:: by Tonya Haynes & Angelique V. Nixon ::
“Expectations” from The Neighbourhood Report by Barbadian artist Ewan Atkinson
Since the announcement of the termination of Professor Bain’s short post-retirement contract with CHART (Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network), there has been a growing movement in protest over his termination. Most recently, the Jamaica Supreme Court has granted an injunction which prevents UWI from removing Bain from the post. And so the story continues to unfold and the issues at hand debated from a variety of perspectives. What is most intriguing, however, is the way in which the affidavit itself has been framed as neutral and an objective use of research.
Noted writers and scholars such as Carolyn Cooper and Kei Miller have argued that having read Professor Bain’s affidavit there was very little in it that was objectionable, that essentially he is a scientist reporting “facts.” Even though Kei Miller does raise questions about how Bain frames the evidence, he also states that the “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.”
Frankly, this is difficult to accept upon a close reading of the affidavit because there is certainly a stance being taken in the affidavit, and in particular, because Dr. Bain’s “facts” are presented with a bias and use of research to support a particular point of view. Kei Miller brings up this very issue in his critique regarding the silences and how the conclusions of the research he uses are buried, yet Miller maintains that Professor Bain’s affidavit has a “neutral tone.” But is the tone really neutral? Is that even possible? And what is at the root of Bain’s framing of research, facts, and figures?
The Human Factor & Public Health
The criteria by which Dr. Bain, as a public health professional, says he evaluates private behaviour like “productivity,” “social disruption,” “premature death” and “public cost” are not value-neutral. In fact, Dr. Bain’s assertion that the decriminalization of anal sex would be “public approval to risky behaviours” is filled with a specific value judgement on the meaning of decriminalization. And while anal sex may be “risky,” it is certainly not the case that there aren’t means of reducing risk nor does it follow that decriminalization would “encourage” said “behaviours.” Contrary to what Dr. Bain suggests, the call for decriminalization is about ending stigma and discrimination, and in many ways connected to the need for greater understanding and awareness of sex, sexuality, and related public health issues.
Dr. Bain extends his concern about “risky behaviors” and STIs further in his argument that to prevent STIs people should include “learning and practising assertive skills to avoid coercive sex” yet he says nothing about not “coercing” others into sex. This is offensive and an insult to sexual assault survivors. Moreover, it implies that people who are raped/assaulted are at fault and is tantamount to victim-blaming.
The more obvious target here is gay men or men who have sex with men. Professor Bain’s affidavit attempts to make the argument that decriminalization would do nothing to prevent this high risk group from continuing to be high risk because (as his logic goes) “they” will keep on having this “risky” sex and therefore will get STIs. At the root of his engagement and description of sex acts between men is homophobia. Some may argue that Dr. Bain’s comments certainly didn’t say “all batty boy fi get eliminate,” (or something overtly homophobic) yet his submission is completely biased. It is not a neutral or objective perspective (if that were ever possible), but rather, he offers value judgements on research with a political agenda. In other words, his expert testimony was also not offered neutrally. It was offered in support of retention of laws, which criminalise anal sex. Further, it has also been reported that his testimony was offered at the request of a church.
Clearly, Professor Bain has an agenda, and he was asked to offer his expertise in order to support the continuation of a law that is archaic, colonial, and targets certain bodies and sex acts. This encourages and fuels an atmosphere of homophobia and discrimination against same sex desire and sex acts between men who sleep with men. Again, this is not neutral — it reinforces a pathological view of sex acts between men specifically and also enforces a heterosexist (i.e. straight and male centered) point of view about sex and sexuality.
Dr. Bain’s testimony not only reinscribes homophobia, it also uses a dominant heterosexual and patriarchal (male dominated) perspective when it comes to discussing sex and sex acts. In his cataloguing “adult male-female” sexual behavior, Professor Bain outlines that “the usual climax of male-female intercourse involves penetration of the vagina by the penis with ejaculation by the male and an orgasm or series of orgasms experiences by the female [emphasis added].” His bias is so obvious here with the primary focus on male penetration and female receptacles. He does mention the possibility of male ejaculation into the mouth or anus of the female, but women are conveniently left out as recipients of oral sex or as capable of anally penetrating their male partners. This reveals even more that Dr. Bain’s hetero and male centered bias cannot even allow for other ways of thinking about “risky behavior” or understanding men who sleep with men. Therefore, upon a close reading of this affidavit, we are left to conclude that heterosexual activity is largely mutual orgasms brought on by penis-in-vagina sex — very straight sex — that somehow is not “risky” or the assumption that they very same people engaging in this kind of sex would not also be engaging in anal sex. It would seem that “straight” people don’t also contract STIs or specifically HIV through “straight sex.” And since we know this is not the case and that these issues and sex acts between people are way more complex than Dr. Bain has offered, then we have to question the logic and bias here — if in fact this is about a “public health issue” at all.
If the point of Professor Bain’s testimony was really about “public health,” then he might have focused equally on the “risks” involved with different kinds of sex acts, considering that receptive anal sex does carry a higher risk of HIV transmission than other activities. However, what he focuses on instead is “straight” sex versus “homosexual” sex. He describes both heterosexual and homosexual sexual practices, but goes into extensive detail about homosexual sex to make these seem extremely different in order to “prove” his point about the “risk” factor. He references several examples of what he deems as levels of “risky” or unsafe sexual practices regarding “male-male sexual behaviors” — fisting, rimming, analingus, golden showers, scat and felching. (These are all very specific references to sex acts among men, but certainly not exclusively so.) In seven lines, anal sex or anus is mentioned just as many times with oro-anal contact mentioned twice, along with defecation on another person (a sexual practice that is certainly rare regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of the persons involved).
The result is to deliberately juxtapose the very straight, purportedly mutually orgasmic, sex of heterosexual men and women with risky and taboo male homosexual practices. (Women who have sex with women, women’s same-sex sexual practices and the relative risk of those practices are not mentioned, nor is the possibility of safe sex among men). Dr. Bain once again reifies a pathologizing of men who sleep with men and STIs, while at the same time, mapping deviance onto what he is calling risk. The takeaway here from Professor Bain’s affidavit is that men should not have sex with men, period — that it is risky, unsafe, hazardous, nasty even. (Granted though, as Kei Miller points out, at the end of the affidavit, Bain makes recommendations about prevention of STIs, but this is only after a long and detailed description of research that frames male-male sexual practice as the most unsafe and hazardous in terms of STIs — seemingly globally.) In other words, Bain’s affidavit even though it purports to be grounded in research and simply sharing the facts, it is doing so within a particular context and for a specific purpose.
Why human dignity must be central to HIV/AIDS policies
Professor of Biology and Gender Studies, Anne Fausto-Sterling, has argued, in a different context, that “social arguments sustain scientific disputes,” concluding that “we will not resolve the science at issue until we have reached some consensus on the social policy at hand.” What is at issue then in supporting or fighting against the “buggery laws” is not just whether it has been scientifically established that anal sex carries a greater risk for HIV transmission than other sex acts or that gay men have higher rates of HIV. There is the argument (and organising) for social policy aimed at ensuring that human rights are respected, that stigma and shame no longer serve as barriers to access to preventative services and treatment. A professional opinion that supports criminalizing sexual activity between adults as a means of reducing risk is not a logical conclusion one could come to even from the studies which Professor Bain cites. But beyond logic, it is not a humane conclusion. Gay men and men who have sex with men are not reducible to sexual behaviours or practices, they are not reducible to anal sex. Gay-identified men and men who have sex with men must be understood in their full human complexity, their identities respected, their relationships recognized, and their human rights guaranteed.
Prominent HIV activist Robert Carr, whose work Professor Bain didn’t engage, identified the lack of recognition of the humanity of men who have sex with men as a key failing of the public health response to HIV. His now famous call to action is worth remembering here:
We have to refuse to be constrained to a small department in a ministry while the rest of the government arrests us, the rest of the government refuses to acknowledge our partnerships, the rest of the government refuses to acknowledge the need for people to be able to visit their loved ones when they are sick, because all of those things conspire to ensure that the work we are doing to reduce infection will never be effective. … We have got to break this mindset that gathering 20, or 30 or 50 of us into a room and teaching us how to put a condom on a dildo is doing anything to address the raging epidemic that is going on across the world. It is bullshit and we have to call it bullshit and we have to let people know that we will not stand by and let them get away with this anymore.
As Robert Carr argues, we must call out the silences and call out the bullshit — particularly when it comes to addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the failures of governments to deal with the crisis. When we fail to deal with the human aspect of these issues and address the dire need for rights and protection, then how can we expect to create change (particularly when it comes to public health)? Professor Bain’s support for retention of laws criminalizing anal sex is a step backwards, to say the least. Supporting this law doesn’t even on a basic level address what Bain deems as the “costs” associated with STIs to the community and the government. The testimony focuses on the “cost of behavior” (i.e. risk of STI transmission through sexual contact; that so called private behavior has a public cost), which Professor Bain then seems to argue means “private behaviors” that are “risky” must be regulated then by the state — i.e. only “private behaviors” that are associated with male-male sexual practices.
The fact is that sex is risky. It is risky for all of us. Some practices are riskier than others. But risk does not equal criminality. One does not forfeit one’s humanity because one engages in risk-taking. Risk can be mitigated. We all need access to the information and services that allow us to make informed decisions. We need to address the poverty, age discrimination, child sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and gender inequality that create conditions of lack of access to services and information, as well as the inability to navigate and negotiate healthy intimate relations with others. We need to deal with the intense amount of shaming and politics of respectability that affects how we talk about sex and sexuality.
Leading sexual citizenship activist, Colin Robinson of CAISO and CARIFLAGS noted that some prominent gay men came out in public support of Professor Bain. He posits that these men may themselves be ashamed of the gay sex other gay men are having. Maybe. Or maybe they have been convinced of the facticity and neutrality of Bain’s testimony. Certainly, many people have supported Professor Bain and have suggested that this is an issue of academic freedom, while others have argued that the so called “powerful gay lobby” is responsible — as opposed to dealing with the fact that a broad spectrum of people called for his termination, even his own colleagues in CHART who questioned his leadership. As Kei Miller explains in his thoughtful response to the issue, the list of signatures was NOT dominated or even mostly LGBT persons — or the so called gay lobby. Or as Colin Robinson poignantly asserts what “gay lobby? People struggling to carve out some space for humanity and dignity is a “lobby” now?”
Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding argues that Professor Bain’s affidavit does not “compromise his ability or commitment to fulfil” CHART’s mandate. Yet upon close reading of the affidavit it is clear that Dr. Bain perspectives do not fully align with the mission of CHART for quality access (considering that criminalization of sex acts does in fact affect people’s ability to access services because of fear and discrimination.) Further, PM Golding also says that “the gay lobby has successfully positioned its campaign as a human-rights issue. If that is what it is, there is virtually no choice in terms of personal behaviour that cannot be justified on similar grounds. At its core, it is an issue of values. That is where the battle must be pitched and fought and won.” But is this really about values in the way that Golding perceives? And what powerful gay lobby is Golding imagining?If there was such a powerful gay lobby then certainly the buggery laws would have been revoked by now. The idea that once decriminalization happens then anything goes — any personal behavior can suddenly be justified is ludicrous. But it is most certainly a human rights issue! This is about human beings, rights, and our very humanity. And yes it is most certainly about freedom — the freedom of all of us to be our full selves.
Kei Miller put his well-honed talents to offering a nuanced look at Professor Bain and the issues which arose. He also offered an important analysis of the protests and the ways in which the imagined “powerful gay lobby” has been created and pitted against the “vulnerable” church. And he called out the hypocrisies within the protests in response to Bain’s termination and asked us all to think about the question of power and language. His articles on Professor Bain are among the most shared and commented on. And rightfully so. He documented the media manipulation of a gullible public. He demonstrated that there are no winners in this unfortunate series of events. Nonetheless he does not acknowledge the extent to which Professor Bain’s affidavit is harmful, heterosexist and not just a mere presentation of “facts” about risk. Regardless, Kei Miller presented Professor Bain in his full human complexity. That is the lesson for all of us.
The Need for Sexuality Education
Image Source: Jamaica Observer
Protests over Professor Bain’s termination or what the church has deemed “speaking the truth” has escalated in the past month. The pro-Bain protesters outside of the Mona Campus of the UWI with whom I spoke (Tonya), conflated their support for Bain with support for the retention of the buggery law. They offered a number of reasons why they thought Jamaica should retain this law — citing that the law serves symbolically to “keep dem in dem closet,” ensures that Jamaica does not slide down a slippery slope toward rampant child sexual abuse and protects the religious freedom of Christians in Jamaica. One young man explained that Christians in Jamaica were losing their jobs as a result of pressure from “the gay lobby.” It seems there is a fear that repeal of the buggery law would infringe on the right to converge in droves at a shopping mall in response to reports of a “man applying lipstick” or turn out in thousands (some say 25,000) at an anti-gay church rally.
So it was never about truth all along. Or science. Or freedom of speech. Or the children. It was and is about being able to publicly express bigoted anti-homosexual views without social censure or professional repercussions. Stirring up hate while professing Christian love.
It’s time to call bullshit on those who insist that Bain’s firing demonstrates that academic freedom is under threat, that UWI has bowed to the gay lobby, or that Bain is being punished for speaking “the truth.”
It’s time to ensure that all young people receive comprehensive sexuality education so that they can make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
It’s time to rebuke the the unsubstantiated claim that comprehensive sexuality education is the means by which the imaginary “gay lobby” induces children to homosexuality.
It’s time to address the rape and sexual abuse of girls and boys in state care and in their homes.
Referencing data for Jamaica, UNFPA notes that “girls in the 15-19 age group are three times more likely to be infected with the [HIV] virus than young men in the same age group”. These girls and the 32% of boys who described their first sexual experience as forced or somewhat forced are the ones in need of an outraged public that will take to the streets and demand justice for them or at least listen to their voices when they demand it for themselves.
As Annie Paul writes:
If there is indeed such widespread concern over the education of children why don’t we express the same angst over the rape and buggery of their little bodies? The lessons in horror these children are taught, come not from any textbook smuggled into the curriculum by ‘the gay lobby’ but as a result of the vile predations of those entrusted with their care. Yet such flagrant violations earn no reaction– let alone action–from the innumerable Christian pulpits dotting this island or the churches braying so vigorously on behalf of Bain’s so-called rights.
Where is our outrage over the lives, rights and bodily integrity of our young people and children? How is it that so many people who violate these very bodies are protected too often in our communities? Why is the Church doing nothing about this? Why are responses from state managers too often either callous or oblivious? These are the questions that reverberate under the surface as we think through the reasons that some issues are taken up over others by our leaders. These are reasons we should be outraged and taking to the streets — not just in Jamaica but across the region.
Tonya Haynes loves all things coconut and fried ripe plantain. In another life she would have dedicated herself full-time to weaving words and telling tall tales and fantastic stories. In this one, her creative energy is directed at the multi-faceted work that comes with being a Caribbean feminist scholar-activist-teacher inheriting a rich legacy of feminist livity and thought from generations of get-things-done women. She is a founding member of CODE RED for gender justice! and CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network. With Sherlina Nageer, she conceptualised, organised and co-hosted the historic CatchAFyah grounding in Barbados in 2012. Tonya researches in the area of Caribbean feminisms and is currently conducting research on gender-based violence in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana and Barbados (with Halimah DeShong). Tonya’s creative writing has been published in The Caribbean Writer and Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. Her popular writing appears in Stabroek News, Outlish Magazine, AWID’s Friday File and CODE RED’s blog. She holds a PhD in Gender and Development Studies and speaks fluent Spanish. Join her on twitter @redforgender
Angelique V. Nixon is a writer, artist, teacher,scholar, activist and poet – born and raised in The Bahamas who carves spaces for resistance and desire. She earned her Ph.D. in English specializing in Caribbean studies and women and gender studies at the University of Florida. She is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. Her work has been published widely in academic and creative journals, namely Anthurium, Black Renaissance Noire, MaComere, and small axe salon. Angelique is deeply invested in grassroots activism and is involved with several organizations, including Ayiti Resurrect, Caribbean IRN, and Critical Resistance. Follow her on instagram @sistellablack or on her blog consciousvibration