed.

Belize became an independent state in 1981, but kept most of the laws already in place, including the anti-sodomy measure (called “buggery” laws back then). The Bahamas removed the same law when it broke away from Britain, but the other former Caribbean colonies have kept them in place. Because of the laws and the threat of violence, gay people in the region largely have to hide their sexuality. Charlene Smith, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and author of the academic paper “Homophobia in the Caribbean: Jamaica,” told the International Business Times: “If gay people act right, they don’t get focused on. It’s only when they are flamboyant and show affection in public do they get focused on.”

Now that Belize’s anti-sodomy law was nixed, it’s illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender in 73 countries around the world. When the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage last summer, it seemed like the nation was behind much of the world — and it was behind Europe and Canada — but being gay is still a criminal offense in most of Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean and is punishable by death in 12 countries.

Getting rid of anti-sodomy laws is the first step toward equality for the LGBTQ community worldwide. Public perception isn’t going to change and violence isn’t going to stop if governments still deem same-sex relationships illegal, whether the laws are actually enforced or not.