Countdown to Tolerance

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Fri Sep 28, 2012

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: Religion Once Again Trumps Public Health in Jamaica

By Maurice Tomlinson

For the second time in five years, a Jamaican Minister of Education has yielded to public pressure and withdrawn a book which discusses homosexuality. In 2007, a book which mentioned same-sex couples as one type of family unit was rejected, and on September 14, 2012, a teacher's guide meant to engage seventh, eighth, and ninth grade high school students in thinking about their sexual practices and to encourage healthy lifestyle choices was unilaterally withdrawn.

In addition to sexual and reproductive health education, the Health and Family Life Education curriculum (HFLE) was designed to teach tolerance for sexual diversity. When the current Minister of Education, Ronald Thwaites, was a Member of Parliament and attorney-at-law, he advocated for the human rights of LGBT Jamaicans and even appeared in an AIDS-Free World-sponsored documentary that explained homophobia’s disastrous impact on the national HIV response. Nevertheless, the honorable minister is reported to have said that the following questions in the HFLE teacher’s manual were “inappropriate for any age”: “Have you ever had anal sex?"; "Have you ever used a condom having anal sex?"; "How many sexual partners have you had?"; "Do you know your HIV status?"; "Do you know the HIV status of your partners?" The Minister was later reported to have said that some of the questions sought to condition students towards a homosexual lifestyle.

What is particularly distressing is the Minister’s statement that his decision was guided by Christian morality, making a mockery of our constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. His actions also deny the right of Jamaican children to health and education, a right contained in numerous treaties the country has signed, including the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Perhaps the Minister’s alter ego as a Deacon of the Roman Catholic Church explains his divided loyalties. For, as we have seen with the church’s approach to such established anti-HIV interventions as condoms, devotees of the Catholic Church have been remarkably dim-witted when matters of faith clash with hard scientific evidence.

Earlier media reports called the HFLE manual a “foreign imposition” in the form of a UN agency’s mandated curriculum. However, on September 21, the Minister issued a press release that the manual was in fact a composite effort of Government of Jamaica agencies, led by the Ministry of Education.

It is not surprising that nearly one in three Jamaican men who have sex with men (MSM) have HIV. Education about safer sex practices is extremely difficult to carry out among this population because of the apparent government ban on discussing homosexuality.

This latest case of moral panic was triggered by a television news report on TVJ on September 13. The news story cherry-picked sections of the highly successful HFLE curriculum teacher’s guide to make the spurious claim that there was a secret agenda to recruit gays among high school students. I found the timing of the TVJ news item very convenient and not at all coincidental. It is my understanding that the new General Manager of TVJ, Claire Grant, is a Christian fundamentalist, so it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that she was in league with the organizers of the anti-gay “Love March and Concert” held in Kingston on September 15. This event was clearly meant to create a backlash against the growing tolerance for LGBT being observed in Jamaica, which was identified in research sponsored by AIDS-Free World and released on September 4.

An evaluation of the HFLE program was done in 2010 that found the HFLE manual and attendant curriculum were effective. A Jamaican teacher involved in the delivery of the program for many years cited even the government’s own data to show that there was "much greater knowledge of HIV among sixth-grade students in schools that took part in the program than among students whose schools did not participate. By ninth grade, students in the program were less likely to engage in risky behaviors and more likely to refuse sex." Nevertheless, Minister (Deacon) Thwaites ordered the dumping of the books, which cost about US$600,000 to produce. It is little wonder that international aid agencies and the IMF think we are now a middle-income country, undeserving of aid. We certainly act as if we have money to waste. As of next year, Jamaica's reclassification as a middle-income country will see the end of Global Fund support for treatment of the nearly 32,000 adults currently infected with HIV.

I have worked in Jamaica's inner-city communities and have seen the one-room shacks where kids and their entire families of several souls sleep butt-cheek to butt-cheek. These kids often see sex every night between adults. Sometimes these youngsters are also molested by the same adults meant to be their caregivers. Yet, once again, it is middle-class persons of privilege (such as medical doctors Dr. Wayne West and his wife, Dr. Doreen Brady-West) who feel compelled, based solely on their religious beliefs, to dictate how sexual and reproductive health is taught to children not as cloistered as their own. Religious ideology has once again trumped good scientific evidence and common sense in the design and delivery of Jamaican public health policy.

On September 15, I wrote to the Honorable Minister, expressing that I knew, from personal experience, that he can be a very rational individual (he is, after all, a former Rhodes Scholar who studied law at Oxford University). In the past, he also demonstrated that he can be guided by a strong sense of justice. I therefore appealed to this better side and implored him to reconsider his decision to remove this critical text. Not only will his actions perpetuate the stigmatization of the country's already marginalized LGBT community, but they will exacerbate a public health crisis. There is growing evidence that younger Jamaican MSM are less inclined to use HIV prevention interventions, such as condoms, because the disease is no longer seen as a death sentence. The island’s preeminent HIV expert, Professor Peter Figueroa, has identified that while HIV transmission rates are falling among other groups, it is increasing among MSM. Only effective and sustained education about the risks of unsafe sex will achieve the HIV reduction the country needs to see.

I also reminded the Minister that societal pressure and homophobia are contributing to the “down-low” syndrome that is causing HIV to “bridge” from the highly infected MSM population into the heterosexual population. By protecting MSM health, we also protect public health, I urged. I mentioned what his colleague, the Minister of Justice the Honourable Mark Golding, said at a public lecture delivered by the Honorable Michael Kirby at the University of Technology this July: “Protecting the human rights of [Jamaican] homosexuals is a women’s rights issue.”

To his credit, the Minister responded to me the same day, a Saturday, thanking me for my thoughts and inviting me to participate in a telephone conversation. I tried to follow up with him, but to no avail, which leads me to believe this was merely a political ploy to throw me off.

Since this story broke, the Minister appears to have dug in his heels and has expressed that members of his ministry will be punished for ignoring the usual textbook approval process when they released the HFLE manual for use in high schools. Such punishment may include sanctioning the Ministry’s seasoned chief civil servant, Grace McLean.

There has been a lively debate in the Jamaican media about the curriculum (not surprising as homosexuality is a controversial and largely misunderstood issue in this society). The Minister’s son (who is also an attorney-at-law and Oxford Rhodes scholar) calls himself a liberal but supported the manual’s withdrawal, in essence stating that he would prefer his children remain ignorant about homosexuality, at least in school.

At the same time, support for the manual came from an unlikely source. An Opposition Senator from the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, whose immediately past and current leaders rejected even employing gays, wrote a strong op-ed piece endorsing the manual’s objectives. While not denying that some of the questions in the manual might prove challenging for parents, she nevertheless condemned the “Ostrich” approach to tackling a growing health crisis among high school children. She wisely said, "I have yet to hear of an example where closing your eyes to a problem solved it."

The majority of Jamaicans, it appears, would prefer to ignore the public health cliff looming before them, in hopes that it will simply go away. And tragically, other countries in the Caribbean are following suit. A similar HFLE manual was withdrawn in Belize earlier this month, and the Minister of Education of Dominica stated at the beginning of this school year that he would be focusing on weeding out such deviant behavior as homosexuality among the island’s children. Such supremely unenlightened statements makes one thing clear: the region’s Ministers of Education have poor public health knowledge. Sadly, their misguided actions will end up dooming generations of vulnerable children to ignorance and ill-health.