BELIZE CITY, BELIZE — When the first seeds of PETAL were sown, founder Simone Hill decided to call it a conversation.
The advocacy group —which has the full name of Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness of Lesbian and Bisexual Women (PETAL) — came from a need for support and education for lesbian and bisexual women in Belize.
“When I came out as a lesbian in my early 20s and I looked around Belize I realized that we weren’t being educated, in fact women on the whole weren’t being educated about things about Belize and so I wanted to educate women,” said Hill, who is the group’s current president.
Hill and her partner Charrice Talbert recently reflected on the state of gay women in Belize and the group’s goals for the coming year.
Hill, who is originally from Belize, lived in New York for about seven years, where she volunteered with a task force devoted to helping same sex partners navigate the immigration system.
When she returned to Belize in 2003, she realized that the country lacked advocates for women — especially women who identified as lesbian or bisexual.
“I wanted women to be aware of laws and how it affected them or how it didn’t affect them. For them to know the laws, to educate, be empowered and advocate for the change of these antiquated laws,” Hill said.
Then in 2012, a frightening medical experience led Hill led her on the path to forming PETAL.
“I went to the doctor and some signs showed HPV,” Hill said. “I wondered because I hadn’t been with a man in so many years — nearly 20 years — and I didn’t understand what the doctor was telling me or how I could have contracted that.”
Hill said that experience spurred her to create an organization that would educate women on medical topics and other issues affecting lesbians that weren’t being discussed openly elsewhere.
“And so I wanted women who identified as myself as a lesbian to talk about it, to know about it, that things like this could happen,” Hill said.
She met an academic and advocate for women’s issues, Dr. Abigail McKay, at a march against violence. She recruited McKay to be the technical advisor to PETAL.
“Myself and Dr. McKay talked about what it would be like, how would we educate the women and she wanted to hear what I had to say since I was adamant on it,” Hill said. “I told her that educating women — this would have been the first time that we would have gone into it — to secure a safe space for women and to have this group of women come out in Belize. So what do we do, we don’t want them to feel like it’s a meeting or anything like that.”
She wanted it to be informal, but structured — and so they called it a conversation. Through word of mouth they convened a group of women to have a potluck and talk about domestic violence in same sex partnerships.
In 2015 the United Belize Advocacy Movement provided the group with six months of funding before recommending they apply for additional resources to continue as an organization. Hill was hesitant to take on the responsibility.
“Nonetheless it had to happen and it had to be me,” Hill said. The group now also receives money from COC Netherlands, a Dutch organization that has been advocating for LGBTQ health activism around the world.
Hill said it was important for the group to use the words lesbian and bisexual in its name — to be upfront about its advocacy.
“I would say the name so that people would know right away and I could see the reaction from them right away so there was no beating around the bush,” Hill said.
They now have a membership of 75 women located not only in Belize City, but in districts to the south and west. Beyond their membership they serve more than 100 women and girls and hope to expand to the north.
“We foster social, economic, and gender justice for all women, but especially the les/bi population,” explained Charrice Talbert, Hill’s partner and PETAL’s treasurer. “Being a member of PETAL requires you to be a lesbian, but just coming into the space does not.”
Since incorporating in 2015, PETAL has advocated for the Domestic Violence Act in partnership with Women Against Violence to ensure that women in Belize have legal recourse against abuse. They have also expanded upon their conversations to provide personal professional development trainings open to all women.
They also have an annual Valentine’s gala, which is the only event hosted by PETAL that is solely for people who identify as LGBT.
“It’s a safe place for us to be ourselves and that is for the entire LGBT community,” Talbert said.
So far PETAL has been extremely well received by the Belizean people.
“We’ve always been commended for our approach that it’s not that we’re trying to force anyone to see things our way or anything like that,” Talbert said. “We’re not trying to change anybody — like to change anybody’s mindsets because a lot of it will come with education or with time. And we realize this and so our approach is always different. It’s more receptive because we’re not trying to force anyone to do anything.”
PETAL plans more conversations and programming about healthy relationships, legal rights, mindfulness, well-being and STD prevention.
Hill said the biggest challenge lesbians in Belize face is not having same sex partnership rights.
“Where it concerns things such as social security, where it concerns guardianship if that’s my partner and something happens to the child that person should be allowed to be there because they are a guardian,” Hill said. “So those things really are an issue for us.”
These issues are also personal to Hill and Talbert, who have four children in their family.
“This is why I say when we advocate we are advocating for the things that affect us directly and some that affect us indirectly because a person may not be thinking that far ahead to what if I die, what will happen,” Talbert said. “We have children in this relationship, we’ve invested time we have a house, we have loans, all the things you would do as a heterosexual couple but we don’t receive benefits for it.”
There is still a lot of work to be done, but these women are doing it.