Opinionista Dumiso Gatsha 15 May 2019

Queer up and seek justice and protection for all in Botswana

The rights of LGBT people in Africa are tenuous, where they exist at all. In Botswana, the president has spoken out about the need to protect those in same-sex relationships, a major advance. Now the stories of those who are ‘other’ need to be told.

Misery won’t touch you gentle. It always leaves its thumbprints on you; sometimes it leaves them for others to see, sometimes for nobody but you to know of.’ – Edwidge Danticat

I was in an all-boys boarding school in North West when I found myself held against a wall not far off from the rugby pitch. It was on a very early spring morning when someone’s breath was harrowing on my neck and his tool against my right hip.

I was numb from the alcohol I had been given by older boys. The person who protected me in school became the reason I could not move or scream for help. I already had no voice, being one of the youngest in school. It was even more evident at that moment.

The realities of a demographic that is often the rhetoric of political leadership, religious intolerance and societal taboo are often unheard. When shared, the common narratives that emerge include violence, “corrective rape” and health concerns. This demographic is characterised as un-African and criminal in many jurisdictions within the region. Many are afraid of its visibility, believing it’s a threat to society. Notwithstanding, this demographic remains steadfast, unwavering and dynamic in its quest for justice and protection.

The 15th commemoration of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) will be held on 17 May 2019. Celebrated in over 130 countries around the world, people of diverse or non-conforming sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression (Sogi) will be raising awareness on their lived experiences (better known as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender [LGBT] people, despite there being many other variants within the demographic).

The importance of recognising and acknowledging the injustices faced by LGBT people is critical, particularly at a time when right-wing nationalism, populist narratives and misinformation are on the rise. Politics across the region have politicised LGBT people, diverting attention from shortcomings in service delivery and their abuse of power.

In Botswana, however, there has been a slight change. For the first time ever, a sitting head of state has noted the discrimination faced by those in same-sex relationships. This is significant given the current political climate, upcoming general elections and intolerant legislative environment. Also, a former president has stated how he feared losing votes if he were to be publicly supportive of the LGBT community during his presidency.

LGBT Batswana are tired of the pain and harm faced every day. From early adolescence, experiences shared reflect how we are not always nurtured or allowed to express ourselves freely. Our learning environments are plagued with bullying and abusive teachers. In teenage years, we are faced with struggles of confusion in attraction, discomfort in pronouns used to refer to us, and self-acceptance within the context of spiritual and cultural beliefs.

We are conflicted with who we are within and what the world tells us. Some of us have our most fundamental years of development characterised by suicide attempts, sexual abuse and/or persistent hate speech. LGBT youth across the world, religions, ethnicities and economic standing have experienced some form of pain and harm because of who they are, or are assumed to be.

In adulthood, we carry our histories as burdens of consciousness, left to navigate the world of self-discovery and other complexities of peer pressure and societal expectations.

In Botswana’s context, the high levels of unemployment, inadequate comprehensive health access and lack of civic participation is not unique to us. Many LGBT experiences I have come across reflect that there is nothing special or non-conforming that we wish for. Rather, we wish for the same dignities and freedoms that everyone else enjoys. The only difference is that we face the risk of persecution, policing of our bodies and being excluded from meaningfully participating in the communities in which we live. Again, this is not unique to being LGBT.

Privilege, Power and Patriarchy continue to limit what is acceptable in society. These systems of oppression manifest themselves in our spaces of spirituality, governance and culture. Injustices such as slavery, gender disparities and unequal pay for marginalised groups were once deemed acceptable in law and history. Despite favourable interventions and relative advancements to change these, they continue to manifest themselves in variant or socialised ways.

When the symptoms of gender-based violence or corrupt practices emerge, they are reflective of what power looks like when it exerts itself. When there is no care or delivery in public health or law enforcement, we are reminded of how unprivileged we are. When femininity poses a threat by being visible and having a voice, patriarchy rears its ugly head. There are many facets in our stories that often don’t reflect in public health or strategic litigation. These are the two most prominent spaces of enablement for non-conforming sexual orientation, gender identity/expression or variant sex characteristics. The pain and harm that is largely under-reported, underserved and unresearched reflect themselves when we share stories. It is this simple concept: of sharing stories that counter the effects of oppression. It is not immediate or easy to unravel systemic issues, however, it is important.

The starting point is hearing the story of those most marginalised or vulnerable. When we prioritise the children and the elderly at a family gathering; power is eliminated, privilege is shared and patriarchy doesn’t feel threatened. It is the same concept that we should think of within our areas of influence. There can always be competing interests and causes – however, where gross injustices and indignities exist, then there is something you can do or say. This speaks to the fabric of humanity, an existence of belonging and becoming that has survived centuries, wars and tyrants before.

Putting a transgender teenager of indigenous origin who lives in the Kgalagadi who is subject to intimate partner violence in the front of the line will not threaten or compromise others. However, it will ensure a comprehensive review of intersecting issues of poverty, climate change, universal health coverage, family planning, economic empowerment and comprehensive social services in remote areas.

Having the unheard and often unseen people at the front of the line will ensure that our development aspirations and human rights obligations are met. Success Capital has started working on documenting lived experiences through storytelling, the kind that ensures that LGBT youth can be at the table of decision-making and making the world a better place.

Our call to action for 17 May is very simple: have a conversation with someone different from yourself and exercise some kindness to another.

There can never be too much of either. DM

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