LGBT Advocacy in Lesotho
May 4, 2009
– Darrin Adams, PCV
“I think Africa will be a good break for me, a nice break from LGBT advocacy,” I said to a friend as we rode down an escalator. We were at the National Gay/Lesbian Journalist Association convention. I was a board member of the D.C. Chapter and preparing myself for Peace Corps service. Ready to move on to new frontiers of advocacy, I was willing to set my life aside and discover new adventures.
Three years later, LGBT advocacy found me. When I entered my service in Lesotho, I thought that I would be an undercover homosexual. This didn’t bother me too much. I was out to my PC friends, which was fine enough for me, and I told my community that I had a girlfriend (my best friend who was a lesbian). Serendipitously, I met an openly gay person in the capital city and from there met many of the gay friends I have even today.
It was through this network that many people wanted to have a group of their own. The first meetings were held in houses privately, consisting of only three or four people. As the word got out, more and more people came to see what this informal discussion group was all about. Today, the meetings are held in a private, rented space and the number of members is well over 50.
Unofficially, the group is called The Discussion Group (TDG), yet the leaders of this group are pushing themselves and others for recognition. The board and other select members are poised to sign a registration and constitution that will make them an official organization of Lesotho.
Is homosexuality illegal in Lesotho? Nobody is quite sure. The constitution is silent. There is nothing that explicitly states that same-sex relations or the acts of these relations (i.e. sodomy) are outlawed. There clearly is no protection for these statuses either.
There is a consultant here who assists TDG with finding and writing grants. A United Nations grant is in the works that will fund them getting their own office, hire one full-time coordinator, support them in doing outreach to other parts of the country and fund a small “men who have sex with men” (MSM) research study.
I leave the more formal work to the consultant and I work with group leaders on leadership development, training and sexual health and building general organizational capacity. Often I am a sounding board for new ideas and assist members of the group in networking with other LGBT groups in the Southern Africa region.
The work that I am doing with TDG mirrors the work I did as a student at Baylor University. Baylor is the largest Baptist school in the world, and that environment for gay people reminds me of my first year as a PCV – discrete encounters mixed with occasional moments of bliss and freedom. Then a group of us banded together, had small meetings and then grew to have over 100 members.
Baylor molded me as an advocate for the LGBT population, and the lessons I learned from the Baylor group (appropriately called Baylor Freedom) I have applied to The Discussion Group. One upcoming activity is a sexual health workshop that is less about HIV and more about talking about our bodies. At the end of the training, the trainers will discuss how to use local resources for their sexual health like how to turn a condom into a dental dam and where to buy lube at the local market.
The MSM study will be a great first step in having recognition for the LGBT community. There was a recent study in Southern African Countries about multiple concurrent partners. No mention, whatsoever, was given to same-sex relationships. It is my personal belief, because of my own network of people I know, that MSM and WSW (women who have sex with women) are one of the drivers of HIV.
Take it from a gender perspective. Men feel that they have to prove themselves to another level and cover up the fact that they have sex with men. These men have many more sexual partners than the average man. Most heterosexual men that are frank with me about their “concubines,” as they call them, tell me that they have one or two women on the side in addition to their “main” girlfriend or wife. The MSM I know always have three or more female partners on the side. And when it comes to male partners? I can’t even put a number on that figure.
Since most messaging around HIV is strictly heterosexual, most of the men in the general population (including heterosexual, homosexual and MSM) believe that HIV “comes from the woman.” Having sex with a man is in and of itself a form of contraception. Thus, most MSM do not wear condoms, or if the condoms break, don’t think to search out PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) or other treatment. Everyone I talk with about sexual health, I am sure to tell them that anal sex is one of the riskiest forms of transmission. Yet I am one voice in a sea of messages that simply talk about how “bad” HIV is and never mention levels of risk.
Women who have sex with women (WSW), though not as strong a driver as MSM, are drivers as well. There is very little research of WSW in Africa, but I think this is because transmission of HIV between women is extremely low. When looking at the issue from a purely biological perspective AND assuming that WSW only have sex with other women, I can see where this can be deduced. What about from a cultural perspective? Again, the cultural expectations that women must adhere to are just as strong, if not stronger, than men. A woman may have a girlfriend but she is expected to have a husband. In the multiple concurrent partner study, women were found to have just as many sexual partners as men. It is better for a woman to be called a prostitute than to be known as a lesbian. Being a lesbian has life-threatening consequences.
In South Africa, there have been more cases of what the press calls “corrective rape” and what I call RAPE. There have been many cases of women being raped and often murdered if they are suspected of being lesbians. And even when I talk to gay people around here about it they say how horrible it is but there is always a hint of words that somehow suggested that the women got what was coming to them. These women did not adhere to the secret code: they did not have boyfriends on the side, they were open about their sexuality to everyone and they dressed like a man.
Since LGBT issues are so much under the radar here, I have never heard of this kind of violence occurring in Lesotho. My gut tells me that it does occur, given the amount of domestic violence that is pervasive throughout the country.
These are the issues that most LGBT people here face. As I have been here, I see more and more people becoming more and more open. I tell them that a constitution and a group are both great, but what will really change your country is by being open with the people you love. Hearts and minds will alter the atmosphere much more quickly than a document. As evident by South Africa, with same-sex marriage a constitutional right, the laws are there but the people’s attitudes are not.
My work with The Discussion Group is a side-project. My primary assignment is working with clinics and hospitals in a male engagement strategy, which includes outreach, training and social marketing for men to be involved in reproductive health. The program, called “Men as Partners,” is a comprehensive program that seeks to transform the male gender norms of a culture to be more susceptible to gender equality through male engagement and men’s health.
Even in the trainings I give, there is always a LGBT module where I educate about sexuality, sexual orientation and homophobia. Over 40 people have been trained to give this program in their communities, and within it is an evaluation component. At the beginning and end of each training, session we give the same attitudinal survey which has questions about HIV, sexuality and gender. There is one “yes or no” question that asks, “I would work to promote the rights of gays and lesbians.”
After every workshop, this question ALWAYS has the biggest change, on average a 25% shift from “no” to “yes.”
This workshop is given in the most urban to the most rural of areas and there is always a huge shift in this particular survey question. People are hungry to know, and once they know and can relate, their attitudes shift dramatically. One workshop participant approached me and said that he wants to work in gay and lesbian equality and will talk to the Ministry of Gender about it. Even now, he is an ally for this blossoming group.
My life is blessed. My work takes me to the forefront of HIV prevention. Through The Discussion Group and my main work of male engagement, I see people transform in front of my eyes. Most PCVs talk about how great their service was after they leave. With me, I see how great my service is in the here and now, which makes my departure a difficult one.
Alas, I must leave. There is only so much I can do as a Volunteer. Working on the ground has its advantages and disadvantages. Yes, I work directly with people and help them to build themselves up. But I see that there needs to be a higher leadership in pushing these agendas through, making them a priority and empowering other organizations to follow suit.
After this year, I will leave Lesotho. By then TDG will have built itself up to a self-sustaining level and many people will be trained to lead the male transformative workshops. Though my time will be finished in Lesotho, I am heartened by knowing that the work will carry on.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org