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Saturday, 7 November 2009

Botswana: Face-to-face with a gay couple

Map of BotswanaImage via Wikipedia
Source: Mmegi Online

By JERRY KAI-LEWIS

We see them everywhere, at the grocery stores, at restaurants, at school, nightclubs, even at church. They are musicians, actors, doctors, soldiers.

If it is not in the way they dress, its certainly in their gait or the way they talk. Not too long ago, they were not this bold or obvious. No one in Botswana was interested in taking up their fight. Today, although a bit more confident, they still live in shadows of the grey area of the Penal Code that makes them guilty of acting out their feelings in a physical. No longer ignored or left on the sidelines of 'regular society', someone is standing up for them.

Recently, BONELA(Botswana Network On Ethics And HIV/AIDS served the government with a statutory notice to sue and challenge the penal code that makes same-sex sex, and by default homosexuality, a criminal offence.

Over the weekend I was invited to the home of a gay friend. I was there together with his sons, a few heterosexual couples, their children and the host's partner. Using our friendship as a leeway, and after everyone was gone, I convinced them into doing an interview. With the BONELA taking up their fight, they thought it would only do right to join him, even from the sidelines. They , therefore, decided on the monikers Adam and Steve. I was actually surprised that they would suggest and agree to the names because in the US, it is a common joke that if God had wanted same-sex unions, he would have made them Adam and Steve, instead of Adam and Eve. The expression is actually anti - gay. But they liked it.

Mmegi: Why hide the fact that you are gay? All your friends and people who care to notice know that you are gay. Why not come out like normal couples?

STEVE: What is the definition of a normal couple? Your question, although it was not meant to be insulting or offensive, is actually part of the problem. Society see homosexual coupling as abnormal while heterosexual ones are normal. But who has the right to regulate how we feel or force all of us to live and feel under one bracket?

ADAM: I don't have a problem with coming out. As a matter of fact, my family and friends know about my sexual orientation. But you know that Batswana can be vindictive.

The law is not against being homosexual, it just says that same-sex intercourse is illegal.I know lots of so-called straight men and women, some of them in business and government, who indulge in same-sex intercourse. You don't have to be gay to have sex with someone of the same sex.

Mmegi: Were you born gay? When did you know you were gay?

ADAM: I lived as a normal boy until my late teens. I did it all, played sports and did all the things a boy was supposed to do. I started noticing that I was more keen on the male physique than the female. It took me until now to actually openly admit that. A lot of men go through this. Because they are scared of how their family, friends and colleagues would react.They hide behind that normal relationship until they end up hurting themselves, the women who love them and unfortunately the children born to them.

STEVE: I have always been a sissy boy. For as far back as I can remember, I have always been effeminate. I have always hung out with girls checking out boys. For me I know it is in my genetic make-up. It is like being a particular race, I was born this way, I didn't choose to be. Ok. I have a problem with people trying to equate the struggle for racial equality to the one for sexual orientation. I didn't one day decided to be black or realised I was; I have always been black.

Actually a lot of people are against that. I am not. Human rights are broad. Blacks around the world struggled for racial equality. Christians in predominantly Muslim or atheist countries are trying to get their religious orientation respected. Here in Botswana, some tribes are in a struggle to get their languages recognised. These are all struggles for human rights, under which the struggle for sexual freedom falls. So I don't have a problem seeing the fights for racial, religious, tribal or sexual rights as being one and the same.

Mmegi: Why do you think society is so afraid of homosexual relationships?

ADAM: In the words of a famous friend: people are afraid of the unknown. We live in a patriarchal and extremely macho world where men have set rules on how to behave. Like for example, why is it that the majority of societies that allow for a man to marry as many women as he can afford don't allow the women the same rights?

STEVE: Because some ancient guy before the wheel and the drum decided that it should be so. But today, almost all the countries that have laws against same-sex relationships and marriages are against it for religious reasons. The Sodom and Gomorrah complex is still with us. And most of these people cannot look at their own cultures and say it is against our customs. No, it is against some Jewish, Christian or Muslim rule book.

Mmegi: Say you get the right to come out in the open, get married and adopt children.Will you not be sending a confusing message to a child who is not inherently homosexual but is living with homosexual parents?

STEVE: Do abusive or alcoholic parents send confusing messages to their kids? If this is really about the message we send and the influence we have over kids, what kind of message do you think drug abusing adults send their kids? How about promiscuous adults and people like paedophiles? Straight people are more of a threat to their children than gay folks.

Look at the mess heterosexual people have made of the world. First Eve ate the apple, then it was wrong to be of another race, all the wars, hatred and isms. Do you think homosexual people influenced them? We will not have any more of a good or bad influence on kids than straight people have had since we left the Garden of Eden.

Mmegi: So far the fight for the rights of homosexuals in Botswana is being fronted by BONELA. But in other countries, homosexuals are in the forefront of the struggle. Why are you people not fighting openly in Botswana? Is the gay community in open hiding?

ADAM: I like the open hiding part! We are here and a lot of very powerful people are gay.Their families, friends and colleagues know that they are gay but we find ourselves in a place where people are not really open to or accepting of gay people doing what straight people do, especially in public. Even you. You may not have a problem with us being gay but if we were to start kissing and fondling each other in front of you, you might take offence. For as liberal as you might want to think you are, you have been oriented to see love expressed in a certain way. Botswana is a largely conservative society, even among young people. Some go as far as being vindictive. For us to come out would first take a legal acceptance of who we are. Working on changing the minds of Batswana would take a while.

STEVE: But we are ready for that; we can wait. You can change a law but to change people's attitudes takes time. We have waited for a long time to be recognised as any other person or couple. We deserve the protection of the laws of this country just like any other couple out there. Imagine if one of us dies, the other cannot claim the dead person's property. But mind you, the late person would have wanted the surviving partner to inherit his or her property. But with the laws of this land not recognising us, that won't be possible.

Mmegi: So what do you expect from us 'normal" people? Do you expect us to just have you over for a braai and hang out with you?

STEVE: I can care less about your braais and social networks. I just don't expect you to harass me because I am a homosexual. I don't want to be denied the same things I am entitled to because I am different from you.

Mmegi: Many straight people I know say that they will not hang out with or have a gay friend because they think that deep down, the gay friend would be nursing some crush on them. Is this true?

ADAM: That's the most absurd reason for not having a gay friend. But it is also the reason for people being violent toward gay folks. Are you attracted to every woman you see? Even if you admire them, do you always go and propose them? It is stupid for straight guys to think that because I am gay I have to find all of them attractive.

STEVE: As our friend I respect your orientation like you respect ours. I cannot disrespect you by coming on to you. I think most guys won't mind having a gay friend, they are just too concerned that their friends would think that they are either gay too or heading that way.

Mmegi: Should any sensible gay person try to go to church or mosque without changing his or her orientation?

STEVE: I believe in God. I have a hard time believing that I am the result of a bunch of chemical and biological mistakes. I don't believe that God has a problem with me being gay. He created me. He knew I was going to be gay. Why should he now turn around and say that me being the me that he created me to be is punishable by death? Like I said, some ancient men managed to get those ridiculous stories in the scriptures.

ADAM: In the Arab world, it is a common practice for men to have sex with other men.The reason for this is that women won't have pre-marital sex for fear of being killed for dishonouring the family's name. So, the men, before they get married, will start their sexual experience with other men. This is a common practice. But they are not gay.

And I believe that these are the gung-ho ones who would be the first to throw the stone. Religious people are hypocrites. They are the reason for most of the isms we have in the world today. Yet they hide behind their scriptures while deep down, they burn in sin.

STEVE: This debate is not new. The first story on homosexuals I came across was in Sodom and Gomorrah. We are far from those biblical days. Should gays have the same rights as straight people? Some would say the answer is a matter of morality. Racism, colonialism, the holocaust, apartheid, the two world wars were all justified by some sort of morality. I am convinced that our struggle is the final frontier in the struggle for human rights. Time will have to tell which way Botswana swings when the dust settles after the BONELA case.
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