Michael Kirby is clearly a good if not great speaker! Anyone who has had the benefit of hearing him speak will readily testify that his knowledge and manipulation of the English language is nothing short of artistic. However, his speech at the opening session of the MSM Global Forum’s pre-conference at the recently concluded International AIDS Conference is a lesson that good or great speakers have off days and that bad speeches frequently occur because of poor information referencing and not necessarily poor diction or inarticulateness. In particular Mr. Kirby and others of his ilk should be careful that when they make public pronouncements on matters, that they do not offend the sensibilities of the very persons whose rights they seek to protect and promote. Indeed not observing this simple protocol is very dangerous in the global advocacy profession, as no one wants to be represented by the chauvinistic and il-informed advocate!
The specific issues of concern revolve around his commentary on the state of, or rather absence of, condom distribution in Jamaican prisons and the homophobia that surrounds the very topic. That Jamaica is a MSM-intolerant society is without question, we need only review the despicable display by Tony Rebel at our Grand Gala and the reception he received by the appreciative audience. However, for Mr. Kirby to go on an international platform and insinuate that condom distribution does not occur in local prisons and that when there was an attempt by a “forward looking Commissioner” there were riots and since then prisoners have sex using plastic bags (Scandal bags in Jamaica) is nothing short of SCANDALOUS!
To be fair to Mr. Kirby a prison riot did occur after a Commissioner of Corrections announced a policy to distribute condoms in prisons. However, those riots did not occur this decade or even this century but rather in the year 2000. Further, prior to and since the former Commissioner announced the policy, condoms were distributed in the prisons and were/are a necessary part of the national HIV/STI response mechanism. The real reason for the riots was the announcement itself and not the policy! Simply the announcement laid bare the realities that many men re-entering inner city communities had engaged in homosexual activities in the prisons. This policy announcement opened the newly released inmates, to being stigmatized and discriminated against by the communities, community members and associates that they were returning to. Consequently Mr. Kirby’s patting of the former Commissioner on the back for his “Forward thinking” is ignorant in the extreme.
The real challenge with speeches like the one done by Mr. Kirby is that it risks “poo-pooing” on the work of local NGO actors in the localities being discussed. Specifically, by its very nature, questions must be raised by the listeners such as: who speaks on behalf of MSMs in Jamaica? If there is such an organization why have they not spoken out on this issue before? In short Mr.Kirby has unwittingly engaged not in an attack on the Jamaican government but a vandalism of the reputation of J-FLAG and similar organizations. Let us be clear, J-FLAG in spite of its severe resource constraints has been a fearless and excellent advocate for the lot of MSMs and sexual minorities in Jamaica, it is through their work programme that several advances have been made particularly in the field of police-community relations and HIV/AIDS response programming.
We at Pink do not call for Mr. Kirby to be censured but demand a higher standard of honesty, consultation and responsibility from him. Indeed, the Global Forum should consider giving the stage to local advocates working on the ground in the hostile environments, to speak on their realities! Further had Mr. Kirby bothered to investigate the work programme of JFLAG and other actors in Jamaica he would have seen gems that could be promoted as strategies to tackling institutional biases against MSMs and other sexual minorities in similar environments. In fact the Global Forum desperately needs to move away from the traditional North to South framework of skills transfer to providing an enabling architecture for genuine South-South cooperation on tackling extreme intolerance and homophobia. Put another way the age of paternalism must end!