IF THE University of Technology (UTech) students were privy to a Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) class while in high school, they, perhaps, would not have been involved in inciting violence against a colleague allegedly caught in a homosexual liaison on campus.
The high-school HFLE curriculum, which aroused much public misgiving several months ago, promotes diversity in personality, shape, size, social status, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality. The document points out that "although it may be difficult to understand and empathise with the sexual desires, identities and behaviours of other people, it is important to respect that every human has the right to live free of stigma, discrimination, violence and oppression".
This is a national conversation that needs to take place - we cannot kill, beat or abuse people who do not fit our views of what is normal. What better place to start this discussion than among our youths in school? And, maybe, within a generation we will stop beating gay men and displaying high levels of interpersonal violence.
But if public reaction to the curriculum guide on teaching sexual tolerance is any indicator to go by, the society will remain bigoted for a very long time.
The public furore over a classroom activity that allegedly promotes homosexuality is, in my view, an overreaction. The activity is part of a series of lessons that would have prepared students to handle that particular role play - something that is done routinely in a learning environment.
Does it mean that role-playing pregnancy in teaching safe sex means educators are promoting teenage pregnancy? Or role-playing drug abuse means approving drug use. Ridiculous! So why should role playing as a homosexual in a class about sexual diversity make one into a homosexual?
Hysterics aside, many youths are more intelligent than their parents to appreciate role-playing. In fact, the curriculum encourages critical thinking on the part of students, who are free to agree/disagree with the topic. Students are also instructed to identify and write about the treatment of minority groups (people with disabilities, people of lower economic status, ethnic/racial minorities, gays, lesbians and transgender) in their communities.
In addition, the curriculum states that the objectives of the sexuality and sexual-health topic, 'Feeling Different', are for students to:
Evaluate their attitudes about sexual diversity.
Identify issues faced by adolescents who may not identify as heterosexual.
Acknowledge and show respect for all people, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
In a note to the teacher, the curriculum guide states: "Sexual orientation is a controversial topic. This activity is designed to promote understanding, acceptance and respect. While being sensitive to the community's attitudes, remember that young people need accurate information and an opportunity to discuss an issue that may be difficult for them."
This is clearly a sensible and reasonable approach to teaching a sensitive topic, and the Ministry of Education has fallen short in offering leadership in the public debate about the suitability of the curriculum. In this instance, as well as the case of the beating of the UTech student, the response from the minister, Ronald Thwaites, has been 'wishy-washy'.
The fixing of our social dysfunctionality - expressed in violence - must start in the schools! In fact, the HFLE curriculum addresses the topic of conflict management and resolution, as well as other useful life skills.
Some people - parents and teachers included - confuse the 'acceptance' of differing sexual orientations with approval or agreement. Refusal to accept sexual minorities is dangerously homicidal. No wonder people resort to deadly violence against homosexuals. Of course, parents have the right to object to, and withdraw their child from, exposure to tutorial content they consider offensive, but these parents do not have the right to prevent other students from receiving this information.
To be fair to UTech, it, at least, has clearly established rules against the discrimination of students in residence on the grounds of sexual orientation. UTech's Resident Student Charter promises, among other things, to provide "non-discriminatory treatment to all students, regardless of age, ethnic origin, gender, religious belief, disability or sexual orientation (and) showing respect to the needs of our diverse community".
Maybe fate would have had it that the ugly incident occurred on UTech's home campus. The institution now has the moral obligation to help fix a national problem. In the wake of the incident, UTech announced that it will provide training in areas including diversity issues, crowd control, crime management, and customer service to all security personnel and other contracted employees.
The institution also announced that various groups from academia, staff and the student body would continue to have forums on "issues related to behaviour management, tolerance, diversity and sexuality, designed (in the long term) to influence a cultural shift and facilitate a more harmonious environment".
Readers should not misinterpret advocating against the discrimination of sexual minorities as this writer's endorsement or promotion of sexual promiscuity by either heterosexual or homosexual persons in public spaces. The law should take its course in these instances.
The fight to eliminate sexual bigotry does not begin and end in the education sector. What is needed urgently is for organisations, perhaps directed by the Ministry of Labour, to promulgate diversity policies to ensure that persons do not suffer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and other factors. In this regard, the Jamaica Constabulary Force must be commended for promoting diversity as part of its Ethics and Integrity Policy, published April 2011, that states, inter alia:
"Members, in dealing with members of the public, must act fairly and impartially at all times, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin/class, association with a national minority, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital or family status, property, birth or any other status. Any difference in treatment shall be required to be justified and proportionate."
This is a bold step forward for the Jamaican police, who have been accused by the gay/human-rights lobby for not treating seriously with crimes against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
As local HIV/AIDS-prevention advocates and health officials grapple with the negative impact of stigma in the treatment of men who have sex with men, the non-discriminatory approach by the police - ironically, the enforcers of the buggery law - is a welcome move. It's also an important step towards ending violence against sexual minorities.
Byron Buckley is associate editor at The Gleaner Company. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.