“Do not ever forget that there are 30,000 LGBT persons living in this country … We have the power to swing a vote where we want.” — LGBT supporter
Oceana Vice President in Belize, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, confirmed at a press conference this afternoon that she has resigned from her post and will return to private practice after the organization introduced a new policy that would, in effect, bar her from continuing to speak openly against a move to legalize sodomy in Belize.
Matura-Shepherd said that she resigned last Thursday after mulling over the matter for three days. Oceana accepted her resignation the following day.
She said that she and the head of the organization had opted not to say anything public until today, when they issued a joint press release.
“I have submitted my resignation as Vice President of Oceana for Belize effective as of August 22, 2013. It is time for me to move on to new opportunities and to fully pursue my legal career, which remains my passion while balancing it with my family obligations,” said Matura-Shepherd.
Andrew Sharpless, Chief Executive Officer of Oceana, based in Washington, DC, USA, said: “Last week, I accepted Audrey Matura-Shepherd’s resignation… We look forward to working with Audrey to effect a smooth transition to new local leadership.”
Sharpless thanked Audrey for her service and wished her continued success.
The road to today’s press conference, though, was not as smooth as the parties had made it out to be in that official statement. Nowhere in the statement did the parties disclose what triggered Matura-Shepherd’s departure, and it points back to her weekly Amandala column in which she publicly broached the topic of sexual mores – a sensational issue in 2013 with a new movement to oust anti-sodomy provisions from Belize’s law books.
Today, Matura-Shepherd told the media that: “[Things] culminated the last two weeks when I did write an article in the newspaper – which I do for free … in which I made it known that the same way there is a group of people calling themselves UNIBAM, demanding that their sexual orientation be accepted, it is not unlikely that there can be another group calling themselves whatever ‘bam’ they want to be, also demanding the right to be with animals. And I could go down the list of things that are criminalized in this country.”
She told the press that she never said what she did to offend anyone, nor because she wanted to enter into a debate over the issue.
“For me, it was just writing another article,” she told the press.
In that article captioned, “Who is Above the Law”, she had written: “Section 53 Criminal Code of Belize also makes sexual intercourse with animals, which is called bestiality, a crime. The thought of it upsets my stomach, but I hoped that no civilized society would even consider making that the norm. But then again, who would have expected that same sex intercourse could become the declared norm? To my surprise, I read about bestiality already being legal in other countries, and that was the next obvious move following the decriminalizing of sodomy. I pray we NEVER go that far!”
Those statements, said Matura-Shepherd, sparked a flurry of protests to Oceana from the LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transsexual) community – who, according to a Facebook post by one Christian Riveroll, number 30,000 in Belize.
Matura-Shepherd said that it all started with Lisa Shoman, attorney for the claimants in the Supreme Court case challenging the sodomy laws, first calling her out on Facebook. Then a slew of protest letters were sent to Oceana’s headquarters.
“When I saw the level of attack and the lengths they would go to quiet people, I realized it was not about sodomy or bestiality; it was about reaching a point in this country where people would not be able to speak openly,” she said.
Contrary to reports that Oceana pressured Matura-Shepherd to resign, she said: “At no point have they said, ‘You must resign.’”
According to Matura-Shepherd, there were posts by Paul Schmidt and Christian Riveroll, indicating that they would call on all LGBT persons, many of whom they said have supported Oceana in the movement to stop offshore drilling, to now come forward and denounce the work of Oceana.
Christian Riveroll commented on May 18 on Oceana Belize’s Facebook page, “I write publicly on this page to let you know of my utter disgust at your comments on your page equating homosexuals to beastiality… Many LGBT persons in Belize actually supported your cause…including myself… I was an advocate for your CAUSE…but your comments today made me so disgusted that I no longer can show support for this cause… DO NOT EVER FORGET THAT THERE ARE 30,000 LGBT PERSONS LIVING IN THIS COUNTRY. We have the power to swing a vote where we want.”
Matura-Shepherd said that this is not the first time she has been subjected to attacks while at Oceana: she said that while fighting for a referendum on offshore drilling, things escalated to the point where she was receiving death threats, and she was under police guard.
Notwithstanding the developments, Matura-Shepherd said that she is a trained attorney and advocate who loves her country and will fight “to [the] bitter end”.
“What the people who are against me should understand is, that they were safer had they left me where I was, because I would have been so occupied doing the work of Oceana, but when I see as a woman, as a mother, as a Belizean, that you are prepared to destroy my job? Hello! That is low. And when you are prepared to tell me I cannot speak up, I think I draw the line there—so that’s the reason I’m leaving,” she told the press.
Asked what place Oak Foundation, supporter of the UNIBAM cause, has in all of this, Matura-Shepherd declined to get into that angle of the story. Matura-Shepherd just confirmed that “…it finances both—many organizations.”
It was not until two weeks ago that she made her personal view on the LGBT agenda known, and since then, Matura-Shepherd said a new policy was handed down that meant she would not be allowed to retain her position and make the kind of comments she did in her Amandala column.
Asked if she feels a sense of betrayal, when it was her outspoken and forthright nature that benefited the movement against offshore drilling, she said she does not.
As for the implications of Matura-Shepherd’s departure for the pending appeal of the decision by Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall which declared six offshore contracts null and void, she told the press: “The wheels are set in motion. We will fight the case to the bitter end.”
Oceana, which was founded in 2001, describes itself as the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation.
According to Oceana’s website, its president, Jim Simon, operates out of Washington, DC. Matura-Shepherd is one of four VPs mentioned online, as members of the executive committee of Oceana.