Monday, 4 April 2011

In Botswana, a lively debate on homosexuality

Source: The Botswana Gazette

By Tigele Mokobi

Recent media reports on same-sex relations have brought a sharp focus on the intricacies of the highly contentious subject of lesbians, homosexuals, bi-sexuals and persons of one sex who identify primarily as members of the other, commonly referred to as transgendered. I listened in to the ensuing national discourse when I recently stepped into a fierce debate on homosexuality as I boarded a mini-bus taxi home from work the Friday the local tabloid, The Voice broke the news of the, ‘first lesbian couple to publicly declare their love’ for each other.

Homosexuality is a topic of a wide, complex and multi-dimensional debate and the attitudes of my fellow passengers towards same-sex relationships reflected the broader cultural, religious, legal and moral norms that regulate sexuality in Botswana. Emotions in the taxi ranged from revulsion by a ‘decadent Western innovation’ forced upon Africans by white men, through seeing the practice as a sin before God, to impassioned calls for recognition of the rights of sexual minorities and casual it-doesn’t-bother-me acceptance of the practice.

I proceeded to the window seat, two rows behind the driver. A middle aged passenger in faded blue overalls occupied the front passenger seat. He was straining his neck to face the other passengers. Frothing at the mouth and the veins running down his neck about to burst under enormous strain he yelled, “It’s these perverts who’ve brought us the dreaded HIV / AIDS scourge.” “They are the purveyors of all these dreaded modern sexually transmitted diseases,” he screamed.

A soft spoken, younger, bespectacled passenger in the seat in front of mine asked if the disposition to experience sexual, affection or romantic attraction primarily or exclusively to people of the same sex is acquired or instinctive? His question is however drowned by the epic exchange between a couple of young women who view the press reports of the coming out of the closet of Onkemetse Pule and Lawrence Kwataka as a heroic struggle for civil rights pitted against an elderly woman who sees it as, “yet another indicator of society’s general moral decline.”

“Who is the righteous bearer of society’s moral campus and what do they use to determine that homosexuality is immoral?” is the swift rebuttal from an elegantly dressed young lady in the row behind mine.

“The Holy Bible and the constitution of Botswana proclaim homosexuality sinful and illegal. Just how do these girls hope to live in a country that prohibits homosexuality?” yells the driver with a strong North-Eastern accent.

“It is a sad day when we start identifying groups of people by how they choose to have sex,” chips in the soft spoken bespectacled passenger. “I find it amazing that a country like Botswana still treats members of society as second class citizens based on their sexual orientation.”

“We have no right to impose our morals on others. Gays and lesbians have a right to identity. They are Gods creation and we must love them as we love ourselves,” declared the elegantly dressed young lady.

“If homosexuality is natural then why is it only human beings that show this blatant disrespect of all natural laws, that even animals respect with their very lesser intelligence?” shouts someone from the rear seat. “The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Human beings believe they are superior to animals, why then do they go below them through behaviours like homosexuality? God help us! The birds and wild animals know how to do it better, I have never come across a gay cow or chicken.”

“This perverted practice is un-African!” retorts the elderly woman in disgust as she disembarks at the Taung bus stop.

“But what do you say of the body of folklore and documented evidence of same-sex sexual relations among men in a number of pre-colonial societies. How do you think herd boys and regiments released sexual tension?” a passenger with dreadlocks in a khaki coloured Yankees base-ball cap shouts after her.

He proceeds to relate how it was only after the arrival of the white man with the Bible in one hand and his laws in the other, that this largely ignored or suppressed practice among African societies became viewed with shame and dishonour. “Isn’t it ironic that the same white man who demonised homosexuality in the Bible and statutes is now propagating it as an acceptable and legitimate lifestyle!?” he asks. “The way I see it, it is ignorance and fear that fuel this irrational aversion and hostility towards homosexuality,” he proclaims.

Later in the evening at home, I’d reflect on the encounter in the mini-bus taxi and was struck by the extent of how the conversation was a metaphor of the broader debate on same-sex sexual relationships. Especially revealing is how much of the stigma, belligerence and chauvinistic ultra-repressive attitude towards homosexuality is justified by opponents on broad religious, cultural and legal grounds. These attitudes are underwritten by powerful cultural norms and institutions such as the Church and the State whose combined might have come to bear on a citizenry who simply pray for the recognition and protection of their inalienable rights to self expression.

I am taken aback by the religious zealots, cultural hypocrites and the statutory abuse of the rights of people inclined to same-sex sexual relationships. This hostility and resentment flies in the face of our national values of Botho and the national vision 2016 which espouse tolerance, compassion, equality, justice and peace. I feel that as a society it is time we looked ourselves in the mirror and see ourselves for who were really are and what we are achieving with our widely accepted prejudice against sexual minorities.

We are a secular state, with an elaborate Bill of Rights that is enshrined in the Constitution and we pride ourselves with the values of Botho, where then do we get off maligning and criminalising consensual same-sex sexual activity? Why do we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by the selective scriptures quoted by some deceptive ‘men of the cloth?’ What business do we have in what consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms? This I find to be the height of bigotry!

Tigele Mokobi is Head of Corporate Communications – Ministry of Local Government, he writes in his personal capacity and the thoughts and ideas presented here are his own and do not represent those of the Ministry of Local Government or the Government of Botswana.
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