Columns

Money, power and sexuality

Howard Gregory

Sunday, December 18, 2011    

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THERE is perhaps no other subject that can get a Jamaican audience as worked up as that of homosexuality. Consequently, the airing of the subject is usually accompanied by many irrational and emotionally driven responses which do not lead to any advancement in the understanding of the same, but a reinforcement of previously held positions.

Recent declarations by foreign leaders on the subject as it relates to the future development of Jamaica seem to have gone relatively unnoticed by many people, and may indeed belie the notion that the subject is as important to us as we often assume, as politics and the current election campaign seem to have dispelled any such notion.

This may indeed be a fortuitous development as it may allow for some rational engagement surrounding the significance and meaning of these recent pronouncements for us as a people. Several weeks ago, there was a report in the media that British Prime Minister David Cameron indicated in a television interview that his Government will be linking certain forms of overseas aid to nations based on the level of legal protection which they offer to gays, bisexuals, lesbians and transgendered people as a guarantee of their human rights.

In more recent days, President Obama has issued a directive to heads of US executive departments and agencies concerning the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons (LGBT) by foreign nations. It arises out of what the president describes as his deep concern for the violence which is directed against these persons, through various means "whether it is passing laws that criminalise LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation".

He argues for such protection to be seen as a guarantee of their human rights. This directive mandates United States agencies to target nations which criminalise sexual behaviour among these groups of persons. The directive was issued to departments of state, the Treasury, Defence, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, the United States Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Export-Import Bank and the United States Trade Representative.

Among other things these agencies are to ensure that the United States' policies are effected in their relationship with foreign governments and to report to their government on the status of these developments. It is clear that foreign aid will be used as a tool toward compliance by foreign governments.

While it is not clear what prompted the utterance from the British prime minister, the president of the United States of America has made it clear that he is concerned about the level of violence that is directed toward LGBT persons and the consequent violation of their human rights. There is no question that the president is correct in pointing to violence which is expressed in relation to these persons and is very much in evidence in Jamaica.

It is also clear that the religious and philosophical basis on which persons find these expressions of sexuality objectionable do not justify the violence which is unleashed against LGBT, and it does not help to distance oneself from the violence when public discourse by these objectors finds expression in vitriolic language.

In addition, there has been, over the years, a tendency to treat crime against gays as not deserving of thorough criminal investigation, a development which has only improved in recent years with the prosecution of high-profile cases and pressure from external agencies.

Equally, the way in which we have dealt with the issues related to the LGBT population has also been clouded by much confusion and irrationality. There is an immediate association in the minds of some people with sex offenders and child abusers, a position which has no support in terms of statistics, as most of these categories of offenders are heterosexuals.

At the same time, the preoccupation with sodomy and the retention of this act as criminal, deserving of incarceration, is a misplaced priority and focus. There is no need for the police or the society as a whole to direct our attention to a voyeuristic pursuit of what adults choose to do in the privacy of their sexual expressions of affection.

We must be clear about our personal values and how these find expression in our personal lives. We must therefore be careful how we seek to make matters of personal values into laws which criminalise others who operate with a different value framework.

The articulation of the directive in the framework of human rights cuts as a kind of two-edged sword. On the one hand it is unquestionable that everyone is entitled to the same basic human rights enjoyed by all citizens, the LGBT group being no exception. Violence against the person, including that sanction by the state through silent consent and complicity, constitutes an intolerable violation of the human rights of an individual or people.

In the case of the LGBT population it is not only violent expressions which count but discriminatory laws which are embodied in the legal system of the nation. To this end, we must take note of the efforts of the lobby and subsequently, the Government, in passing a Bill of Rights which intentionally excluded these persons from some of the rights which are enjoyed by the rest of the citizenry. Such expressions of exclusion must be regretted and must, in time, be rectified.

Perhaps the other side of the sword is connected to the motivation behind some of the actions of the lobby and which arises in relation to the current directive from these external leaders. It has to do with the definition of anything as a human right and how it becomes translated into consequential activities and lifestyle.

For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the definition of individual rights as "freedom of thought, conscience, and religion", and "freedom of opinion and expression" but, as is evident to all and sundry, how these are expressed differs across the globe, and is informed by such things as political philosophy, governance and religion within specific national contexts, the United Kingdom and the United States of America being no exception.

We can therefore expect that the way in which these rights are interpreted can be subject to varying interpretation by different countries and cultures. Western nations have consistently pursued a line that cultures which are different from their own are not only primitive but unenlightened and in need of the light they bring to bear on our situation.

In the case of the United States of America, it has exercised this perspective by unilaterally arrogating to itself the position that its laws have universal application and are to be enforced accordingly. Notwithstanding the fact that among the rights of nations embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to self-determination.

The subject of homosexuality is one which is informed by cultural and religious values within the framework of the guarantees of the human rights of individuals. In this regard, it is interesting to note that in the United States -- where there are laws which protect LGBT from acts of violence, and where attempts are made by legislators to push the button in redefining marriage and other aspects of family definition as a further development -- these have been rejected when taken to the people by way of the ballot, no doubt informed by their values and religious beliefs.

In a similar manner then, I would expect that any external involvement in how we handle such matters as a nation would afford us the same respect as is afforded the electorate in their country. So beyond the issue of violence, we must decide what constitutes a "marriage" or "civil union", and we must decide what constitutes "a family" and what is the appropriate environment within which to raise our children.

Beyond the issue of sexuality, however, I have a great sense of unease, if not repugnance, at the notion that international aid from donor nations, which by its very nature has to do with the bread and butter issues of a nation's life, will be used as a means of gaining submission. Actually, some persons may be wondering about the relevance of this subject at a time when we are caught up in the political campaign leading up to a general election.

The truth is that it has much to do with our understanding of our nation as an independent one, shortly to embark on the celebration of 50 years of independence, and the extent to which our democracy allows us self-determination. Already it is clear that whichever party wins the next election will have to function at the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, regardless of the semantics we may use to describe our relationship to that body.

For external nations to add to that situation the use of aid as a big stick to control how our culture, values, and religious beliefs can influence the laws and way of life in our nation, is another matter.

So may all our people vote as we go to the polls in the maintenance of our democracy and sense of self-determination, and may we elect leaders who are prepared to engage others with a similar commitment to the preservation of those values dear to us and not compromise us for a "mess of pottage".

Christmas greeting

Although the timing of the general election has tended to overshadow the celebration of Christmas, which is so central to the life of Christians, it is my hope that we will still be able to keep in focus the birth of the Christ-child and the message of hope, joy and peace which He brings to the life of humanity. May this message be kept alive and incarnated in our homes and nation as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are so prone to divisiveness over the issues of party politics.

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