A coalition of gay advocacy and civil rights groups is pressuring the University of the West Indies (UWI) to fire Professor Brendan Bain as head of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Initiative, claiming that his expert testimony in a case in Belize represents a conflict of interest and has destroyed their trust in him.
The 33 lobby groups, from a number of Caribbean islands, are also demanding that Professor Bain be removed from all positions of representation of the UWI on HIV and AIDS issues. They are, as well, insisting that the university drafts and implements a “policy which protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex staff and students from discrimination”.
However, the groups and the UWI administration, which appears to wilting under the pressure, are on a collision course with the church as the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals has expressed support for Professor Bain and has asked the UWI to resist the demand to sack him.
The first move against Bain was made in September 2013 when the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) wrote to Ambassador Eric Goosby at the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) expressing concerns about Bain’s expert testimony in the constitutional challenge brought by Belizean gay man Caleb Orozco against Section 53 of Belize’s criminal code in September 2010.
The code states that “every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years”.
Orozco, who stated in his affidavit that he is president of United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), argued that the code violates his right to the recognition of human dignity, to personal privacy and the privacy of the
home guaranteed by the Belize constitution.
Orozco explained in his court document that UNIBAM “is a voluntary human rights association of men who have sex with men (MSM) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people (LGBT)”.
In August 2012, Professor Bain, regarded as a pioneer in clinical infectious disease practice in the Caribbean and a leading medical authority on the HIV epidemic in the region, gave his expert testimony in the case.
Bain, who since 1983 has provided clinical care to persons living with HIV and AIDS, pointed out in his testimony that the risk of contracting HIV is significantly higher among MSMs.
He said this was true for Belize, as well as other countries, including those that have repealed the law the criminalises anal sex.
According to Bain, some public health practitioners and agencies “have hypothesised that decriminalising the practice of anal intercourse among consenting adults would lead to a reduction in the incidence rate of HIV infections among MSM”. However, he said
that to date, published data have not substantiated
He pointed out as well that data from several parts of the world also indicate that the relative risk of acquiring and spreading other sexually transmitted infections and cancers is unacceptably
high among MSMs when compared with other men
“As a physician and public health practitioner, one of my responsibilities is to assess behaviours for their impact on health and well-being,” Bain said in his written testimony.
“When something is beneficial, such as exercise, good nutrition, or adequate sleep, it is my duty to recommend it. Likewise, when something is harmful, such as smoking, overeating, alcohol or drug abuse, and unsafe sexual behaviour, it is my duty to discourage it. Together with promoting individual responsibility, it is clear that environments that enable individuals to make and practice safe and healthy choices must be provided at family, community and governmental levels,” he said.
Bain added that another of his responsibilities as a public health practitioner is to assess the cost of behaviour, not just to the individual ‘actor’ but also to the community. “There are some private behaviours, either carried out by individuals or between consenting adults, that may either be helpful or of little adverse consequence to other persons in the community,”
“Behaviours that are helpful to individuals and to the community are to be encouraged. On the other hand, there are instances in which private behaviours result in considerable public cost due to illness, with accompanying loss of productivity and social disruption and the prospect of premature death. The public cost of these private behaviours must be acknowledged and actively reckoned with,” Bain argued.
“The risk to MSM and their intimate sexual partners is not just to their physical health. The adverse physical and physiological consequences of STIs (including HIV) in MSM create significant and avoidable financial costs to individuals, households
and governments. These important considerations must be included when considering whether to give public approval to risky behaviours such as are often practised by MSM,” Bain stated.
But that opinion, which Bain made clear was his and did not represent the UWI’s thinking, has angered the lobby groups.
On January 24 this year they wrote to UWI Vice-Chancellor Professor Nigel Harris expressing displeasure with Bain’s testimony and asking for his dismissal.
The groups were following up on a November 2013 letter from Professor Harris in which he assured them — in response to an earlier correspondence from them — that the UWI was opposed to any form of discrimination for reasons of gender, religion or sexual orientation.
They told Harris that while they welcomed that position, they wanted the UWI to demonstrate its commitment to ensuring that it implements a strong [CHART] project with integrity of word and work.
“In view of the fact that Professor Bain no longer holds the confidence of civil society in the integrity of his word and work we can see no way in which his remaining in a leadership position in the programme would demonstrate commitment,” the lobbyists said.
They assured Harris that their intention was not for the UWI to lose funding for the CHART programme. Rather, they wanted to see the funding maximised “in the hands of strong leadership”.
However, the groups said that while they accepted that “universities have important principles of academic freedom which protect the right to freedom of expression against institutional censorship, UWI can, and must, exercise discretion regarding who heads and implements the CHART programme and who represents UWI in decision-making spaces”.
Three months later, on April 24, the groups again wrote
to Harris, expressing disappointment that they received no response to their January letter, and described his “lack of response” as “completely unacceptable, disrespectful of the populations the university is purporting to serve, and an affront to the proud tradition of principled regional leadership that the UWI has previously displayed”.
They also said that Harris’ “lack of leadership” in the exercise of his discretion regarding who heads and implements the CHART programme has left them with few options but to make their concerns known to the
widest possible audience, including regional and international supporters, funders and leaders.
On April 28, Harris responded, reminding the groups of the privilege the UWI accords it academic staff in relation to academic freedom and that the university has disassociated itself from Bain’s statement.
Professor Harris also told the groups that “in addressing any allegation of loss of confidence in the UWI as a result of a staff member’s action or inaction, the UWI must also ensure that individuals involved are afforded a fair hearing”.
As such, Harris said he had initiated a consultative process as a precursor to making a final decision.
On May 6, Harris wrote to Bain confirming that a committee established to advise on his suitability to lead the CHART programme was scheduled to meet on May 12 and invited Bain to “provide a written or oral testimony to the committee”.
On Friday, a source close to the developments said he was not sure whether Bain, who was travelling, had met Harris’ request.
However, it appears that any move to fire him will be opposed by the evangelical movement which, in a May 11 letter to Harris, asked the UWI to “demonstrate its unequivocal commitment to the cherished principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression”.
The church group also asked the university to “consider implementing a policy which protects all employees and students from intimidation”, adding that it can highlight cases of intimidation at Mona that have affected both students and employees because of their views on these issues.
In addition to the CVC, the lobby groups include Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities (CariFLAGS), J-Flag, Jamaicans For Justice, Jamaican Youth Advocacy Network, Jamaica Youth Theatre, Hannah Town Parenting Group, UNIBAM, Women Against Rape and Stand Up for Jamaica.