Derricia Castillo-Salazar – Our Circle, Belize

Derricia Castillo-Salazar is a retired captain of the Belize Defense Force whose extensive advocacy around HIV/AIDS policies grew into a platform for LGBTI activism. She co-founded and currently heads Our Circle Belize, an LGBTI community organization, and recently served as the vice chair for Belize’s Equal Opportunity Bill steering committee. In this interview, Derricia shares updates about the bill, how it fits into the history of LGBTI activism in Belize, and what Our Circle is doing to support its community.

By Ari Weinstein

How did you become involved in LGBTI activism?
I started my advocacy journey in HIV/AIDS work when I was about 14 years old. I went to a religious high school and HIV/AIDS was a taboo topic, but I knew that it was worth advocating for. Later, when I joined the military, there was an opportunity for us to create an HIV policy for the armed forces. In the military, the HIV policy went through all levels of approval so I needed the support of the right people. Because I was an officer, it was easier for me to help organize that, so I worked with a couple of my friends who are a part of the LGBTI community and were integral in the country’s then HIV response. This is what propelled me into advocacy. That was the first time that I actually realized that if I have enough people supporting my cause, I can get something done. Since my service ended I’ve still been very effective in the HIV response here in Belize.

How did your LGBTI activism evolve?
I started Our Circle in 2013 with two other friends. We felt upset because the LGBTI community was being portrayed as an underground orgy community that engaged in heavy drinking and reckless behavior. We wanted to bring people in our community together, and we made it clear that we were not an LGBTI group, but rather a group of LGBTI people who wanted to make a difference. We had social events, we did trips, and focused on taking away the sexualized stereotypes of being LGBTI. While we were having these social parties, we were keeping track of what people’s issues were and what was being said and done legally with regard to what we could or couldn’t do. We put together a legal guidebook for LGBTI Belizeans based on that information, and then we knew that we had enough of a platform to discuss discrimination, legal issues, and protecting ourselves, our partners, and our families. And that’s where we actually started applying to become an NGO. We started getting funding and putting ourselves in strategic places where we could actually influence policymakers. We’re doing more legal and social work now, especially relating to the topic of LGBTI people deserving the right to have a family. We focus on “reclaiming the term family.” In our laws, we’re still excluded because of certain definitions which define parents as a men and women. The domestic violence act doesn’t cater to us, either: we’re protected as being a part of a household, but the minute it becomes your partner, it’s much more difficult to navigate.

So you’re saying for intimate partner issues, you wouldn’t be protected?
Correct. And the Equal Opportunities Bill would fix that. In fact, our community survey found that the biggest impact since COVID-19 started has been more domestic violence. LGBTI people cannot report intimate partners who are abusing them because we don’t have proper legal protection. None of the safe houses allow for someone who has been abused to walk into a safe house and say “I need help.” They must go through the system, but when the system doesn’t allow them to report the domestic violence case, there’s not so much that we can do.

How did the Equal Opportunities Bill come to be?
The groundwork on the bill started prior to the Section 53 case. That case found that the section of the the criminal code in Belize that prohibited same-sex realtionsships was unconstitutional. That law stated that any “unnatural act” between two men can be punishable up to ten years. However, that decision was struck down by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin. Around the same time, the Equal Opportunties Bill was being discussed as an anti-discrimination legislation.

The original legislation was specifically supposed to be catered to persons living with HIV and other marginalized communities. The bill was drafted in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office and the National AIDS Commission that works with the Prime Minister’s office. The legislation was drafted with support from both the People’s United Party and the United Democratic Party. When we started, we were using the model from PANCAP (Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS) anti-discrimination legislation. We decided that rather than creating legislation geared towards employment, housing security, and equal access to health only for people with HIV, why not do it for all vulnerable populations? 

There was a listing of 22 key characteristics that the Equal Opportunities Bill would be protecting. We could not put together an anti-discrimination legislation without highlighting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. The Section 53 challenge had already addressed the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity. It would only seem progressive that a new legislation would capture the recommendations made by the Chief Justice in that case. That is where everything went wrong: the churches forgot about everyone else that was supposed to be protected, including the persons with HIV, and focused only on the LGBTI community. Although the Equal Opportunity Bill has zero mentions of the LGBTI community explicitly, the right winged church entities and leaders believe that the Equal Opportunity Bill is taking away their rights to profess their “biblical truths through a hidden LGBT agenda. The National Evangelical Association of Belize declared they are “resolute to protect [their] rights, [their] children, and the children of Belize from dangerous ‘gender fluidity and LGBT ideology.'”

Right, I heard that the churches and far-right religious groups had such a violent backlash that now the bill is off the table.
Yeah, it’s off the table. Right wing groups say the bill discriminates against straight people because there are repercussions within the legislation if someone is discriminated against. However, the way that it’s set up, in order for a case to be brought up in regards to discrimination to the Commission, a procedure must be done by the complainant to be able to initiate the process of a tribunal. I think not enough information has been shared about that. It’s a bit frustrating because a lot of work was done on the Equal Opportunity Bill and several factors including COVID-19 set us back. Because it’s an election year, anything taboo or risky is not something that the politicians are willing to hang their hats on. However, we know that the current government and potential incoming government both support the bill. They both believe more work can be done to strengthen the bill; however, we have elections in November, so we’re hoping that we can get that into the house in the first 100 days of the new administration.

I’m curious: what do you think is going to happen now that the bill is off the table?
We intend to bring it back on the table as soon as the new administration is elected. It would be less of a risk for them because they would have four more years to serve. In two years, something bigger will happen and they’ll forget what happened in the first year. Hence why we’ve already started strategizing and saying we’re giving ourselves 100 days before we get it back on the table after the election. The President of the National AIDS Commission and speaker of the house, Laura Tucker-Longsworth, under this administration gave an additional push because she was a part of the committee that was drafting and sensitizing about the legislation. Right now, we’re just trying to cross the t’s and dot the i’s with the other political party in the event that they take up majority seats in the National Assembly.

How has the Our Circle community been feeling about the bill?
One thing that we did better with the Equal Opportunities Bill than what we did with the Section 53 case was the fact that we actually involved the community through all stages. The community members feel as though they were a part of that thing as opposed to the Section 53 case when they felt we just delivered them the case. That’s one good thing that we did in regards to that. It’s been emotional, though, especially for those who have been doing the work for a while and those who’ve been integral in making subtle changes. A lot of our work was banking on this Equal Opportunities Bill because LGBTI couples in Belize don’t have equal parental rights. For instance, I have a life partner of eight years. If something were to happen to me, because I’m our child’s biological mother, he is not legally her child.

With all these high tensions and big issues, I want to hear about how people can donate to support your work.
We have made numerous recommendations towards the country’s legal and policy review for Families and Children Act and several other legislations in relation to protecting not only LGBTI parents and couples but all diverse families in Belize. This year we were able to advocate for the state to recognize cohabiting partners in the census. Unfortunately, again, COVID has postponed our Census 2020.

As the leading LGBTI organization working on family issues, financing our communication strategy, stakeholder meetings, and advocacy campaigns for this advocacy would be most helpful.

Support the team at Our Circle Belize on their website: https://ourcirclebze.weebly.com/

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