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Polarisation within and without

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, July 06, 2014    

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IT would appear that the subject of sex and human sexuality has done it again. It should be obvious to all that in recent weeks this subject has attracted a lot of attention in the media in the wake of the dismissal of Professor Brendan Bain by the University of the West Indies (UWI) as the head of Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Centre Network (CHART), following his expert testimony in 2012 in a case involving a Belizean homosexual who is challenging the constitutionality of the buggery law in that country.

Once the story broke, there was the immediate awakening of interest, initially by members of the university community, who had deep concerns about the implications of this decision for their freedom of speech and expression of personal opinions and beliefs, even while functioning as reputable professionals within the employ of that institution.

That was soon overtaken by the awakening of a flurry of interest within the religious community and civil society. Whether out of deep religious and moral convictions or voyeuristic and tantalising interests is another matter. The media, conscious of the way in which this subject is able to generate popular interest and impact circulation, have been happy to run with the story as it developed around this issue.

Various interested persons and institutions have come together to form an advocacy group and have had interaction with the vice chancellor of the UWI in order to seek to arrive at a different outcome to the issue. Various individuals have expressed divergent views on the matter.

Some individuals, while giving credence to the decision of the university in its interpretation of the issues surrounding the case with Professor Bain, are not satisfied with the outcome, suggesting instead that Professor Bain should be retained by the university, given his outstanding professional service to the institution and to the advancement of education surrounding the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

What has turned up the emotional heat for many are the reports which suggest that the decision to terminate Professor Bain was due to pressure from the gay, lesbian and transgendered lobby, from outside and within the Caribbean, with the threat of economic consequences for failure to support the interest of the lobby. This, more than any other issue, has been the factor adding fuel to the fire of protest.

I believe that if the professor was being terminated in a similar fashion and the issue had nothing to do with the sensitive issue of sex, sexuality, and the gay, lesbian and transgendered lobby, the professor would probably have had to fight his battle alone.

The focus now seems to be shifting and is taking on various tangential issues. The decriminalisation of the buggery law, and its supposedly automatic precipitation of the introduction of same-sex marriages, has become a major focus. I find the preoccupation with this issue baffling.

What, may I ask, is the frequency of the occurrence of violation of this law? The point is that buggery is not something that persons go around and flaunt in public. It is true that there are instances in which individuals, including children, are victims of violent attacks in which this activity takes place, but there are laws which define such acts as violations, from indecent assault to carnal abuse in some instances.

The fact is that the current preoccupation is with consenting adults in the privacy of their place of residence, and only those with voyeuristic interest would be pursuing persons involved in such acts to see what they are about. To even think of deploying officers of the law to pursue and arrest those involved in such activities is nothing short of ludicrous, given the policing needs of this country at this time.

From my perspective, there is no point in spending the energy and focus of this nation, faced with so many challenges, to continue to pry into this area of people's life. The notion that decriminalisation of this behaviour will lead to the opening of some supposed floodgate seems not only an unlikely possibility but highly ridiculous.

There will be no more flaunting of this behaviour than we have at this moment, and which is certainly not a crime of frequent occurrence in our national crime statistics at this time. If we are really serious about crime and morality, let's talk about praedial larceny, youth-on-youth violence, domestic violence, abuse of children, where we have all the statistics to point to the frequency of occurrence.

The recent controversy surrounding Dr Carolyn Gomes and the Jamaicans For Justice initiative regarding the unauthorised sexual education programme that was implemented in six privately operated children's homes has only served to add to the confusion. While there was a failure to follow due process leading to inappropriate, and what has been identified as illegal conduct in the introduction of the sex education material to children in these homes, it would appear that the handling of this issue represents an opportunistic exploitation of the matter leading to what smacks of a kind of witch hunt.

Whenever the issue of homosexuality comes up, there is an immediate response that suggests that this is concerned with the behaviour of paedophiles, and therefore the need to protect our children, whereas the statistics point to the fact that the most frequent occurrence of such behaviour is with heterosexuals. While one cannot condone the introduction of children to any form of sex education which is age-inappropriate, I believe that we should not overplay our hand in trying to discredit Dr Gomes and Jamaicans For Justice, which she has served as a founding member and spokesperson.

It is clear that there are people and institutions that have had an issue with her and her advocacy role within the society, but this country needs her and needs Jamaicans For Justice for a long time to come. Those in governance, and those who are part of certain institutions or enjoy privileged status, know how to defend themselves and fight their own battles, but there remain too many Jamaicans and causes that are left on the margins, and to the mercy of God when it comes to matters of social justice in this country to this very day, and certainly for the foreseeable future.

To continue with the pursuit of legal action against Dr Gomes smacks of a vendetta, which may be playing to the audience at the moment, but with questionable long-term benefits to this country, and raises questions as to whether this is the best use that can be made of a justice system which cannot dispense justice to countless Jamaicans on a timely basis.

The media have been reporting the response of the Church to the current situation, whereas it seems to me to be more appropriate to speak of faith-based communities and individuals, as there is no inclusive involvement of the broad-based spread of denominations and religious leadership with the authority to speak on behalf of their constituency.

In a statement issued by the Rev Dr Garnett Roper some weeks ago, the faith-based groups were being accused of cherry-picking, having taken up the opposition to the seeming influence of the gay, lesbian and transgendered lobby, when there are so many other social and moral issues on which they have been silent.

While having a jarring effect on the ears of one with a religious commitment, one cannot avoid the truth of such an allegation, when never before has there been such an alliance of faith-based groups on any issue of national or regional significance. So, one is left to ask: does this agenda constitute the most formidable moral and social issue which we have to face as nations of the Caribbean at this time?

As rightly pointed out, our Government and the governments of the region have been fairly silent in stating positions on the issue related to the homosexual agenda, no doubt because of their fear of the electorate and their emotional response to the issue. Now that there is an articulated threat of votes being directed against any political party or candidate who lends seeming support to the homosexual agenda, it must be throwing some politicians into a tizzy.

Parallel to the process of mobilisation of forces by faith-based groups in Jamaica, there was a submission to the Caricom secretary general by 140 regional organisations, in response to the Caricom-supported programme dubbed 'Justice for All', which is being led by the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP), raising objections to measures they believe could be furthering a homosexual agenda.

The Government, while taking cognisance of the emotional context of the handling of the issue cannot, and must not, act out of emotion or even the threat of reprisal through the ballot box. It must exercise leadership and help to engage in civil conversations before taking a decision.

One aspect of that leadership would be the engagement of institutions which are able to facilitate civil discussion among people concerning differences in what is a plural society. Unfortunately, the current position taken by some faith-based institutions in relation to the university is regrettable, as it has led to a level of polarisation, whereas these two entities should be in the forefront facilitating a civil discussion on the issue.

I believe that the Church's role in this situation should be more one of mediation and dialogue, rather than confrontation and polarisation. Nevertheless, these are two entities which would need to be involved in the process, along with other interests in civil society. It is through the exercise of such leadership and engagement that the Government and our political leaders would be able to take a meaningful decision, and citizens would have an intelligent and defensible understanding of the issues.

Whether we like it or not, there are external forces that are fanning the flames of passion in our country and providing significant funding for stirring passions for and against the agenda. We must therefore step back and have a civil discussion as a people on these issues and not allow others to make decisions for us affecting our national life, and create additional polarisation within our nation.

Perhaps as an illustration of this, I would like to cite the situation with regard to capital punishment and hanging in this country. Although the level of crime has been a major concern for citizens for many years, and there have been repeated calls for the reintroduction of hanging, it has not happened. Even though I am not in support of capital punishment, I am convinced that our Government would not dare to take on the international pressures that would come our way if we made such a move at this time.

If the Government does not engage the people of this nation on this issue of homosexuality and seek to arrive at a clear and balanced perspective, it is obvious that it will end up betraying our people, because powerful external forces will be using international economic institutions to impose conditionalities wedded to human rights on a cash-strapped nation which will be forced to accept those conditionalities.

So, let us stop the emotional outbursts and the use of religious language to undergird the same, and let us bring together in a difficult, but civil process of conversation, how we want to go forward in addressing the issues of human sexuality, especially as it relates to homosexuality.

The reality is that buggery exists in this country, and all our shouting about "not in Jamaica" is not going to let it go away. This does not make it right, from a moral or religious perspective, but whether we need to spend our time pursuing persons who engage in such activities for criminal prosecution is another matter.

The way in which things have developed in recent weeks should be indicative of the way in which we should not proceed as Church and as a nation. What we have seen is polarisation taking place with no room for dialogue, and the inclusion of the wider society in a process that is about little more than shouting at each other.

The effect of all of this is that we lose sight of the fundamental issue before us and which has set the passions in motion, namely, reducing the stigma and discrimination against persons who are associated with HIV/AIDS, and ensuring that those affected with the virus do not go underground, but are allowed to receive proper medication and support in order to contain the pandemic.

In this regard, I would have a word for those external forces that seem to believe that they can use economic and political force to coerce compliance on matters related to sexuality, as well as those of a different persuasion who believe that they can impose their beliefs in unquestioning fashion on others. History makes it clear that coercion does not eradicate a people's moral and religious beliefs. It may send them underground for a while, even as it becomes the breeding ground for more radical beliefs. We need only look across the world to see how the attempt to use economic, military and political power to coerce others into submission is spawning radical movements of resistance in various nations.

Hopefully, our leaders in church and state will understand these matters in taking decisions going forward, and in bringing a sense of balance and a mediated perspective to the issue at hand.

— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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