Countdown to Tolerance

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Tue Jun 12, 2012

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: How Dr. West is Wrong

By Maurice Tomlinson

Dr. Wayne West, a senior member of the newly formed group Jamaican Coalition for a Healthy Society (JCHS), argues against decriminalizing same-sex intimacy between consenting adult men because, he believes, Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law is necessary to prevent the spread of HIV. To support his argument the goodly (Godly?) doctor points to research from France, the United States, and Australia, where HIV remains stubbornly high among men who have sex with men (MSM), even though those countries have long ago decriminalized sodomy. By West’s “logic,” decriminalizing sodomy will not reduce the national HIV prevalence but instead is quite likely to increase it. And since, according to him, Jamaica spent nearly $600 million last year to address HIV (a figure unsupported by any national or UNAIDS data) the country certainly cannot afford to grant gays the right to engage in private sexual activities.

In a word, the above reasoning is hogwash. It does a serious disservice to this “man of science” as well as to the venerable University of the West Indies, Mona, where he is a senior lecturer in the faculty of medicine (though not in epidemiology or public health but in the highly “relevant” field of radiology).

First off, if, as Dr. West argues, Jamaica’s anti-gay law was so effective at reducing the level of HIV among MSM, then why is the country “boasting” the world’s second-highest HIV prevalence rate (32%) among this group? Second, no one ever said that decriminalizing sodomy will be some sort of panacea for eliminating HIV among MSM. Other interventions are of course necessary, such as allowing homosexuals to form committed relationships unmolested by the law. This will help to reduce risky sexual behavior by members of this most vulnerable group, and also limit the likelihood of their being forced to form relationships with women as a cover for their sexuality (which has been shown to open up the possibility of transmitting HIV and other STIs across the different populations). I know West has two very beautiful, talented, and accomplished daughters.  Would he want either of them to be married to a man struggling with his sexuality, knowing that there is a risk this fellow could one day act on his urges? If he would not want this for his own daughters then he certainly shouldn't seek to impose it on others.

The fact is there needs to be unrestricted access to prevention programming for all groups that are vulnerable to HIV (including gays) in order to educate and encourage them to protect themselves and their partners. Criminalizing homosexuals contributes to our notoriously high level of national homophobia (measured at 82% in a UWI, Mona, study conducted in 2011). This in turn drives gays away from effective HIV prevention interventions. The law also directly limits the state’s ability to intervene and effectively address the spread of HIV. For example, condoms cannot be legally distributed in prisons (as this would be seen as aiding and abetting a criminal act), even though it is well known that sex happens in prisons and the HIV prevalence rate among prisoners is several times the national average. Interviews with Jamaican Correctional Officers reveal that prisoners have sought to protect themselves from infection by using plastic shopping bags as condoms and just about anything they can find for lubricant. The use of these ineffective methods coupled with the high level of promiscuity observed by UNAIDS among released prisoners (who have to prove their heterosexual virility by having multiple sexual partners once liberated) increases the risk of HIV infection spreading into the general population.

West also argues repeatedly that the role of the state is to (paternalistically) protect adults from self-harming behavior. Hence, since unprotected anal sex is the most efficient mode of transmitting HIV, he theorizes that the law should criminalize that form of intercourse. The flaw with such reasoning, of course, is that the anti-sodomy law cannot be enforced without trampling on the privacy rights of all individuals. Neither is there a consistent application of law across all forms of potentially self-harming risk-reduction behavior. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in Jamaica, and this is largely attributable to the heavy consumption of beef and other high-cholesterol foods. Yet there is no call by West and his Jamaican Coalition for a Healthy Society to ban beef consumption. The reason is clear: this fanatical group of persons consistently base their views solely on outdated biblical ideology as opposed to hard scientific evidence (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality as an abomination, but curiously, they conveniently ignore biblical “abdominal” injunctions against eating shell-fish (Leviticus 11:9-12) or wearing clothing made from two types of cloth (Leviticus 19:19)).

A collateral point frequently made by Dr. West is that homosexuality is not immutable because some persons have testified to being “cured.” Yet all the individuals he regularly cites mention some continued same-sex attraction, even though a few have been able to form heterosexual relationships and father children. I may not be a man of science like the good doctor, but I understand a cure to mean the absence or non-recurrence of a “disease.” So if these men were in fact “cured,” why do their homosexual feelings persist? One doesn’t say they are “cured” of being left-handed just because through painful practice (usually imposed by parental abuse and academic pressure) you are now ambidextrous. This is in reality a form of behavior change, and certainly not a cure. Of course, the World Health Organization and several other legitimate international psychological and psychiatric associations (such as those in South Africa, India, and the United States) have categorically stated that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic and trying to change homosexuality is both futile and dangerous. These groups have also declassified homosexuality as a form of disease, and have in fact identified it to be a normal part of human diversity (much like being left-handed).

Dr. West also claims there was some international “gay conspiracy” putting political pressure on these associations to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. This reaction is to be expected from a rabid Pentecostal like West, who probably believes the devil is hiding under every bed! The fact is human sexual diversity mirrors what has been observed in nature: over 450 species exhibit homosexuality (including a celebrated pair of gay penguins in a Madrid zoo who have been together for 6 years and been given their own egg to raise). This evidence of homosexuality as a naturally occurring form of sexual diversity was decisive in the US Supreme Court ruling overturning anti-sodomy laws in the US.

With absolutely no credible evidence to support his claim, West also argues that most gays were somehow molested or traumatized as children, which resulted in their "turning" gay. Ironically, I come from a loving two-parent Christian home (for many years I attended the same religious denomination as West), I have two brothers, and I was never molested or suffered any unusual childhood trauma, yet, miracle of miracles, I turned out gay! I’m not sure how West would explain this state of affairs. But perhaps such an explanation is too much to ask of this non-psychologist who is dangerously using his own medical credentials in direct opposition to his Hippocratic oath to do no harm. On the other hand, West’s own son, Dr. Keon West, a Jamaican Rhodes Scholar who studied psychology at Oxford University, is now an ardent supporter of human rights for gays and has done extensive work seeking to explain the source of Jamaica’s notorious homophobia (which he surmises is largely a function of our national ignorance about homosexuality — a fact clearly borne out in his dad's reasoning).

It is time evidence and not blind ideology drove public policy in Jamaica. The problem is that ideologues are just too plentiful and powerful (as evidenced by the effective way the Christian right successfully lobbied the government to prevent any possibility of a domestic legal challenge to the archaic and colonially imposed anti-buggery law). Otherwise learned men, like West, are also easily led around by the nose by every visiting raving loony American evangelist peddling his latest “cure,” even when this has been rejected by their fellow Americans. Why must we be so silly? Can’t we rationally reason this issue out for ourselves?