August 22, 2016
“They put you in jail for being gay in Belize. I would never go there.” It was the day before we were supposed to cross the border from Mexico into Belize and this was the comment someone left on our Facebook page.
We did a lot of research planning this journey. Local customs for the different regions, appropriate greetings, tipping, cultural footnotes, religious practices and yes, attitudes towards gay people were all topics of which we had educated ourselves. We knew, before we left, that we weren’t going into the most progressive areas and that being “out and proud” would generally not be a good idea throughout Central or South America. This trip is not the time for political statements. Safety is our priority on this journey, not changing hearts and minds. When we left the states, we were prepared to be careful.
Mexico spoiled us. Mexico was shockingly gay friendly and laid-back about sexuality and public displays of affection in general. Mexico City was one of the first cities in the Americas to legalize gay marriage. The rest of the country has now followed suit. We visited the “zona rosas” (pink or “gay” neighborhoods) in Guadalajara and Mexico City. We met gay people, made gay friends, saw rainbow flags and pride parades throughout Mexico. No one seemed to question why we were two women traveling together or why we requested rooms with one bed rather than two when we got hotels. During our six months in Mexico, we let down our guard.
Somehow, in my research, I missed that Belize was the only country left in Central America that not only still made being gay a crime but also regularly jailed people for it. Generally, the law has been interpreted as applying only to men but we read story after story online about unpunished hate crimes towards gay women. Our excitement about going to Belize was quickly replaced with fear, doubt, anger and obstinacy about spending our money in a country with such oppressive and antiquated laws.
It is on the books as illegal in Belize for any foreigner, man or woman, who identifies as gay to even enter the country. Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t usually shy away from these types of risks. I’ll be damned if anyone tells me where I can and can’t go. This was different. It wasn’t just about me and this wasn’t my home country. I do not want to put Karin at risk. Ever. She didn’t want to put me at risk. Ever. Neither of us was thrilled at the idea of technically, being criminals the moment we crossed the border.
In every country we visit, I join a couple of facebook groups, for locals and for expats. I joined one based in Belize called “Rasta Man News” and immediately wished I hadn’t; the page was rampant with homo-hating comments.
We didn’t want to be paranoid or overblow our risks. We also didn’t want to miss out on visiting a country that was literally, minutes away. Knowing, however, that our website and facebook page links are pasted all over our vehicle (and how often, people who see the car do seem to take a look) and also knowing that a simple google search on my name will quickly reveal that I am not only a lesbian but that I have been a gay rights activist in both my personal life and career. We knew it was unlikely but we had heard stories of things posted on social media getting travelers into trouble in foreign lands.
We agonized over it all night. In the end, we decided to stay the course and go to Belize, anyway. We took precautions. We removed the “about us” page from our website (which indicated that we are a couple), we skimmed our Vagabroads facebook page for any obvious references to our sexuality. We privatized our personal facebook pages. We practiced saying we were half-sisters traveling together. We practiced saying we had husbands. We reminded each other not to refer to each other as “my love,” “baby” or any of the dozens of other affectionate nicknames we have for each other. Having to do these things caused us pain that I can’t articulate.
We knew the most difficult behavior to keep in check would be the things you don’t think about: the way a couple looks at each other, unconscious touching of each other’s waists, sitting with our legs touching, you get the idea.
At the time, we were traveling with Natasha and Pete of Here Until There and Benjy Davenport of Cornwall 2 Capehorn. This gave us some comfort as there is safety in numbers and at least, if anything went down, we would have friends around who could contact the Embassy and our families. Although, our new friends couldn’t be expected to fully comprehend the depth of our turmoil or concerns and likely thought we were being a bit dramatic, they were very kind and attempted to comfort us just the same, scouring the Internet themselves to learn about the laws and attitudes. We deeply appreciated that.
We know that it is difficult for even the MOST progressive and "woke "straight people to understand why this was such a big deal, why it is so hard to just lay-low and “be.” Unless you have gone thru a similar struggle of identity and self-acceptance, of spending a lifetime developing the courage it takes to simply be yourself despite what people may say or how you may be treated; unless you have experienced holding hands with someone you love only to be humiliatingly screamed at and preached to by a stranger, unless you can fully conceptualize that just “being” – with no politics and no showmanship – just BEING and living your day to day life in the same way as every other person, can literally, get you killed, then how could you understand? I kept thinking that if one of us got hurt or sick, would the other be allowed access in the hospital or to make healthcare decisions? It wasn’t so long ago in the States that I would have been denied access to Karin if she was in a hospital. And that was in the states! This is not the states. These concerns are reality, not paranoia and not drama.
Despite our friends’ efforts to be there for us as we made our decision, we felt suddenly, very alone.
I emailed a gay friend back home about the situation to get her opinion and she responded only by saying “So, you’re not going there, right?” Its funny, despite her opinion to the contrary, the totality of understanding she displayed with that one question, in many ways gave me the strength I needed for us to go. We were loved and we were not alone.
We did not directly experience any anti-gay behavior while in Belize. As I said, we were not “out” in Belize. We did not reveal to ANYONE our status as a couple. With that said, people in Belize were VERY in tune to the fact that we were two women traveling together without a man. It was “noticed” far more than it had been up to this point. We found ourselves interrogated about it on multiple occasions. This likely had nothing whatsoever to do with suspicions of our gayness but it definitely spoke to cultural ideas about gender and gender roles.
The owner of one of our early campsites, Nathalie, was a breath of fresh air for us, displaying a small rainbow flag on her property and telling us she was going to be a DJ (check out DJ Naty on Facebook) for the second Belize Gay Pride celebration. This helped us to relax and open our minds to this country – not everyone there hates gay people and we couldn’t judge the entire country on the ones that do. The little things…go a long way.
I don’t tell you any of this to lay judgment on Belize. We did not meet every single person in Belize and we did not learn everything there is to know about Belize. We were only there for 6 weeks. I tell you this because documenting this journey, for us, is about an honest account of our experience, not about painting a pretty picture of each day or each place we go. This was our experience, plain and simple. Nothing more.
Two days before we left Belize, the Belizean Supreme Court struck down their law against gay relationships, eliminating the final law of its kind in all of Central America. We were proud to be present in the country when it happened and of course, had drinks to celebrate! Although Belize has a long way to go, this taking place lifted some of the shadow that had been hanging over our time there.
Belize turned out to be a wonderful country – beautiful beyond description, diverse in races, religions and cultures. We do not regret going. The Belizean gay community exists, albeit quietly, and there are efforts happening to change Belizean attitudes. We learned that Belize has had one sanctioned gay pride parade. Progress will always happen. Love will always win. Everywhere.