Botswana is taking centre stage in the progress of human rights in Africa with Caine Youngman’s law suit demanding that the government decriminalise homosexuality. Richard Ammon traveled to Botswana and spent time with all the people involved in the case. He also explored Botswana’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Global Gayz reports:
Meeting 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.
Being gay in this country has been, since colonization by England in the 19th century (independence came in 1966), an outlaw condition according to now archaic Victorian legal statutes and social standards. Although not vigorously enforced (clearly reflecting the irrelevant irrationality of the law) the stigma still reverberates culturally and is felt personally by most LGBT individuals.
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. (photo right, Caine Youngman)
Meeting Monica, one of the lawyers handling the decriminalisation case:
My first sit-down was with Monica Tabengwa, an articulate and forceful lesbian human rights lawyer and LeGaBiBo officer who has been instrumental in drawing up the high court complaint. She is truly a ‘big Mama’ in both size and compassionate parenting of an adoptive teen-age ‘son’ (since age 7). I wondered if he knew about her; she wasn’t sure, "but he sees my friends–mostly lesbian couples–when they visit so he must think something about that."
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.
LGBTI life 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, (photo left), 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.
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