|Pro-gay poster: "Mother if you knew I was gay, would you have stopped loving me?"|
By Richard Ammon
Botswana is both modern urban and simple rural, rich and poor, prosperous and challenged, with both an anti-gay law and a playful assertive gay community the breathes freely. It's a huge country with elephants, deserts, paved roads, a tolerant President and intolerant churches, a big university and various gay-friendly venues, lots of out, young and bold LGBTs. The progressive gay organization LeGaBiBo is suing the government to decriminalize homosexuality.
By coincidence I arrived in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, on a quiet yet historic day of human rights in Botswana: for the first time ever a law suit was filed against the government of Botswana claiming that the existing law criminalizing homosexual behavior (not 'being' homosexual) is unconstitutional.
The suit was jointly filed by LeGaBiBo gay organization (Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana) and a Botswana human rights organization, Bonela (Botswana Network on Ethics, Laws and HIV/AIDS)who have been planning the submission for months. At the press conference the director of Bonela described how the law unfairly discriminates against a certain portion of citizens and is therefore against the constitutional guarantee of equal rights.
In their joint press release they stated: "Homosexuality has been in African culture since time immemorial; it is actually homophobia that is ‘un African’. it was the European colonialists and preachers who imported the hatred against same sex behaviour. They brought the criminal categorization of that behaviour. The acts were indigenous. The name and the crime were imported. The sex laws that some politicians now defend are themselves colonial impositions. Individual identity and individual sexuality are constructed on basic humanness, ‘botho’ (respect and good manners) the self and the inherent right to be 'authentic' - not coerced or imposed by majority culture or religion as suggested by many conservative traditionalists and religious fundamentalists.
"Sexual orientation is essentially a private and personal issue. Unfortunately it has become a public political tool for power and influence in Botswana, misused by politicians, legal authorities and clergy as puppet issue to advocate for an irrational anti-gay status quo; the result is discrimination, prejudice and hate - definitely un-African values."
It was a powerful moment and an impressive start to my visit to this big country with modern cities, aggressive LGBT activists and a the huge Kalahari desert.
Caine, Pilot, Monica and Uyapo
LeGaBiBo is the only LGBT organization in Botswana. (There is a small trans and intersex organization called the Rainbow Identity Association that succeeded in getting registered with the government in 2010 because it was not a gay 'sexual orientation' group, but rather a support group for 'alternative gender identity' people.)
LeGaBiBo was formed about ten years ago in the shadow of laws that criminalized homosexual activity.
Monica Tabengwa, Caine Youngman, Pilot Mathambo are part of the leadership of LeGaBiBo, among others. Their ally is Uyapo Ndadi the director of Bonela (Botswana Network on Ethics, Laws and HIV/AIDS). All four are the driving force behind this courageous effort against religious and political oppression in Botswana. I met all four and experienced their intelligence, articulateness and determination to take on the daunting task of fighting back against blind ignorance and deliberate bigotry that runs recklessly throughout the Botswanan culture fueled by distorted Christian beliefs and ignorant politicians.
Bonela is a non-governmental organization (NGO) formally established in 2001 to support human rights initiatives in the area of HIV/AIDS and to facilitate concerned organizations and individuals committed to protecting and promoting the rights of all people affected by HIV/AIDS.
On their website LeGaBiBo states their mission: To build an independent non-partisan organisation that promotes the recognition, acceptance and equal protection human rights of the LGBTI community in Botswana.
LeGaBiBo's objectives as an LGBTI organization are: to promote a non-discriminatory legal framework for LGBTI community; to create a community that is educated and sensitized on LGBTI issues; to recognize same-sex relationships; to create a safe space where the LGBTI community can interact; to empower the LGBTI community so as to advocate for their rights; to promote sexual health amongst the LGBTIs.
These noble aims are substantial (and daunting) for one small organization, but their efforts to take action have been severely hobbled by the same law they seek to take down: because homosexual behavior is illegal the government registry of organizations refuses to accept their application. They will not allow a group that advocates an illegal cause to be listed and therefore LeGaBiBo cannot raise funds or organize social activities.
So LeGaBiBo exists as a sort 'phantom of the opera' group, felt and heard but not seen - until the law is changed. They share office space on the second floor of the larger Bonela organization and have two paid positions who manage the paperwork and strategy for legal and organizational matters--but no social activities. There is no physical space to sponsor informal gatherings of gay folks. Even the location of the office is too far from Gaborone center to allow for any drop-in visiting, support or counseling. They do have a Facebook page.
Instead, as elsewhere in the homophobic world, the 'scene' consists of of friendship circles who gather spontaneously or by intent at gay-friendly restaurants or clubs around Gaborone or Francistown or Maun, the three major cities of Botswana. So it's a subdued but not wholly closeted scene as I found out a few days later; see below.
Time Goes On - the World Changes
But time moves on and societies change. Across Africa in very recent years homosexuality as a taboo topic has broken out of the traditional stifling closet first shut-up by the puritanical European imperial colonists; for Botswana it was England. For better and for worse, the phenomenon of same-sex attraction, actually involving very few Africans, has captured disproportionate media attention away from the pervasive and crushing issues of poverty, corruption, unemployment and HIV across the continent.
Hot-button media headlines about gays in recent years in Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, Senegal, Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe have broken the silence around homosexuality, beginning with the fiery rhetoric about HIV being a gay disease that first brought the issue to public notice more than 25 years ago. But because the vast majority of HIV infected people are not gay, the initial 'gay curse' has eased and AIDS is now considered a pan-African health issue for all people.
In the shadow of the plague numerous government and charity (NGO) associations have been established to operate as health education and treatment organizations, some with same-sex issues (usually MSM) as a quiet secondary focus.
Building on this, starting only within the past decade, a whole other 'force' has emerged regarding sexuality -gay rights. Once unthinkable as a viable issue, the idea of homosexual orientation is advocated as a valid condition/attribute deserving of recognition, tolerance and equality before the law. 'Being gay' as an identity, as a political, legal and humanitarian issue has swept across the continent. This has created a culture war front that has evoked wildly bigoted opposition and sometimes violence from governments and religions proclaiming the sanctity of the family, the righteousness of church and the authority of the state, all lined up against the crime-sin-disease of homosexuality.
Now it is Botswana's turn to join the fray. Spurred on by pro-gay judicial and legislative successes in India, Eastern Europe, South America and others to break the irrational stranglehold of religious/political dogma on civil matters such as reproductive rights, sexual orientation rights, marriage rights - matters that should not have to be fought over - Botswana's LGBT citizens are pushing back in a determined way. The natural right of human beings to live at choice, freely without imposition of institutions or governments are being presented in a public forum for the first time here.
In the new high court challenge in Gaborone, the suit challenges Penal Code Section 164, Parts 'a' and 'c' that criminalize same-sex behavior - the same law that makes LeGaBiBo's mission illegal. An official at the National Registry office has incorrectly said, “any body that is contrary to the Constitution of Botswana cannot be registered”. Thus lacking official status, no organization can set up an office, do advertising, raise funds, hire staff or hold seminars or social meetings, so LeGaBiBo operates quietly under the wing of Bonela.
In their separate press statement, quoted above, LeGaBiBo challenged politicians who advocate homophobia as a cynical distraction from larger issues such as HIV and poverty. One sign of official opposition to be encountered in the struggle came from the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs Peter Siele when he said, "I am not aware of any group of homosexuals…as a parent I would find it difficult to go around Kgotla meetings advocating for legalization of such things." His statements reflect both misunderstanding of sexual orientation (hiding behind such vague notions as 'family values') and ignorance of any gay group (LeGiBiBo has been around since 1998). Obviously the Minister has not been around since then.
(See this report about a 1994 arrest of two men found violating Sections 164 and 167 of the Penal Code by "having carnal knowledge of each other'. The case stretched out over nine years and eventually dissolved in legal arguments about the constitutionality of the statute itself. See Summary of High Court decision in Kanane v. State )
Monica: Lawyer and Mother
It's not difficult to find the 'community' here. Thanks to the internet and the relatively small number of out LGBT people, I was able to meet half a dozen activists, students and regular citizens within a couple of days in Gaborone. Doubtless there are gay and lesbian folks beyond this capital city (population 185,000) but there are no gay gatherings in the outback in smaller towns that surround the huge Kalahari Desert, which takes up most of central Botswana.
In school the kids have health/sex health education but little if any mention of homosexuality so what he learns is from his peers and in the public forum. Mostly it is not positive because of social, political and religious homophobia. Intimate sexual matters are much in the closet as it is not a topic that parents feel comfortable discussing. Recently she heard her son react negatively to a TV report about homosexuals. She was surprised at his reaction and intends to bring up the issue with him soon.
Her recent work, along with others, has been composing and refining the strategic litigation against the government (submitted on the same day we spoke). The overall plan has three components: composing the litigation; developing a public education program; and capacity building of LeGaBiBo to be an effective organization.
Another facet of Monica's legal work is with the doubly-disenfranchised community of sex workers, which she calls 'transactional work', who operate in very underground manner, often at truck sties along well traveled routes or by internet hookup. They are disenfranchised from the straight and gay population as well as from the law since prostitution is illegal. There are male and female sex workers. The women are more visible and available and more at risk of HIV because in selling sex the customer names the game. Poor sex workers are reluctant to turn down a trick even if the customer refuses to wear a condom, putting both people at risk for STDs.
"Male sex workers are virtually all homosexually inclined since very few women in Botswana would or could pay for sex." These men are the highest risk group for HIV since their 'business' is with total strangers who have no personal concern for those who service them. These men - who sometimes appear as transvestites to appeal to otherwise reluctant straight men - don't/can't consistently demand their johns wear condoms. Money talks louder than rubber to a prostitute in dire need of money and hormones speak louder to a horny trick.
The 'Scene' in Gaborone
As for the gay community in Gaborone, although Monica said it is basically "underground" in any formal sense that is not an accurate description. There is an active not-out/not-in network of friendship circles and a handful of clubs/restaurants/bars that are gay friendly. Of these, only one club/disco is considered gay (although not exclusively): Grand West, where LGB people can hold hands, dance close together and sometimes kiss.
The Bull and Bush bar/restaurant, a favorite of expats in the city outskirts, becomes a gay friendly club after 9 or 10 PM. Aside from this scattering of venues, anyone looking for a specific out scene will not find one. It's unlikely any place could afford to be exclusively gay since the number of LGBT people in Gaborone is limited. There are only 5 million people in the whole country (that's 8 people per square mile - vs Hong Kong with 14 thousand per!) and only 185,000 in the capital. Since most gay folks are in the closet or married, the customer base is insufficient to make a profit with a gay-only venue.
As mentioned, at the moment the scene lacks an actual gay center since LeGaBiBo cannot hold organized meetings such as social gatherings, support groups, movie nights, parties, hotline, peer counseling, youth groups or interventions.
As for the lesbian scene in Gaborone, like the guys, it is also blended into the larger social scene. Women in couples or singly go to the gay-friendly mixed bars often with friends to chat, dance or cruise for new acquaintances. It's no different for them than anyone else out for a night of interaction, a bit of draught, some gossip, dance and perhaps a pick-up. It's mostly a night out with friends. The other mainstay of lesbian life are small gatherings of friends for dinner at home or at a restaurant. There is no LGBT publication. See this story about lesbian couple coming out.
As for gay bashing, Monica contrasted Botswana with South Africa (RSA), which has a history of violence left over from the apartheid era, from racism, from rich-poor resentment, from social inequality as well as tribal rivalry. Given such a mix of anger sources, it is no surprise, Monica said, that homophobia in RSA is often laced with violence. Violence was how one solved problems there and how apartheid was eventually defeated.
But in Botswana the history has been much calmer. Certainly not free of conflict but not the at same level of violence. The push for independence from Britain was mostly negotiated; no major warfare; no reprisal killings, no brutal leaders (as in neighboring Zimbabwe) who suppressed political opponents. In Botswana elections were held, a president and parliament were elected, the Union Jack was lowered and the new Republic of Botswana tri-colored (black, blue and white) was raised. A humanitarian president Khama led the nation into freedom and prosperity for the first 14 years and that progressive policy has continued to the present under the second president Khama (his unmarried son).
Much discussed in school is HIV since Botswana has one of the highest incidence rates in Africa. (I saw a primary school with billboards of HIV prevention painted on the exterior walls). This is not due to a high level of promiscuity or unusual lapse in morals but rather to the scientific finding that Botswana has a strain of HIV that is more easily transmittable - HIV1 (vs HIV2 which is harder to transmit).
According to the Avert AIDS Charity, report, "Botswana has been hard hit by AIDS. In 2009 there were an estimated 300,000 adults living with HIV - or one quarter of the population aged 15 and over. Considering Botswana’s population is below two million, the epidemic has reached disturbing proportions. The country has an estimated adult HIV prevalence among 15-49 year olds of 24.8%, the second highest in the world after Swaziland. HIV and AIDS has had a devastating impact on Botswana. Life expectancy at birth fell from 65 years in 1990-1995 to less than 40 years in 2000-2005, a figure about 28 years lower than it would have been without AIDS."
"In response to this emergency, Botswana became the first African country to aim to provide antiretroviral drugs to all its needy citizens. The success of this treatment programe has made Botswana an example for other African nations to follow. Yet even though it has achieved universal treatment access (that is at least 80% of those who need HIV treatment are receiving it), the country continues to suffer greatly from AIDS. If it is ever to defeat the epidemic, Botswana must find a way to halt the spread of HIV."In 1995 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Botswana Government began a collaboration called BOTUSA, to work on public health research and programs to combat TB as well as HIV/AIDS. BOTUSA has grown substantially since 2000, and is now part of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).13 PEPFAR contributed $55 million to HIV/AIDS programs in Botswana in Fiscal Year 2006 alone.
"Botswana National AIDS Co-ordinating Agency (NACA) was formed in 1999 and given responsibility for mobilizing and coordinating a multi-sectoral national response to HIV and AIDS. NACA works under the National AIDS Council, which is chaired by the President and has representatives from across society including the public and private sectors, and civil society. During this time, a number of developments occurred including routine HIV testing, increased VCT centers and the provision of antiretroviral drugs through the public sector."
With help from these and other partners - including the Global Fund, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Botswana-Baylor Childrens Center, and numerous faith-based and community-based organizations - Botswana has mounted one of Africa's most comprehensive programs of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care.
Although Botswana has succeeded in achieved universal treatment access to HIV treatment lingering stigma, denial and too few trained personnel continue as major hindrances to people accessing education and services. Crucially, ignorance of one's HIV status continues to spread the disease in rural impoverished areas. The disease still carries the stain of infidelity, promiscuity, and prostitution. (Injecting drug abuse is not reported to be a significant problem here, probably because of the cost of that habit.)
- Read much more at (http://www.avert.org/aids-botswana.htm.
Botswana Gay Life is Underground - Not!
One evening during the week-long InterVarsity Games and Culture, held every year between Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho universities (these three countries have a certain bond since they did not go through apartheid), the swimming pool at the University of Botswana was the venue for the swimming competition between the three universities. By intention it seemed a pleasant gathering place for a small cadre of gay guys. The competition was a rather amateur affair with all the races only 50 meters long. I had plans to meet Caine there since we are both Gay Games swimmers.
|Pool guys, Caine in red shirt|
That's how I met Reggie and Lyndon and Caine's brother Ndiye (plus Thabiso and Thabo, the two 'friendly' ones) - all part of Caine's 'entourage' of friends. They call Caine their 'papa' since he is older but not by much. The camaraderie was very obvious as they touched and talked, hung on each other and Caine got a massage. Lyndon and Reggie occasionally leaned on my shoulder as we talked about the alleged gay closet here as well as family matters (parents' reactions), clothing (the ruinous straight style of very baggy clothes), early realization that they were 'different', coming out to others (Reggie at 15, Lyndon at 16), high school teasing and friendships. And of course, the local 'scene'.
Lyndon and Reggie feel at ease in their lives - and at ease talking in public. Lyndon, 23, is the son of a racially mixed parentage, his father is originally from England and his mother is Motswana. They are divorced and both living in Gaborone so Lyndon has two homes. He wears necklaces and bracelets and sports a thin mustache and wears his hair in small dreadlocks. Both he and Reggae have had separate relationships which did not last long. In the past few recent years Lyndon said he has seen "dramatic change" in attitudes toward LGBT people in Gaborone while also noticing that gays are coming out younger and more confidently - and dressing more fashionably. "People from 17 to 26 seem more open to gay people. You can see this especially at the clubs and discos." (See story about young gay teens in USA.)
Reggie, 26, is a lean, sharp-eyed young man with a quick wit, braided hair and a pierced silver ring in his lip, a playful demeanor and is quietly outrageous - and a "great dancer" at the disco. He said he was not harassed in high school (in Francistown, Botswana's second largest city) for being gay. Rather quite the opposite. His self-confidence and smart attitude gained him a circle of friends who also served as a sort of protective ring against potential homophobic students. "People usually weren't bothered by me being different. If someone teased me I teased them back. I have a fast tongue. But as a culture we don't bother others; even though I was obvious it wasn't' a big deal in school. It would have been ten years ago but not now."
Both friends are out to their families and are well past the initial stage of family upset. Both of their fathers are quietly accepting of their sons. Lyndon's mother is re-married with a husband who is not too happy about Lyndon's sexuality and his mother is kindly oblivious to it so he easily circulates between his father's house, where he lives, and his mother's.
Both are willing to tell others about themselves if asked and are not reluctant to dress in a manner that suits them, which I observed was only slightly 'avant', accessorized with some jewelry and minor body piercings.
Lyndon added, "of course you always have to be aware of where you are and who is there. I don't take foolish risks and avoid unsafe situations. We don't have gay bashing here generally but some drunks may become hostile in the right situation or feel provoked if a gay guy is too flaming or too 'out'. Personally I don't like to see gay guy being flamboyant or in your face. It's risky and unnecessary. They feel that lesbians have an easier time since female affection is common in public and people tend to be more open toward them, or they really don't care about them enough to harass them or be rude.
(Except for parliament member Pono Moatlhodi who recently - March 2011 - made known his irrational biblical homophobiic views "condemning homosexuals, maintaining they will do little to help efforts combat HIV in prisons...I don’t like those people and will never tolerate them." To which Lorraine Setuke, Vice Chairperson of LeGaBiBo, responded, "this is a thoughtless, barbaric, derogative and extremely demeaning statement intended to cause harm to all persons who identify as gay.” Also see this rebuttal by Caine and the Facebook page against homophobia.)
Neither Reggie nor Lyndon felt the gay scene was 'underground' in Gaborone. They both stated dating in their teens and Lyndon had a steady boyfriend for a while in high school. Currently he has a boyfriend he's been seeing for a few months. Reggie is no longer in a relationship and is looking around for Mr. Right. He said gays usually meet new people though friends and friends of friends or at the discos, especially Grand West, or online, especially on Facebook. The mentioned another friendly venue in town, the Cafe Dijo in Gaborone owned and operated by a gay couple from South Africa. Reggie also mentioned that once a year Bonela sponsors a big gay bash (as in party).
What accounts for the lack of violence that one sees in South Africa or America or Eastern Europe?
"We are a peaceful country. We are not aggressive, we have not fought wars getting to independence (from England in 1966) and we have not lived under brutal leaders. Our first three presidents were good people who did not harm the people but ensured democracy," said Lyndon. Apartheid taught people to be violent. Communism taught people to hate. America has the hateful Bible belt around their throats. "But here our flag has no red in it. The dominant color is light blue like the peaceful ocean with two narrow white stripes, for white people, and a wider black stripe for black people." It was a refreshing explanation of their flag; something I'd never heard before about any national symbol.
A word From the Delta
After lunch, I asked Martin and another fellow guide, a native woman named Judith who happened to be there if they were aware of men who were attracted to men and women attracted to women. Martin said he was and Judith assented, through Matin's translation. She did not speak English. Both grew up in Maun, the largest town in northern Botswana, where they finished secondary school (high school) and had gone to tourism training (3 years).
I asked their opinion of gay people. I'm sure they had never been asked that question since their answers were hesitant and brief: Judith at first said something to the effect (translated from Setswana) that giving love is a good thing whether to a man or a woman. She may not have understood my question, delivered through Martin who seemed uncertain how to explain it, because a few minutes later she said it was not a good thing. I repeated what she said and she suggested that both ideas were true: loving is a good thing but man-man or woman-woman was not good but she was not adamant in her tone.
Martin made a similar comment. He has seen and heard about "such people" in Maun. Giving love is a good thing to do but gay loving was wrong. I asked if this idea came from the church (protestant in this area). It was obvious he had given virtually no serious thought to this idea before and did not seem to understand when I said people were born that way, just like his black skin or my green eyes. He essentially was ignorant of any deep understanding of human sexuality but on the other hand he was not hostile or aggressive his responses.
He willingly wrote out the words in the Setswana language for same-sex attraction: "motho yo o ratang" which he said roughly translates as 'man giving loving to another man' (homosexual person). For a woman in love with another woman he wrote "mosadi a ratana le mosadi jaaka ene".
So that was the word from the bush on that topic!
Another Dinner with the Boys
After a two week drive around Namibia and Botswana to see the Kgalagadi Desert, the sands dunes on Namibia's Atlantic coast and the wild animals in Etosha Park and the Okavango Delta, we returned to Gaborone for a couple of days and invited 'the boys' to join us for another evening meal at Bull & Bush restaurant. Pilot (advocacy officer of LeGaBiBo), Thabo, Kennedy, Reggie (three university students), Thabo's cousin Jeremy and the two of us (Michael and Richard) huddled over ribs, burgers and fries.
This is the gay scene in Gaborone: a cadre of friends getting together to talk gay-guy stuff including dating, boyfriends, sex, children, family, gaydar, the current law suit against the government, a "best kept open secret in Botswana" (not revealed in this story), the My Star amateur TV talent show (in which Pilot competed), straight marriage and parenting, fidelity, sexual-attraction-vs-compatibility (discussed with a bi-guy named Thabo), clothes, being flamboyantly gay as an offense to gays, being a non-activist as a form of gay activism, and Reggie playfully cruising Thabo's cousin. We could have been anywhere in Europe or North America and sounded and appeared the same as these young guys in Botswana.
- (See 'Young Men and the Construction of Masculinity in Sub-Saharan Africa; Same Sex Attraction, page 21. An 80-page research report by the World Bank)
- (See news report about trans person (FTM) Skipper Mogapi 'Growing Up Gay in Botswana' from Queerty.com)
But HIV remains a spectre that is ever present, mostly for heterosexuals but MSM are among the most vulnerable groups. Approximately one in six is infected giving Botswana the second highest infection rate in the world after nearby Swaziland. Nevertheless, among straight men there remains strong resistance to using condoms partly due to personal beliefs and attitudes and catholic church opposition. Among the gathered boys at the Bull & Bush that evening condom usage was high, so they claimed.
Dinner with the girls
My final evening in Botswana was a meal at Linga Langa restaurant at Riverwalk Mall in eastern Gaborone with Monica Tabengwa, Lame Olebile and her partner Thandie, and Kagiso Sebina (whose girlfriend of 2.5 years lives in Francistown).
|Lame Olebile in the LeGiBiBo office|
Monica said social gay meetings were difficult to arrange because many LGBT people outside Gaborone cannot afford a taxi to the meet and cannot afford a meal at a restaurant. "It's not so much an issue of hiding as it is of money. This keeps LGBTs from coalescing into a community". Class separates, color separates, money separates, gender separates, gays separate from straights.
So, as usual around the world, an unpublicized community emerges without form, without leadership, without a formal social organization. A community of friends attracts like-minded others in overlapping circles. Fortunately in Botswana there are no homophobic goon squads, no raging fundies, no political firebrands (well, few), no aggressive police tactics so LGBT folks can pretty much live the lives they choose without much paranoia or danger.
Against Botswana's background problems with economics, disease, environment and homophobia, the LGBT population in Botswana continue to pursue, privately, lives of freedom, opportunity and love.