Botswana in the Closet
September 15, 2008
– a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
Editors note: The contents and opinions in this article are the author’s and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or of the Peace Corps. Most of the names have been changed for purposes of anonymity, privacy and/or protection of those individuals.
As soon as he approached me, he grabbed my hand, interlocking each of his fingers between each of my own. We walked side by side like this for a few moments as we talked. This wasn’t a date on a Friday night in West Hollywood. This was during my walk home from the office, in Botswana. This man was a complete stranger, someone who was a bit confused to see a white guy walking through his ward. His sole intent was to greet me and welcome me, so he did just that.
Batswana men, completely oblivious to homosexuality amongst their own people, are openly affectionate with each other, signs of brotherly love, free of hesitation or shame. It’s common to see men holding hands or putting their arms around each other, with no sense of personal space. It’s a beautiful part of their culture, so different from America where we disconnect ourselves from one another.
I remember the surprise and comfort I felt when I saw the way the male facilitators at training interacted with each other and with me. After I hugged Tsepo to say hello in the morning, he would keep his arm around my waist holding me next to him casually as he continued the conversation I had briefly interrupted. I just stood there in his embrace for a couple of minutes until his arm loosened naturally, as if he didn’t even realize his arm was still around me.
One day after lunch, Keamogetse and I were talking to each other as we walked to the bus. While we ambled, he clasped my hand in his as if it were a natural instinct. I resisted the slight urge to pull away, felt relaxed and let the Motswana take the lead, as I’ve learned to do most of the time in the process of adapting to this foreign culture.
During an 11-hour bus ride to my new home, I had a conversation with Chris, a straight guy and fellow PCV, about these signs of affection. We talked about how quickly the culture is changing and the country is developing. Generation after generation, things change and the Batswana are losing parts of their history and traditions. I wondered, with more exposure to and outing of homosexual behavior, would they lose this comfort in male affection? If there were a greater acceptance of the possibility that some of the men might be gay, would they be so openly affectionate with each other? Or would they disconnect themselves out of fear and prejudice, losing another wonderful aspect of their culture?
As you ponder this with me, dear reader, let me be clear that people in Botswana are well aware that there are many gay people in the world and that homosexuality exists. The problem is their denial that it happens within their country’s borders. Allow me to use television as an example.
In Botswana, a country more developed than most of Africa, many people have TVs in their homes. I still laugh every time I see another tiny, one-room, cinderblock house with a satellite dish mounted to the side of it. When I stayed with my host family, BTV, the country’s most popular channel, was almost always on. Watching snippets, night after night, it wasn’t uncommon to see gay people on BTV. Gay people were interviewed on talk shows, a gay boy coming out was a major story line in a popular sitcom, and a set of lesbian parents were the main characters in a movie about a custody battle. But all of these people were white, and the scenes were filmed and set far away from Botswana. The evening news had no hesitation to cover the story of and show footage of the recent California Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages, and to do so without judgment, but this was pure information and entertainment from the fascinating world outside of Botswana, not a part of their own country.
In this country, it’s illegal to be gay. These types of laws exist in many countries all over the world, and were even on the books in many States in America until as recently as 2004 when the Supreme Court struck them down. Still, it’s an odd and funny concept to me: illegal to be who you are, illegal to exist, illegal to be alive. Punishable by up to 7 years in prison and a part of the constitution, that’s the reality here.
It’s quite a stark contrast to my previous working environment. Not only had I been out since the age of 16, but I had dedicated the following decade to working on gay issues; I fell into politics after college, working against anti-gay ballot initiative campaigns for a national gay organization for 4 years. But I lost motivation for the cause. I didn’t feel the urgency anymore. Fighting for marriage equality was and still is important to me, but it pales in comparison to the plights of the developing world, fighting against AIDS, hunger, poverty and violence. I wanted to do something so different that I didn’t care if I needed to be in the closet for a couple of years. It seemed like such a small sacrifice to follow another passion of mine.
Since I’ve been out for a while, and I’m completely comfortable with who I am, I don’t feel the need for any type of local support system or contact with other gay people to get through the day. If I was in a stage of questioning my sexuality, I think this phase would be much more difficult. I’m also reminded that there’s a lot more to me than being gay, and I get to focus on all of those other things, now that I’m away from gay politics and often restrained from even talking about the issue. I just thank God there’s no gaydar here or that would make things much more complicated.
The stereotypical signs we see in the States that would usually make us wonder if someone were gay don’t apply here. My three brothers in my host family were a great example of this. The eldest is a fashion designer, the middle child is obsessed with Celine Dion, and the youngest wears his favorite sweater adorning Hello Kitty almost every day.
I worried how difficult it would be, not being able to talk about my work experience, possibly having to lie about myself and my relationships. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we all struggle with a lot of things in order to do work here and adjust to the culture. I’ve learned in my short time here that my struggles as a gay person aren’t any more severe than those that straight volunteers face. The most difficult part is being in my dating prime and not being able to search for my husband. I’ve learned from my straight PCV friends that they don’t feel like they have dating options either, so most of them are in the same boat of a 2-year hiatus from romantic life.
The gay issue has come up several times at work in the past couple of months, not very often, but more than I had anticipated. A week after starting my job, I was asked to be an adjudicator for an interschool debate that had been organized by some of my co-workers. Over two days and several rounds, delegates from 8 different schools were to debate a variety of topics including marital rape, the right for HIV+ women to have children, abortion and, much to my surprise, sexual orientation.
I have never witnessed a formal high school debate, so a lot of what I saw was new to me. It was structured quite similarly to the way I think it would be in the States, but I can’t say for sure. Regardless, the most entertaining and inspiring part of the entire spectacle is difficult to describe. Imagine awkward teenagers in Africa debating controversial topics in front of a large audience of their peers and having to do so in English, their second or even third language.
A vivacious 14-year-old woman was one of the gems, an anomaly in the group of mostly shy adolescents. As part of a re-match, she took the floor a second time in round 3:
“Ladies and gentlemen, hello ladies and gentlemen, let me show my respect and thank everyone, again, for being here, ladies and gentlemen, protocol observed, ladies and gentlemen. They say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, ladies and gentlemen, but here I am and I’m back with a bang, ladies and gentlemen. And now, to my beautiful work, ladies and gentlemen. The statement reads: Everyone has a right to sexual orientation…”
The debaters repeated similar phrases when they took the stage, and everyone said “ladies and gentlemen” a countless number of times out of nervousness. For this particular topic, the way it was phrased was already a bit confusing.
The arguments given against the issue were a lot of the similar ones I hear anywhere, mostly based in religion, procreation, culture and tradition. The more concerning part for me was to listen to those who supported the motion because many of their arguments were not so great or convincing. They talked about human rights, the right to personal choice and that having more people adopt children instead of procreating could be a good thing. One debater simply said “Elton John is gay,” as if naming a popular musical artist of a particular identity convinces people of the right to be who they are.
It was clear that these students had little access to information about the topic. It was, however, still great to hear the issue being discussed and to hear the words of support from the youth, whether they believe them or not.
After the last round on day 2, one of my colleagues, Phaketse, and I were conversing about the student’s performances. She’s one of the people at work who I’m closest to, and I’ve always enjoyed our conversations. She’s smart, with a great sense of humor, so we usually laugh a lot together.
“I used to really like Elton John,” she said to me.
“What happened?” I asked, fully knowing where this was going.
“I just couldn’t listen to him anymore when I found out he was gay.”
I couldn’t help myself. I laughed, “Why is that?”
“I don’t know, I just…. It just made me uncomfortable. I don’t like that he made that choice.”
“Ok…” I was afraid to say anything more about the subject. Not only am I in the closet here, but I’ve been paranoid to even bring up the topic.
Our conversation was cut short when the owner of one of the lodges in town, David Ngami, took the microphone to give an inspirational speech to close the event. Throughout the day, David was sitting at the judges table, so we were getting to know each other between rounds. He’s a very bright man, moved to Botswana from another part of Africa, started two of his own businesses, involved in a lot of youth programs and loves politics. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him in our brief, friendly exchanges.
When David took the stage, the first thing he did was tear down all of the students’ arguments on the issue of sexual orientation. He started spewing hate and myths about gay people and said “We shouldn’t let ourselves go down in immoral peril like those in South Africa who have stepped into darkness.” He then went on with the rest of his speech, which, to his credit, was indeed quite inspirational, and I agreed with a lot of it, minus his intro of course.
During David’s speech, something awoke within me. I had been speaking to this vivacious and sociable man. He wanted me to come to Kenya and work there after my time in Bots. He spoke of great life philosophies, and I connected with him. Then he stood up, and anti-gay rhetoric flooded the hall. It was the first time I ever felt true compassion and kind feelings toward someone who said such things. He’s the one who’s living in the darkness. How can I fault him for where he grew up, his culture, the information he’s been given and lack of exposure to these issues?
My thought process went further. What does it mean to build relationships with these people with good hearts, spirits and who are so giving and thoughtful, yet they happen to live in a place that has instilled these conservative views? Before these moments, if someone was anti-gay in any context, I couldn’t even give them the time of day. But being in a completely different culture has opened my eyes to seeing the other beautiful parts in these people, the parts that lie beyond their ignorance.
Later, for work, I would have to call David asking him for a discount to host one of our events at his lodge. More than any other lodge we asked, he gave us the best deal. I have to admit that the idea, at first, made my stomach turn. I would never want to do business with someone spewing anti-gay ideas in the States. But here, in a different world, it’s just part of my job. If I decided not to work with or talk to anyone here who was ignorant on gay people, I wouldn’t have many people to work with.
Until these debates, the topic hadn’t come up in the first 2 and a half months I was here. Outside of conversations with other Peace Corps Volunteers, all of who are completely supportive, it hasn’t been talked about.
After the debates wrapped up, Phaketse wanted to finish our conversation. She asked me “Do you have a girlfriend?” I laughed, “No.” I thought about saying ‘Yes’ and using this as a cover story, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then she asked “Are you gay or hetero?”
Well, shit, was she really asking me this? I froze. My brain stopped working.
“I can’t answer that question.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why does it matter whether I’m gay or straight?” I felt like an idiot. What was I doing? Why couldn’t I stick to my story about Cyndy and having a fiancé? If I had said yes to the former question, that would have saved me a lot of trouble. I hate lying, absolutely despise it. I’ve been out of the closet for almost 10 years, and I spent most of that time working on LGBT causes. I’m not used to having to do this.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I just want to know,” she said, determined to have an answer.
I was still calm at this point, and I laughed, saying “and I just don’t think it matters.”
At that moment, our conversation was again interrupted as her ride arrived and she left. When I got home, for the rest of the evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about this predicament. My mind was in a panic. I rehearsed my story and gave it to her the next day as we walked to work together.
I gave her an elaborate story about Cyndy and I, being engaged, she’s the love of my life, etc. She is one of my best friends, so 90% of the story was true and easy to tell, about the history of our relationship and how it’s grown and changed over time. The 10% lie was the part about her being my fiancé. Phaketse bought the entire story.
I didn’t end it there though. Phaketse opened a door by asking me these questions, and I wasn’t willing to close it. I went on to tell her that I have some gay friends in the States and that “some” of the work I used to do was for gay causes. I made up another story about many of my friends being upset that I was going to work for a homophobic country, and out of respect to them, I don’t like to answer that question, because it really doesn’t matter to me if someone is gay or straight. She bought that too.
Phaketse continued to surprise me when she said, “Well, I hope you know that even if you were gay, I wouldn’t think any differently of you. I admit that I probably am a bit, how do they call it, ho-mo-phobic, but I don’t judge people.” I let the conversation end there. The topic didn’t come up again for another month, but this time, I was the person who raised the issue.
I got an email from one of my close friends in Los Angeles telling me that her and her girlfriend broke up. Heather was staying in the house, and Annie was moving out. Knowing the saga they’ve been through, my heart went out to Heather, and I was thinking about her a lot that day. I decided to bring this up to Phaketse on our walk home to see how she would react. Afterwards, I was glad I did because I got a much more honest opinion than I did in our previous conversation.
“Phaketse, I’m very saddened today by an email I got from one of my friends.”
“Oh, no. Why’s that? What happened?” a look of sudden and genuine concern wiping across her face.
“My friend and her partner just broke up, it’s a mess, and her partner is moving out of the house…”
“Oh, that’s terrible. But she gets to keep the house and he’s moving out?”
“No, she’s moving out.”
“Wait, who’s the man and who’s the woman?”
“Well, they’re lesbians, so they’re both women.”
Her mouth formed the shape of an O in utter shock. “Oh… uh… I see…”
“Yeah, I’m very sad for her. And she says she wants to come visit. I don’t know if it would happen, but I hope that it does.”
“Well, if she comes, I hope she doesn’t bring her with her.”
Chuckling, I responded, “Well, since they broke up, I doubt they would come together.”
“Well, I hope she finds a nice man to make her happy.”
I laughed some more, “No, she’s quite happy with women.”
And the truth came out when she exclaimed, “But that’s demonic! It’s an abomination! Why would she want to do such a thing? She needs to find a man and learn what real love is.”
I could physically feel the rage fomenting in my body, and I did my best to stifle it. “How can you say what she had wasn’t real love? How would you feel if someone told you that the love you felt for someone wasn’t real or good enough? Tell me, have you ever been in love?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She was getting upset. “I just know what the Bible says.”
I laughed again and retorted, “The Bible says that you are sinning by wearing those clothes.”
“It does not,” she said, clipped.
“Leviticus, Chapter 19, ‘Do not wear clothing of mixed textiles.’” I’ve had this argument far too many times. “and Corinthians chapter 11 says that you should wear a head scarf in public. If not, you should have your head shaved, so don’t try to tell me you follow the Bible. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He preached love. You, on the other hand, have called my friends demonic. How is that love?”
Her expression softened, and she spoke quietly, “I can see you’re very upset, and for that I am sorry.”
I could tell she was being sincere. “I appreciate that, Phaketse, but I want you to understand something. We may have a lot of disagreements because of the different environments we lived in and because of things each of us were taught, but no matter what differences we have in culture, I would never say hateful things about your friends.”
“I’m very, very sorry,” almost pouting.
“Did you say you were going to church this evening?” I asked, having heard her talk about it earlier.
“Well, when you go to church, I want you to pray about this, and I hope that God will open your eyes.”
“Uh… well…” a bit surprised, “I… I hope so too.”
“Are you upset with me?” I asked sincerely, knowing how heated I can get when I argue.
“Not at all. You were honest with me about how you felt. With that honesty, you’ve proven that we are friends.”
The next morning, in the office, Phaketse and I had a meeting about forming some protocols for the for the HIV work we’re doing with kids. It was work as usual as if nothing happened. She was professional, unreserved, and we continued to laugh together as we always do.
I wonder if her view will ever change, and if there’s anything I can do. However, I have learned that sometimes simply being honest with people I care about can change hearts and minds. Some people take much longer than others. It was some of my high school friends who helped to teach me that.
When I came out in high school, I lost several of my close friends due to conservative religion. Two of them, several years later, tracked me down to apologize as they changed their mind on the issue, and my friendship was more important to them than they realized. Just a few months ago, the dearest friend that I lost found me on Facebook. Her name is Chastity, how religiously appropriate. She was deeply apologetic for what she had done so long ago. It took me a while to respond. I cried because her message was so sincere, heartfelt and nostalgic. After I finally wrote back, this is part of the email she sent:
“… I am so relieved I cried while reading this. I can’t believe you’re in Botswana. I mean, it’s just so exotic compared with our humble Western PA. Reading this little message…hearing your tone of voice come through the words made me realize how much I’ve missed you. I tend to truly connect with only a very few people and the connection I had with you left a lasting impression; one that’s been vacant for a long time.”
Change takes time and patience, but how can we expect change if we don’t talk about things and if we’re not honest? And how much can I expect Phaketse, or any other Motswana for that matter, to be enlightened when they live in such a different world? All due patience aside, reflecting on the conversation with her that evening made me angry, but it was only one factor in a culmination of items that made me angry with concern that day. Earlier, I was reading some recent news and reports about MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) studies in Africa.
HIV/AIDS is known as mostly a gay epidemic in the States. In Africa, it’s spread mostly through heterosexual contact, and the media claims it has been far disconnected from any MSM activity. Just recently though, international organizations are waking up to the idea that MSM may actually be one of the driving forces of HIV in Africa.
Over the past few years, several African nations and other developing countries conducted their first ever research on MSM transmission of HIV. The results were shocking to many.
“Globally, MSM are on average 19 times more likely to contract HIV than the general population. At one end of the spectrum, MSM in Bolivia are 179 times more likely…
The clandestine existence that gay communities are forced to hide away in exposes them not just to the risk of HIV, but the rest of the population too: because they are unable to live openly as gay men, many MSMs also have sexual relations with women, or are even married…
Many MSM told us they were sure that there was no risk of infection with anal penetration”, said Yves Jong, coordinator of Alternatives Cameroun’s sexual health and prevention unit… In Mali, “the majority of [MSM] – 88 per cent according to a study – are bisexual, which increases the spread of the disease”, said Dabo…”
Botswana is one of the countries that took copious amounts of persuasion and pressure from international health organizations before they would do a similar study. Right now, health workers near the capital are gathering their first statistics on MSM transmission.
Collecting this information can be extremely difficult in countries like Botswana where homosexuality is illegal. Most people don’t want to talk about it for fear of being arrested, and that’s what drives the epidemic. Since it’s not talked about, many African men don’t even know unprotected anal sex can spread HIV. They spread HIV amongst themselves and then go home to have unprotected sex with their wives.
To think, this could possibly be a significant factor spreading HIV in Africa, contributing to the loss of millions of lives, and too few people are willing to accept it.
There are glimmers of hope in these studies and in the leadership and people of Botswana. At the recent International AIDS Conference in Mexico, Festus Mogae, the former president of Botswana, spoke out and said “African leaders must end the discrimination against gay people.”
Last week, the Director at my organization, told me that a couple of the boys in their counseling sessions have disclosed they’re having unprotected anal sex with other boys, and that they didn’t know it could spread HIV. It’s real. It’s right in front of them.
The next day, at our morning meeting, she addressed the staff, “There has been some gay rights stuff in the news lately, and some new studies are coming out. I just want people to know, that no matter what people do or who they are, and no matter what our personal beliefs and judgments are, let’s not let it affect the support we need to give our clients. Now, moving on…”
At the end of the work day, I walked home with Tumelo, Phaketse’s nephew. He’s 21, recently hired, and of course no one talks about the nepotism that’s common in Botswana, yet against staff policy. When we were only 10 minutes away from his home, he asked me, “How do you feel about gay people?”
Not wanting to influence him, knowing how his Aunt feels, and wanting to hear his unbiased thoughts first, I responded, “Well, how do you feel about gay people?”
“Aish. They should not be discriminated against. I do not like when people judge them. They are people just like anyone else. I think it should be legalized.”
For the next ten minutes, I didn’t talk about myself, but I talked about my gay friends in the states and some of the work I’ve done on gay issues. I told him about marriages in California, about the civil rights battles, about couples with kids, and about several reasons gay people should have equal rights. He was in agreement with me on everything, and he seemed both enlightened and happy to hear about a place that’s much more open-minded than where he lives.
When we got to his place, before I left to continue my journey home, he smiled at me and said “Thank you for the great conversation.”
I was the one who felt grateful to be able to talk about such things so openly to a supportive Motswana. “Thank you, Tumelo. We’ll have many more conversations like this, I’m sure. This is only the beginning.”
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