Freedom to take mine away

Fifty years after flag-and-anthem independence, we are still constructing nations, institutions, values and justice in the Caribbean. We have two huge failings—to commit to everyone’s equality and opportunity, regardless to our moral measure of them, or how respectable we think they are; and to commit to everyone having ownership over their own body. Ironic, because bodily rights are at the core of our successive struggles to forge a society. Not just over enslaved and indentured bodies—but things like “the practices of the body known as the Shouters” (as reads the 1917 ordinance that banned Baptist worship, whose repeal is celebrated as a national holiday)—and people’s freedom to use their bodies in protest and to assert control over the labour of those bodies, which we mark with another holiday, Labour Day. Uniquely in the Caribbean, ours commemorates the immolation of a law enforcement officer.

We still haven’t got the owning bodies thing right when it comes to our children’s. Like slaves, we still beat them as if we own them. When it comes to sexuality and reproduction, our embrace of the freedom of bodies shrivels up entirely. For far too many men the principle of whipping children’s bodies as we please extends to our girlchildren’s sexuality, as if we own it. Often, too, to our women’s sexuality if they try to take it back. Unenforced statutes ban terminating a pregnancy, and brand non-procreative sex between consenting adults with historic labels like serious indecency and buggery, punishable by jail.

I’m writing from Belize City, where I spent the afternoon with a Belizean who went to his country’s courts to challenge a colonial law criminalising sex he might have in private. Caleb Orozco has worked with the University of the West Indies (UWI) Faculty of Law Rights Advocacy Project in a thoughtful process to mount the pioneering lawsuit. It seemed a brilliant and bold way to claim citizenship and expand justice, using the institutions we’ve created for ourselves in our young Caribbean nations.

UWI has repeatedly displayed leadership of late on this aspect of building Caribbean societies that are free from discrimination and promote everyone’s human value. Vice Principal Rhoda Reddock recently welcomed to the St. Augustine campus the visiting parents of a young gay man murdered in a hate crime, trumpeting the university’s supportive counselling with its gay and lesbian students. She and Rosemarie Antoine, dean of the new law faculty, have long histories of championing these and other equality issues. Antoine mentioned sexual orientation four times in a report on her faculty’s current work at its April launch. UWI’s Chancellor, who has also been outspoken on the relationship between policies protecting human rights of sexual minorities and tackling HIV, addressed the issue prominently at the Barbados graduation ceremony last October, noting the institution’s principles, scholarship and practice need to be aligned more closely. Non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is enshrined in the university’s instruments.

That’s why it’s so puzzling that UWI has taken so long to act in the case of Trinidadian Prof. Brendan Bain. Based at the Jamaica campus, Bain has pioneered regional responses and fundraising for HIV, is an administrator of externally-funded HIV training programmes he has spent years building, and has served as a voice of the public health community in regional HIV planning and policymaking. He stunned the HIV advocacy community by giving expert testimony to the Belize court in August of 2012, using data and biassed logic that leading public health scholars have denounced, to support those arguing that Orozco’s rights should not be upheld.

Bain is clear he testified in an individual capacity, as is his right, and UWI protects its scholars’ academic freedom to have unorthodox views. But Bain has disqualified himself for public health leadership, to represent the University’s values, or to uphold a core principle of the regional HIV response—to fight stigma and discrimination. Yet UWI has left him in charge of its HIV training programmes, despite protestations that have pointed out that if he’s lost the confidence of critical HIV stakeholders, the University and its leaders soon will too. Removing Bain from leadership won’t take any moral courage, either; as he’s already retired, doing so is easy. Loyalty to Bain by male medical colleagues in senior leadership smacks of the kind of solidarity that protects doctors here from accountability for malpractice. Some of them initially defended his arguments.

I’m not jumping on the “Off with their heads” bandwagon I wrote about last time. Because we lack a tradition of answerability in public leadership, we’ve developed a cult of no forgiveness, which says as much about us as our leaders. Leaders make mistakes, mature ones are those that have been allowed to learn from theirs, and the path to a society growing seasoned leadership may be the capacity of those who are led to forgive. Indeed, outrage over Bain’s continued tenure has propelled UWI to double its efforts to demonstrate commitment to sexual diversity. Not all ethical lapses require resignation. But UWI and others who manage the regional HIV response must have the insight to recognise when they do.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith

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