Professor Brendan Bain exercised terribly poor strategic judgement in offering that affidavit which got him fired. The University of the West Indies (UWI) hardly had any option but to boot him. Overwhelming public outrage and disgust with the demagoguery of the gay lobby and its fellow travellers is absolutely justified, and the championing of freedom of speech is refreshingly welcome.
These are seemingly contradictory positions, but represent the kind of nuanced reflections which have been all too often absent from the largely visceral and glandular discussion of this issue. We need to cool our heads (well, more accurately, our emotions) and rationally and dispassionately discuss this issue.
I have warned repeatedly in these columns about the profoundly anti-democratic tendencies in the gay lobby and its threat to freedom of speech. It exploits the word 'homophobia' as a conversation-stopper, labelling every opposition to homosexuality, however mild, as blind prejudice, bigotry and stigmatisation. The gay lobby has succeeded in defining even intellectually honest objections to homosexuality (an oxymoron?) as hate speech and it will pursue and persecute anyone who opposes its agenda of normalising homosexuality. I have no illusions about either the gay lobby's power or agenda.
The gay lobby and its human-rights allies have suffered significant reputational damage over its bullying of Bain out of his job as head of a UWI project dealing with HIV/AIDS. The Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches puts it well in its release last Thursday: "A decision such as this against such a reputable professional has served to concretise the view that those with a homosexual agenda are prepared to discriminate against, stigmatise and silence those who do not share their world view. Therefore, this is likely to cement the lines of separation and bolster the stridency in opposing the homosexual lifestyle."
Says the church group: "No doubt Professor Bain's casualty will be lifted up as a local example of what happens to those who share a different world view." However, I believe this issue has been mischaracterised as one of the denial of academic freedom and as mere cowering on the part of the UWI administration. I believe we are conflating some issues needlessly.
First, it is not one of academic freedom. Professor Bain is a retired professor. He has not been penalised as a professor with Evangelical views. He held and expressed those views all those years as a professor and was very active in the Christian community for many years in media pushing traditional Christian family values. He was never victimised by the UWI for that.
But if Professor Bain had lost the support and goodwill of major organisations working in HIV/AIDS, how could he effectively carry out his work as head of Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART)? What practical sense would it make for the UWI to continue to keep him working in a capacity when those whom he would need to work with reject him? Put the blame on the organisations which vociferously voiced their opposition to his continued leadership, not the UWI that was managing the project.
But you say the UWI must not bow for "30 pieces of silver". It must stand up for principles and its values. Well, it turns out, as Vice-chancellor E. Nigel Harris told us clearly in media interviews last week that the UWI's values are in the direction of the decriminalisation of homosexuality - on the wrong side of which Professor Bain found himself in that Belize case. UWI Chancellor Sir George Alleyne was very forthright and even strident in his address to the 2013 UWI graduating class in Barbados. He sees criminalisation of homosexuality as being against human rights. Harris says explicitly that is the UWI's position.
So faced with sharp and trenchant opposition to Bain's continuing to lead CHART and its own values, the UWI, it seems to me, acted consistently and justifiably in firing Professor Bain. It clearly was going to lose that contract. No doubt about that. But in light of its own position on the importance of decriminalisation to non-stigmatisation and non-discrimination, and the practical fact that Bain's constituency rejected him, it would be only cowardice that would make the UWI keep Bain. Quite the opposite of what some simplistically charge.
The UWI made a significant statement in its release which would justify its dismissal of Bain from the project (not the academy, mark you): "The majority of HIV and public-health experts believe that criminalising men having sex with men and discriminating against them violates their human rights, puts them at even higher risk, reduces their access to services, forces the HIV epidemic underground, thereby increasing the HIV risk. These are positions advocated by the UN, UNAIDS, WHO, PAHO, the international human rights communities and PANCAP (the Pan Caribbean partnership Against AIDS)."
I don't accept all those assumptions. But if there is such broad consensus in the field on the importance of decriminalisation to the HIV fight — and Bain must be aware of this — it was foolhardy for Bain to be leading a regional group and to so blatantly go against its accepted norms in that Belizean case. Go and do your thing. Exercise your freedom of conscience to stand upon for your conviction. But you have to be prepared to pay the price.
The funders of the project, the people paying his salary, have a certain view, whether you agree with them or not. They are both paying the piper and calling the tune. If you fundamentally disagree with them and their direction, you resign. Nobody has any absolute right to any job. There are certain convictions that we have which make us ineligible for certain positions. You can't head a feminist agency and you publicly lobby for women to stay at home and teach that men have a divine right to rule.
We can challenge the groups on their view that the HIV struggle must include decriminalisation. I personally feel their arguments are weak. Even if homosexuality is decriminalised, stigma will still remain once cultural attitudes don't change. Stigmatisation does not depend on laws. That's an elementary fallacy. Ask any black American. Read the literature on race, discrimination and stigmatisation and see how enduring stigmatisation is even after the Civil Rights Act.
The Caribbean gay lobby and its human-rights compatriots make unwarranted assumptions. Do you really believe that it is only because gays are threatened with police action why they don't turn up at clinics and health centres to get treatment and why they don't use condoms, etc.? Really? Nevertheless, I can't see any rational reason to support the continued criminalisation of homosexuality. (Note, this is not the same as arguing for legalisation, which I reject in our context for democratic and religious reasons.)
There is nothing in even conservative Evangelical theology which would say homosexuality should be criminalised while adultery and fornication are not. In the Old Testament, adultery, fornication and homosexuality were all capital offences (like Sabbath breaking). Homosexuality was called an abomination, yes, but in terms of biblical law, it had no higher penalty over adultery and fornication. Why should Professor Bain, as an Evangelical Christian, feel that homosexuals should be locked up and not fornicators and adulterers, when his own Bible provides absolutely no justification for such a differentiation?
That HIV/AIDS has a higher prevalence among male homosexuals is an established fact that is not even contested by gay people. In fact, Bain's testimony, which I read carefully, is sound scientifically, but in no way supports continued criminalisation of homosexuality. I am happy about the outrage and deep concern for freedom of speech, but the issue is misperceived as a freedom-of-expression issue. It is not. It is about loss of confidence by a constituency, justified or not, and the decision of a university to keep a lucrative project which is in tune with its own values.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who works with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.