1. Because Sometimes We Cannot Hear Each Other
The last time I went to a church service was maybe two years ago. ‘Two years too long!’ for some of my friends; ‘As recently as that?!’ for others. I had been talking to a friend from Syria, trying to explain this aspect of my life, my background, that still shapes so much of what I do and how I think. So I said, let us go. And she said, yes. It was a pity that I couldn’t take her to a Jamaican church – we were not in Jamaica – but this one would do. It was a lovely church community of people who didn’t just practice their religion on a Sunday morning but were committed and engaged in broader programmes of social justice – building schools, sheltering immigrants in their homes, inviting those who existed on the periphery of society into their fold.
The service was as I remembered services – a half hour or so of singing – a praise and worship session that in no time at all sweeps you up into its rhythms, its dancing, its emotional intensity. I turned to my friend as I belted out a chorus that was being projected onto the screen. She smiled at me and nodded. Yes, she seemed to say. She was beginning to understand my world, my background. Her own mouth was trying to learn the words of the song.
Then, the pastor went up to give his sermon – a lovely old man, you could tell he was greatly loved and admired by his church. To this day I remember his sermon exactly. He was speaking about the importance of change and why it can be so scary – why we almost never want to move from one spot to another spot, change jobs, houses, or even to end abusive relationships. Now there is a kind of silence that can fall upon a church, when a word from the pulpit is being spoken directly to people’s hearts. These were people in the midst of change and resisting it. The pastor opened his bible. ‘The children of Israel,’ he said, ‘once found themselves in a similar position.’ Already I began to feel a hollow opening up inside me. No, I wanted to say. Please don’t do what I know you are about to do.
‘The children of Israel,’ he continued, — and now he was rising on the cadence of his sermon—’they once stood on the edge of their promised land; they stood in the wilderness and were so comfortable that they didn’t want it to change. They didn’t want to go in and claim what was theirs. They were scared of change. But Jehovah gives them this assurance:’ and he quoted from the bible –
When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.
I became aware then of two worlds that I sometimes straddle and how they cannot hear each other. I mean this in the most literal way, because at this moment of the sermon everyone was on their feet, shouting Amen. For them the biblical passage was a metaphor, and God was promising to remove various obstacles from their lives. For my Syrian friend, this was history and the present. She had started to shake and had eased herself to the floor where she buried her head in her hands and the heaving of her body made me know she was crying. For her, this was no metaphor, but a doctrine that had legitimized the slaughter of her own people, had legitimized jihads both in the past and in the present; had legitimized programmes of apartheid and xenophobia and is still being used today for such hateful purposes. The Hittites and Canaanites etc were not random people. They were her ancestors and she listened as an entire congregation shouted their endorsement of her people’s slaughter.
My friend was crying; the church was shouting Amen; but neither of them could hear the other. I knew I had lost a friend, because it was I who had brought her into this, and I had no language with which to explain things to her, or to explain her predicament to the church goers who I knew would simply say defensively, ‘But it’s the bible!!’
I think I am always caught between worlds. Last Sunday when the story of Prof Brendan Bain and his supposed impasse with gay lobby groups broke across the media landscape of Jamaica, two things happened at once on my timeline. It is still happening this very minute as I write this blog. One set of friends are protesting the wickedness of this gay lobby to attack a man of such integrity. I am being requested to sign petitions. And status update after status update, my friends are affirming that they will not be cowed down by this despicable and increasingly fascist group.
But right between these are posts from other friends sick to death of this right wing Christianity; these bible thumpers who don’t seem to understand that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from responsibility. My timeline somehow collages these two distinct opinions against each other. It seems to me, here again are two groups experiencing all kinds of hurt and are shouting that hurt out to the world, but just as in that service two years ago, they cannot hear each other.
2. Personal and Public Selves
The title of this blog acknowledges the very personal relationships I have with Drs Brendan Bain and Kay Bailey. Kay you may not know as well. She isn’t at the centre of this controversy, but she is a medical doctor in Jamaica who has been advocating ceaselessly for the retention of our buggery laws, and so I thought this blog should address her as well. But though it is their public/professional selves that I wish to engage with now, I am simply too close to both of them to address them by their professional titles. Neither can I write this using my own. You see an essay or blog from Dr Kei Miller to the esteemed Prof Bain and Dr Bailey reveals, upon close inspection, the unsure ground from which I write. They are medical doctors and researchers; I am from the humanities – a mere writer with a PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies.
It is perhaps an inconvenience to know so well, so personally, people whose public selves you wish to engage with, and sometimes to challenge, for if you take a counter opinion you can no longer throw whatever invective you might have otherwise casually thrown at them – ‘close-minded’, ‘bigots’, ‘bible-thumpers!’ Instead you know too well their integrity, have experienced first-hand their love and compassion and so you must acknowledge that they (like you) are people in search of the truth, and people brave enough to speak that truth as they understand it.
I remain close friends with Prof. Bain’s children. I used to get lifts with them home (they were neighbours), and sitting in the car, watching Auntie Pauline and Uncle Brendan disburse money to their children, I used to joke that surely I qualified as their third son and so should be given an allowance as well. I housesat for them once. And when my mother died, there was Uncle Brendan and Auntie Pauline making their way up to Glasgow where I live to spend a little time with me. Indeed, a pang of guilt that has made me shudder every now and then over the past year is the inexcusable fact that while in Jamaica for an extended period recently, the time went by so fast that in the end I realized I had made no time to see them. I trust they will forgive me for that.
Kay Bailey is an executive member of the advocacy group, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society (JCHS). She is similarly close to my family. As a doctor and friend she has been a rock that we have called on during several moments of crises – my mother’s illness, the house being broken into, etc. It is too much to get into.
3. The Church we all once went to, and what I learnt there
I know these two amazing people from the context of church – a specific church – Mona Heights Chapel. Now I know there are some who seem to believe that church, especially the Jamaican church, is a place that closes rather than opens the mind, a place that stifles intellect. But a roll-call of my peer group from Mona Heights will paint a very different picture: there was Nadia Ellis, she went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, did her PhD at Princeton and now lectures at Berkeley; there was Stephen Russell whose love of the bible led to a PhD at NYU in the Old Hebrew manuscript and he now teaches in New York; his brother Andrew did a very different kind of PhD at MIT; my sister has just about finished a PhD in educational psychology; other friends have done PhDs in other aspects of education or in economics. I’ve accomplished a thing or two myself.
The point is, for all of us, our intellects were very much formed and nurtured in that space. We were taught to worship God not only with all our hearts and all our souls, but importantly, with all our minds. We were even taught to never trust a sermon, even if we heard it on our own pulpit. Instead we were to test everything rigorously. We were to be forever curious. We were to ask hard questions. God was not afraid of hard questions. There is something sad in the fact that in time many of us used the very tools that the church gave us to turn away from it, from what we perceived as its misogynistic, homophobic and sometimes simply hateful doctrines. But ask any one of us and we would all give the church credit for giving us those tools, and forming certain core values of truth and integrity and love in us.
Perhaps the most important lesson from that time came from the inductive bible studies we used to have. We were told to never approach a text and tell it what it would tell us. Too many of us have long decided on the things we know and we only read in order to confirm those things. If they don’t confirm our beliefs then we go into all kinds of contortions, reinterpreting and recontextualizing the thing until it finally means something more palatable for us. We were taught instead to approach a text with an open mind, to allow it to destabilize and sometimes to undo everything we thought we knew. In other words, we were encouraged not to bring ideology to the things we read, or to how we interpreted those things.
4. The problem of Ideology
“Shine the full light of human rights on HIV. I urge all countries to remove punitive laws, policies, and practices that hamper the AIDS response. In many countries, legal frameworks institutionalise discrimination against groups most at risk. Yet discrimination against sex workers, drug users, and men who have sex with men only fuels the epidemic and prevents cost-effective interventions. We must ensure that AIDS responses are based on evidence, not ideology, and reach those most in need and most affected.”
But let us acknowledge the simple truth that it is not only Christian groups that bring ideology and long-decided opinions to bear on the things they read or interpret. Non-religious groups do it as well. In fact, non-religious groups can be every bit as fundamentalist and evangelical as the religious groups they condemn. And this is what seemed at first most worrying about the recent debacle with Prof Bain – my Uncle Brendan – for it seemed at first that his detractors did not so much have a problem with the content of his affidavit or its basis on solid research, but rather with the ideology that has shaped the man.
Let me be absolutely clear on two things before I continue:
1) I unequivocally support the repeal of the buggery law.
2) I also unequivocally support the right of an academic to speak from his or her research. It simply would not be a good sign to have come to a place where we silence those who do not say the things we wish them to say – people who do not speak from our own ideologies.
This is why when the story broke out on Sunday morning in the papers I found myself incredibly upset with lobby groups as they were portrayed in the news reports, for it seemed they were willing to penalize a man for not saying what they wanted him to say.
I now know it is a bit more nuanced than that, a bit more complex. And I will get to the other side of things soon. But we might stop for a moment to appreciate that this is how the story has been framed and understood by several Jamaicans. What many of us have understood is that a good man has been fired for having the moral and intellectual integrity to stand up and say not only what he believed, but to do so while standing on the solid ground of his research. And if we appreciate that this is how the story has been framed, that this is what many of us have understood, then we might appreciate why across the length and breadth of this little buggered island, so many of us are feeling deep pain and sometimes anger over the whole issue.
5. The affidavit
If you haven’t read Prof Bain’s affidavit, I encourage you to do so. You can access it here. It is difficult to find much objectionable in it. Most interestingly it doesn’t seem to take the militant stance that on one hand some Christians are celebrating, and on the other, HIV/AIDS workers are criticizing him for. For the most part the document simply makes the undisputable point that for both biological and social/cultural/behavioural reasons — the HIV virus is passed on to Men who have sex with Men with something that approaches efficiency. The figures are simply staggering. Some people have tried to counter Bain’s argument by saying that the sex acts he lists (anal sex, multiple-partners, swallowing, etc) are not unique to homosexual relationships. This strikes me as a disingenuous argument. Prof Bain would almost certainly agree that for heterosexuals who engage regularly in these acts then the risk factor for them to contract HIV also increases dramatically. But there is little point in denying that these acts are far more common in the MSM community. Such a denial would go against the principles of the careful and targeted interventions that we want to do.
Bain’s affidavit does not take or register a stance against gay communities or gay men. It earnestly steers clear from such opinions and tries to stick to the figures. Towards the end of the paper when he seems to make recommendations, none of them include encouraging gay men to give their lives to Christ or to turn away from their evil ways. His affidavit accepts that men will have sex with men and so his recommendations are far more pragmatic – encouraging the use of condoms, lubricant, constant testing, delaying the age that one begins to engage in intercourse, etc.
I said it is difficult to find anything objectionable in the affidavit – but not impossible. There is one very curious statement which he offers in the preface and which in a way frames all of the evidence he then gives. He says:
“Some Public Health practitioners have hypothesized that decriminalizing the practice of anal intercourse among consenting adults would lead to a reduction in the incidence rate of HIV infections among MSM. To date, published data have not substantiated this hypothesis.”
This single statement will have several of his colleagues and many others who work as HIV/AIDS researchers scratching their heads in perplexity. I wish he had expounded on it and not just left it hanging there, a sentence that seems to go dramatically against what most of his colleagues would argue. For what is certainly true is that the rate of HIV/AIDS infection is highest in countries that have their buggery laws firmly in check. So where does this new conclusion come from? The very reports that he cites throughout his paper all come to the conclusion that the buggery laws must be repealed with great urgency to help in the fight against HIV. But Uncle B doesn’t mention this.
Now this is very tricky ground to stand on, for you will remember that JCHS, the group that Auntie Kay, Dr Bailey, is an executive member of – that they lost serious moral and intellectual ground when they kept on invoking the research of Prof Chris Beyrer, one of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS specialists, and used it to support their cause of keeping the buggery law in place. It was Beyrer himself who finally had to write a heartfelt letter to the Gleaner (you can read it here) almost begging the group to stop being irresponsible and contorting his research, reading it out of context, and not showing the conclusions he had reached . That conclusion – once again – was that the buggery laws must be repealed to help in the fight against HIV. So when Bain seems to be employing a similar tactic, selecting sections of someone else’s research, speaking authoritatively from it, but not acknowledging the conclusions from that research, indeed suppressing it, then we might understand why certain groups might begin to get nervous, or why they might feel, ‘Oh, we’ve seen this before!’
On closer inspection, and using all my skills as a literary scholar, the sentence is a slick and a slippery one. For though it might seem to leave hanging in the air the possible implication that the evidence REFUTES it, this is absolutely not what he says. He simply says the evidence does not, TO DATE, SUBSTANTIATE it. And we must give him credit, for Bain, throughout his affidavit, is making an extremely important and a nuanced point – that the repeal of the buggery law by itself may not lead to less HIV/AIDS infections among MSM, but that there are other behaviorial issues to tackle. The approach then to a meaningful intervention must be far more wholistic and open-eyed.
6. The conflict of interest
But is it only that one curious sentence that has groups demanding the professor’s head on a platter?
Bain’s detractors argue that they have no problem with the truth or with the robustness of the research he presented. As just explained, however, they do find it a little problematic that he used the research in such a way that seemed to bury the conclusions which the research itself had arrived at. But more than that, they argue that it is not enough to assess the truth of a thing, but we must look at what that truth is being used in service of. They would argue that in this world truth is too often used in the service of dangerous and unethical policies. And – just to make the point – we can see this historically, perhaps through some admittedly extreme examples: in the Nazi regime science was often called upon to legitimize practices of genocide, and also during slavery scientists, often shared findings that seemed to prove the negro race was inferior mentally and were best suited as livestock. I know these are not equivalents, but I’m simply making the point that it is indeed fair to ask not only how accurate a piece of science is, but what exactly is that science being used in service of?
Look — Bain’s affidavit takes a neutral tone and is absolutely grounded in research, but it would be disingenuous for us to ignore what the affidavit is being used to advance. We especially know what it is being used in service of, not so much because of what it says, but because of what it doesn’t say, the conclusions that are not included, the voices shouting from these reports that buggery laws need to be repealed, that are carefully silenced.
For many stakeholders in the fight against HIV/AIDS who are working hard to create environments in which people might practice better sexual health, that might encourage an especially effeminate man not to feel awkward and guilty to walk into a pharmacy and buy condoms and lubricant, an environment where people might seek treatment when needed – for these stakeholders to support a position that argues for the maintenance of punitive buggery laws is not only unhelpful to their work, but is unethical.
For these stakeholders the present situation would be analogous to Minister Peter Philips in another very public forum, saying that he was not only against the policies of the IMF but had given evidence to support the dismantling and undermining of these policies. The Minister of Finance simply could not show up for work on Monday morning to continue to spearhead the instituting of those policies which we now knew he didn’t support. This, for HIV/AIDS stakeholders, is the key and central issue.
- Our irresponsible media
It seems to me now that the media has been especially irresponsible and sensationalist in how they have framed this story. But I guess we should not expect any better. We expect these days to be manipulated by the news. And so they would have us all believe that this call for Prof Bain’s blood has come squarely from a gay lobby. The truth is more complex. The people and organisations who have expressed doubt are far more numerous than that, and the loss of faith in Bain’s leadership, far deeper. It includes, significantly, some of his own colleagues at CHART. But the media has decided it is the gay lobby, and we understand of course that this will sell more newspapers, and will fan the flames of public outrage across our buggered little island. But I have to come to terms with this small fact – that several people signed their names to that document expressing doubt in my Uncle B’s leadership. Those signatures included, but were in no way dominated by heads of LGBT groups. Those signatures represented a spectrum of groups, people and advocates who Prof Bain not only would have to work alongside, but provide leadership to. And I don’t know any way around that fact. Sad as it is, I’m not sure how anyone can provide leadership to people who expressly do not want to be lead by that person. Such a situation is simply and tragically untenable.
8. The Creation of Heroes, of Winners, and Losers
Do not think me cynical if I say that in one sense everyone has come out of this a winner. The HIV/AIDS researchers and (supposedly) the gay lobby have gotten what they wanted – the head of Prof Bain. But do not for a moment be mistaken: the Christian lobbyists have come out victorious as well. There is little else that can energize a group so much, that can give them so much of a moral high ground, that can galvanize their efforts, as to finally have a victim – a martyr.
It is not mere cynicism that might make someone point out that Martin Luther King Junior did as much, or more, for the cause of Civil Rights by dying as he did by living and marching. The qualities of a martyr are clear: he must be a good man; a man of integrity; he must have worked his life for the good of others; and then, for standing up for his beliefs, he must be hung on a cross. Yes. This is what religions are made of. And these are situations out of which zealots arise.
In a much more profound sense, we have all come out losers. The media circus has entrenched the divisive idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. I despair when I see that my dear Auntie Kay writes on her own timeline the ill-considered and juvenile invective, ‘Don’t bow to pressure from the gaystapo!’ Har har! Yes, I see what you did there. But this is not a language or a stance that enables real dialogue – the cheap pun resolutely imagines the other side as evil enemies. Auntie Kay’s most recent post takes a stance with even greater militancy:
“Jamaica and the Caribbean do NOT want their buggery law changed or interfered with in anyway. We now recognize that you are using HIV and the vulnerable in our communities to sneakily impose your ideology on us.
Now that we know what you are up to, trust me, we will work tirelessly to reduce HIV in all groups of persons without changing our buggery law.”
Well, I’m sorry, Auntie Kay, but you cannot say that. On this issue you do not speak on my behalf. You cannot speak for all Jamaicans or Caribbean nationals no more than I could pretend to. Let us accept that on this little buggered island, we are all Jamaicans, and we have a range of opinions, and those opinions are quite complex – and what we have to do now is to stop shouting and find a way to hear each other.
9. Some inconvenient truths
There are several inconvenient truths that have come out of this whole incident, and depending on where people stand depends which of these truths they will face.
It is unlikely that at any time soon the Jamaican Church will accept the ways in which its culture of Christianity has helped to create a situation in which the HIV/AIDS virus has spread rampantly – a situation in which men who have sex with men do not plan or prepare for their sexual activities in advance, because that would be premeditated sin. Instead it happens by accident, unplanned in dark corners, without condoms; a situation in which men cannot enter into public relationships with the men they might love and so the policing of these underground relationships is harder than how we police and support relationships above ground; infidelity is more rampant, partners are swapped more frequently.
It is unlikely that at any time soon, the gay community will accept the simple truth that if this were an unbroken world, and if relationships happened as prescribed by Christian culture – one man faithful to one woman – HIV/AIDS would have never become an epidemic, and so Christians are perfectly within their right to point out that the lifestyle that they promote is one that would radically confront the spread of this disease.
The inconvenient truth that most Christians do not want to hear is that this supposedly powerful gay lobby are not a bunch of paedophiles and degenerates hellbent on legalizing their immorality. They are men and women who have slowly let go of the terrible effort it takes to hate themselves, and who know all too well the social and medical consequences that such a culture of hate can produce, and who are now brave enough to challenge that culture of hate.
The inconvenient truth that gay lobbyists do not want to hear is that the counter Christian lobby are not a set of self-righteous, unintellectual people who simply want to advance their hatred of others. Amongst the group of Christian lobbyists are doctors like Brendan Bain who have worked quietly over the years, with love and empathy, to attend to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
The inconvenient truth that no one wants to hear is that we’re mostly all trying to work with truth and integrity, trying to articulate what the best future is for this little island.
Because you see, when I go back to Jamaica next week, I will almost certainly stop by Uncle Brendan’s and Auntie Pauline’s house, and I will apologize for the previous trip when I didn’t make time to visit. And I believe they will forgive me for that. And I think we might sit down and just chat and catch up and laugh, and probably we will talk about everything but this vexing issue. And I will certainly see Auntie Kay as well as she stops by the house to drop off something for my cousin Andrea. And we will hug and laugh about something. Something other than this vexing issue. And in that moment we will simply be people together, people who genuinely care for each other, and who, magically, know how to hear each other.