In January, 25 LGBT activists were in London for Advocacy Week with the help of The Kaleidoscope Trust, the secretariat for The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN). As Belize's only and oldest LGBT-led policy and advocacy organization, the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) has been engaged in policy and advocacy as a transnational and national strategy for over a decade. Our first attempt at building a transnational strategy started with the OAS LGBT Latin American and Caribbean Coalition in the Americas with the help of present Syngeria leaders. The Commonwealth Equality Network is another space to sharpen diplomatic skills.
TCEN members intuitively recognize the impact of colonial history, like the pain of the 1943 Bengal Famine or the torture and massacres of 1950s Kenya. As LGBT people, many of us continue to suffer the impact of homophobic colonial laws introduced to our countries by the British Empire, which we have come together as a network of Commonwealth LGBT activists to overcome. Nevertheless, times have changed and LGBT political engagement exists in a fragile power structure of courtesy and communication around the world. We recognize the importance of civility and smart engagement, which includes a history of national litigation, criminal code reforms, and using human rights mechanisms like the Universal Periodic Review among a multi-layered transnational strategy as crucial to advancing change.
During Advocacy Week we were able to meet with the Commonwealth Secretary General and the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights (a group of gay politicians that work across the party aisle) with the aim of mapping out political action and knowledge about advancing LGBT rights in the Commonwealth. The meetings demonstrated that it was possible to be gay and in parliament, and that it was possible to share national strategy and political communication and refine engagement. We also met Baroness Anelay, and took advantage of the time and praised her efforts asking the right questions in parliament on issues regarding Belize, as well as looking at the need for High Commission Offices to be more locally responsive. These meetings offered members of the Commonwealth Equality Network a moment to strengthen their high level communication skills with the Commonwealth as a political system, as it is a different political mechanism to the UN, the African Commission and the Organization of American States. It reinforced a moment of hope that LGBT equality will eventually get to all countries, large states and small states alike.
I can firmly say, when comparing Belize to other Commonwealth countries on their response to LGBT issues, that our government has been constructive and responsible. It has not threatened our freedom of movement, association or expression. It could have created an official position of harassment, jailing, advanced administrative tactics to shut us down, incited hate or sustained surveillance. It did not! What it did do was allow the cultural debate to happen in the media, and respected our right to seek redress in court. In addition, it left open a social and political conversation that included debate about UNIBAM’s Gender Policy. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to declare Belize’s sodomy laws incompatible with the constitution was the momentous end result of our advocacy efforts and the government’s measured response.
Following TCEN advocacy week, we have successfully refined our asks and strategies following our engagement with the All Party Parliamentary Group meeting. Furthermore, the work of TCEN has allowed UNIBAM to expand its pool of political communication that would not otherwise be immediately accessible. It has allowed us to inform the UK FCO on a possible national and regional strategy and to leverage communication as evidence that the world has its eye on Belize. It has shown us that while hurdles among various states remain, work to build systems of support continues at the global and regional level.
Next week, TCEN members will be back in London to attend CHOGM, with an ambitious programme of advocacy and activism that will drive forward the conversation of reforming colonial laws and recognising LGBT equality across the Commonwealth. Despite death threats, levels of violence in many countries, anti-right resistance, and political complicity at the national level, individuals and organizations continue to engage every power structure to reduce obstacles to equality. We continue to focus on political strategy, resource mobilization, national and international advocacy and legal defence. No one is giving up the fight to advance the ideals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A stubborn lot we are, no matter where we are in the world. Personally, I never forget the pain that we document in Belize for our Human Rights Observatory. It’s that pain that informs, sustains, and inspires action and an inconvenient truth in our work. We aspire to love, be economically self-reliant, educated, and to have access to healthcare, to have the support system through family acknowledged by the state, and that we are citizens of the Commonwealth like everyone else.