Belize: Strengthening LGBT Families Against Social Inequality

OutRight's communications officer, Rashima Kwatra interviewed Joshua Munoz of Our Circle. Our Circle has embarked on a project designed to aid the LGBT community in understanding and minimizing the effects of social inequality in Belize. As an introduction to this initiative, Our Circle conducted a baseline survey in which they engaged sixty-one (61) LGBT persons in Belize, fifty-two (52) of whom were part of same sex couples residing in Belize. Please note, this report captures only a percentage of the LGBT same sex couples in Belize, as the survey collection period was three weeks. The data was collected via online survey and does not reflect the entirety of the LGBT same sex couples in Belize. This report acts as baseline information and calls for further research into the dynamics of same sex couples in Belize.

Rashima Kwatra: How are same-sex couples in Belize impacted by social inequality?

Joshua Munoz: Social norms and legal conditions affect how we live our lives. Social stigma throughout Belize has affected how same sex couples in Belize develop relationships and families. There is the stigma that exists that same sex relationships in Belize are less stable than our heterosexual counterparts, particularly because the more visible persons in the LGBT community are the younger more carefree subset of the LGBT community. The older, more stable LGBT persons in relationships were more “conservative” and conscious about the social stigma that would follow them at their work places and may stifle their progression due to personal beliefs.

Growing up in Belize, as a young homosexual man, I would have been sure to state that lesbians and gay men were less likely than our heterosexual counterparts to be in cohabiting relationships. However, as I matured an understood some of the unwritten protections that same sex couples had to institute in their lives to be able to survive the social and legal inequalities that created large gaps between our relationships and the heterosexual relationships.

A couple years ago, the community was not exposed, educated or empowered to publicly discuss sexuality. This namely because of the religious influence in majority of our school systems. Anything surrounding homosexuality was an “abomination”.  Therefore, while someone would assume that someone was gay, there would be no serious advancements.  While connections would be made at underground parties there was no structure to emulate for same sex couples to foster stable relationships.  Even better, the two men who lived around the corner were “cousins” and the two ladies who were our neighbours were “best friends”.

The social and legal climate for LGBT people in Belize has pressured same sex couples to hide their identities and in extreme cases have steered them into relationships with different-sex partners. Not surprisingly, some of those relationships produce children. In Belize, most children being raised by same-sex couples were born to different-sex parents, one of whom is now in the same-sex relationship. This pattern is changing, but in ways that may seem counterintuitive. Despite growing tolerance for LGBT persons in Belize, the thought of having LGBT persons in stable and productive relationships is still a taboo. This is reflected in our legal system where “marriage” and “common law union” is understood to be between different sex persons.

In Belize, heterosexuals who aren’t married are given recognition in our laws, married people have been embedded in numerous laws and LGBT persons much less same sex couples have NO LEGAL recognition in ANY of Belize’s laws.

Same sex couples in Belize have a lot of challenges to face in securing their relationships and their families. Looking beyond the discrimination based on their sexual orientation and sexuality - the decision to create a life together, support one another in bad or good has no legal recognition in Belize.  Despite all the odds, many couples, continuously fight and challenge the system, they defy the one minded society by showing that a family is not built on who the people are but the love that brings them together.

Rashima Kwatra: What benefits are not being afforded to same-sex couples because there is no access to marriage equality?

Joshua Munoz: To be honest, with the massive influence of the churches in Belize, if we were to start doing check and balances in respect to marriage equality, we might exhaust and demoralize ourselves and our community. Ever since the more progressive countries have been embracing marriage equality the debates have been occurring in Belize as well as other Caribbean countries. The funny thing is, the themes throughout the country seems to be around the inherent and traditional relationship between marriage and procreation. However, Belize has numerous examples of same-sex couples who have been in committed relationships for over ten years and same-sex couples who are raising children. 

I believe in “slow and steady wins the race”. While people would say, go hard for marriage equality, there are numerous people in our LGBT community, just like with the heterosexual community, do not believe in marriage and have no intent to be married.  Therefore, rather than leaving those behind to struggle for themselves, I believe the initial step should be getting same-sex relationships legally recognized in Belize, just as how heterosexual relationships which have not developed into formal marriages are legally recognized after 5 years of living together.

I say all this because, within our Belizean Constitution which claims to offer equal protection, prohibits discrimination, upholds human dignity and ensures the rights of ALL Belizeans there is no law, policy or even mention regarding any form of legal recognition of same sex relationships. Within the Laws of Belize, we have the right to a family, but not with each other as same-sex couples.

The Registration of Births and Deaths Act C 157 makes no provision for non-traditional parents.  There is no way that two lesbians can have both their names on their child(ren) birth certificate(s).   If two gay men were to get a surrogate to carry a child for them, there is no way for both fathers’ names to be on the child’s birth certificate.

The Administration of Estates Act C 197 does not discuss the legality of those who die intestate in respects to same sex relationships.  Heterosexual partners who have cohabited for 5 years or more (common law union) can benefit from the estate of their partner as if they were lawful spouses; however, because of no definition or recognition of same sex couples, same sex partners cannot become lawful spouses or common law spouses.

While all employed Belizeans are expected to make Social Security contributions, the Social Security Act C 44 does not allow the same sex partners to be able to claim survivor’s benefits.  The benefits would be given to the next of kin, even if the same sex partner was the one who bore all the expenses of the deceased prior to his or her death.

For same-sex couples with children, whether it’s adopting, surrogacy or one partner carrying the child – there is no way for both partners to legally have the child(ren) as beneficiaries.  One will have the legal responsibility and the other parent will have no legal ties to the child(ren).  If something happens to the partner that does not have the legal obligation to the child(ren), there is no provision for the the partner nor the child(ren) can claim any benefits.

There are so many other legal and social inequality faced - which by just legally recognizing the LGBT community and the relationships we develop - would minimize numerous grey areas in our lives.  Things as simple as making life and death decisions, getting joint mortgages and even insurance as a couple is near impossible in Belize for same-sex couples.

Rashima Kwatra: What are some ways that couples in Belize employ to deal with these issues?

Joshua Munoz: While there is a major legal gap in Belize, same-sex couples share many commonalities with heterosexual couples. The day-to-day activities of their lives often are similar, but the social context in which they live differs greatly, largely due to the influences of the dominant heterosexual culture and traditional expectations of gender roles within a relationship.

Despite the many challenges same sex couples encounter, they still fight, and persevere. Many couples find a loop hole in the system to build a family, to build a home and to be together. 

The fact that Belize has many same-sex relationships that endure, and are as stable as cohabitating heterosexual unions, despite residing in a sometimes-hostile climate, is a testimony to the resiliency of the members involved.

There has been minimal educating around the importance of defining LGBT couples.  This is a project that Our Circle is currently engaging in. Our Circle’s “Strengthening LGBT Families Against Social Inequality” Project is identifying means and ways to address social inequality and securing social stability for the LGBT-led families in Belize. 

While systems such as the Social Security Act, Registration of Births and Death Acts and the Marriage Act are systems with judicial procedures to initiate change, numerous same-sex couples have been accessing legal advice and develop wills to secure the assets being collected during their relationships.  They have also been developing Power of Attorneys to ensure their partners are able to act on their behalf in the event of an emergency.  To the couples who want to ensure their family legally shares the same name, they engage in the Deed Poll process – a legal process to change names.  These “loop holes”; however, only address a fraction of the inequality being faced by same-sex couples.  Furthermore, to initiate these processes one would need to seek legal assistance.

In November 2016, Our Circle supported by CoC Netherlands did a needs assessment and the top three concerns for the Belizean LGBT community were: homophobia, poverty and lack of safe spaces. Therefore, we know that the fear of being discriminated and stigmatized, majority of our community members would not willingly engage legal services for assistance.  Out of the amount who would be willing to approach a legal advisor may not be able to afford the services. Therefore, through its current project, Our Circle tries to create safe spaces to bring those services at minimal cost to the LGBT community.

Rashima Kwatra: Did you discover something surprising or interesting while conducting the survey?

Joshua Munoz: From our three years of interacting with the LGBT community in Belize, most of the groups operating would agree that the LBT community is far more visible than the MSM community when it comes to relationships.  However, even though the survey only circulated for three weeks and was done only via online survey, the fact that forty-eight percent (48%) of the participants identified as gay or trans men was an eye opener, particularly to us as community activists.

Because of the invisibility of the MSMs when it comes to social and legal stabilities in same sex relationships, a lot of interventions are not geared towards the MSMs who may be interested in expanding - or have already established - their family.  Out of the twenty-five MSM participants, thirteen percent reported to be raising children in their same sex relationship and ten percent said that at some point they want to raise children with their current partner.  This information would not have been captured and Our Circle would not have been able to revisit its strategy to ensure that MSMs are included in these conversations surrounding family security.

Rashima Kwatra: What does Our Circle hope will come out of this baseline survey?

Joshua Munoz: The family represents one of the key social units in Belize. Belizean families are diverse consisting of nuclear families, extended families, and re-constituted families, among others. However, despite the significant role of families particularly with regard to socioeconomic development, there is no data on same sex families.

Since there is no existing data regarding same sex couples in Belize, at the beginning of the Strengthening LGBT Families Against Social Inequality Project, Our Circle needed a means of quantifying the distribution of same sex couples throughout Belize. This benchmark information, complied through the “Same Sex Couples Baseline Demographics Survey”, aims to support the emergence of evidence-based policy making in Belize by providing the necessary informational base, as well as sensitization of various stakeholders to the importance of using, and developing this information. 

To expand this initiative, through its current project, Our Circle plans to gather information on many welfare dimensions such as educational levels, access to health care, housing conditions and household characteristics.  These indicators will provide valuable input in the legal reviews currently being conducted, both by the National AIDS Commission (NAC) and the National Committee for Families and Children (NCFC) Child Protection Task Force and enhance its planning processes and the inclusion of the unmentioned same-sex couples.

Successive rounds of this survey will allow key stakeholders and policy makers to monitor progress in these indicators as well as several Millennium Development Goals.  The data from this survey is currently being used to draft Belize’s first Legal Handbook for LGBT Persons and their Families which involves input from several policy makers throughout Belize. 

This study describes the situation of the same sex couples in Belize and highlights:

  • A description of same sex families in terms of structure and other socio-demographic factors
  • A description of same sex couples’ access/lack thereof, to the action programs of the Belize government designed to guarantee health and well-being
  • Evidence-based policy recommendations and suggestions for future research

With the appeal of Section 53 still hovering over the progress of the LGBT movement in Belize, we can only imagine how long it will take for the government entities to own the process in gathering statistic that are same-sex specific.  Therefore, we only hope that other CSOs/NGOs would engage in a collaborative effort to put together a more in depth research into the social and legal implications our invisibility within national systems have on our ability to secure our families.

Me, Joshua Munoz (right) and my partner Deigo Grajalez (left). We've been together for almost 4 years and is currently living together for 3 years. I met my partner in crime through Facebook (power of social media), and that kicked off our friendship. Shortly after, we started dating and ever since we were glued together facing the world side by side. We have had our ups and downs as, battles and victories as in with every relationship, but being with him is like no other and I am happy to share my life with him. He has shown me what it means to love yourself, to enjoy each moment as if its your last,to appreciate life and most importantly be who you are and embrace it.

Our story is young, and we have many more battles in our path, but nevertheless I know once we are together, we will over come anything.