Botswana: Closets Filled with Hope
May 15, 2009
-a Current PCV, Botswana
Editor’s note: The contents of this article are those of the author and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or of the Peace Corps. All names have been changed for purposes of anonymity, privacy and/or protection of those individuals.
There were posters hanging all over the walls. The most salient one depicted a smiling Mother holding her toddler son. The message, in bold letters, read “Homosexuality is not a choice.” Another poster showed a group of around 30 different people embracing in one large group hug, in a background of rainbow colors: “Celebrate sexual diversity.”
For a moment, I felt like I had stepped out of Botswana, but I was still in this African country. I had just walked through the doors of an NGO that, up until these few days of meetings, I barely knew. I was aware that they advocated for an array of human rights issues, but I never expected the display of various pamphlets spread out on the table in the reception area describing the gamut of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) issues.
Shortly after I arrived at Site, back in June, I received an email from a gay male PCV in Lesotho who found me via the Facebook Peace Corps network. He told me about a secondary project he started with gay men and health workers. When he mentioned how much work was happening in Botswana on these issues, and how this country was much further along than his was, I thought he must be severely confused.
I knew I hadn’t been here very long, but that sense of progress was not my impression at all, even after living in my village for a full 8 months. Through my days of meetings with the aforementioned NGO, I realized his impressions were most likely based on knowledge of work happening in Gabs, the capitol. My village is far away, on the other end of the country, so it’s a different world, quite removed from the urban center of Botswana.
I was thrilled to make these unexpected discoveries, but how did this all happen? It’s ironic that a part of our work as Peace Corps Volunteers doing HIV education is to encourage people to talk more openly about sex and relationships yet I am encouraged to do the opposite with my own life in order to serve successfully here.
Legally speaking, it is not against the law to be gay here; it is only illegal for two consenting adults of the same gender to have sex, to make love, to share in a physical connection and moments of pleasure that most human beings enjoy and yearn for. Psychologically speaking, it certainly sounds like it’s illegal to be gay. This would be akin to having a law that forbids people to sing or to play a musical instrument, yet claiming it’s not illegal to be a musician. You can be a musician. You just can’t create music.
Through the counterpart of another PCV, I met the “diva entourage” in my village. I’ve learned that “diva” is a popular underground pseudonym for gay men and female allies in Botswana, at least with the network I’ve tapped into. Everyone even has a nickname, like some obscure high school cult. There’s mother diva, daddy diva, granny diva, divinity diva, dependable diva, the dodging diva, and the list goes on. There was no initiation ritual, but I’ve just recently acquired my diva name, against my will: the poaching diva. I don’t exactly understand why, and I’m still not sure if I like it. At any rate, I was happy to meet Max, Dimpho and Lorato, committed members of the diva entourage.
I traveled with these divas to spend a weekend in another village celebrating a fellow volunteer’s birthday. As we spoke during the journey, in the back of a covered pickup truck passing endless fields of acacia trees, there was no talk of being gay, dating, sex, or anything related to it. We just had casual conversation, all the while with the underlying assumption that we all knew about each other.
What I remember the most is that it was the first time people were asking me questions about myself, the first time I spoke with a group of Batswana who were digging below the surface. One of the ways that loneliness has been redefined for me in this country is that I sense little to no genuine curiosity about me as a person. Most people simply don’t ask me any questions besides, “O tswa kae?” (where are you from?) as if the white person’s home country is all that matters to them.
About a month later, Lorato invited us to a “diva dinner” she was hosting. It was a small gathering: me, Lorato, Max, Dimpho and Chris, who’s recently received the moniker “honorary diva.” We had so much fun, chatting as we watched the sunset, eating a delicious meal and then playing Scrabble entirely in Setswana. I won, and I’m not sure how, given my limited language abilities.
It was a casual and simple evening, nothing out of the ordinary or extravagant, but, to be honest, it was the first time I’ve attended a gathering in my village where I actually had a good time. For some unbeknownst reason, I was able to relax. At any gathering I’ve attended in the past, I constantly felt on guard, making sure to follow all of the customs and assimilate to the culture. With the divas, I felt like I could simply be.
With LGBT people and allies, there often seems to be something that binds us together, something that is intangible and indescribable. It’s a subconscious phenomenon that’s somehow connected to our identity or marginalized status, and it creates a gravitational force that pulls us toward one another, especially in times of isolation.
One evening, I was out at a local bar/restaurant with a bunch of co-workers and PCVs from out of town. As I was about to leave, this tall, 20-something man came over and asked about me, using my English name. I know I’ve never met him before, so I wasn’t sure how he knew who I was. I’m also not accustomed to hearing a Motswana use my real name.
Most people here call me by my Setswana name, and I only use my English name with other PCVs and the divas. It’s part of how I keep these two complex branches of myself separate: psychologically maintaining the intricacies that make up who I am intact while trying to integrate into this strange and beautiful country without losing too much of my core identity. Those two parts of me are slowly merging like the confluence of two rivers originating from different lands; yet hearing a Motswana, especially one whom I didn’t know, use that name was startling.
“Yes… Have we met?” I replied, mildly confused.
“Dimpho told me about you. I’m Gothusang,” he said with a coy smile.
“Oh! Well, hello diva,” I responded, pleased to meet another member of the entourage.
In one of my first conversations with Dimpho, he told me about Gothusang, a friend of his who works for the police and has a boyfriend in another village. He wanted me to meet him sometime, and unexpectedly I just had. This village is far too small, and the gay network even more so.
Since it was getting late, and most of my friends were leaving, our conversation was very brief before we exchanged numbers and I left.
Later that night, however, he sent me an SMS, in typical, and drunken, Motswana shorthand, “I found you to be very charming. Sorry to say diz but I think I’v fallen in luv wit u.”
I almost couldn’t believe it. I just met the guy, and he has a boyfriend! I laughed out loud when I read it, but I have to admit, it felt nice to be hit on, despite the odd circumstances. It’s the first time any man has flirted with me since April. On one hand, it’s actually been nice to not have that type of attention. I have so often craved an escape from the objectifying gay “culture.” It’s been refreshing to have a break, but it’s equally nice to have been flirted with, regardless of my lack of reciprocation.
Later that month, I was attending a workshop run by a consultant with my NGO. He was hired to help us create some documented educational materials for us to use in our adolescent programming. Frank, originally from Canada, has lived in Botswana with his Motswana wife for over 20 years and has been doing consultancy work on a variety of issues from HIV to water management in developing countries all over the world. During our group introductions, it was the first time I mentioned “gay rights” as a part of my job history. It’s actually most of my work experience, but none of my co-workers know that. No one else in the group even flinched when I said the word “gay,” reminding me of my paranoia.
Over lunch that day, Frank told me about a project he’s working on with the human rights group in Botswana targeting MSM* and health workers. He told me they recently conducted some research on MSM in urban areas. The next step is to develop some educational materials to improve health and HIV services for this population.
(*MSM – Men who have Sex with Men – is a term used mostly in health work for a variety of reasons. The main one is that it recognizes that many men may have sex with other men, but do not necessarily consider themselves to be gay. This is especially important in many developing countries and sexually repressed cultures. Many do not consider their sexual encounters with other men in terms of a sexual identity or orientation.)
Frank is a smart and liberal guy, but gay and lesbian issues are somewhat new territory for him. He asked me if I could help with it. How could I possibly say no? I was ecstatic about the mere opportunity! This isn’t what I came to Africa for, I never expected I would get to do something of this nature here, but it incited so much zeal within me. Over the next few weeks, Frank and I emailed back and forth about the MSM project, and I began to feel so much more alive, as if I had forgotten how passionate I am about LGBT issues.
About a year ago, when I was involved with one last campaign project with my mentor, working as an Interim Field Director for a small LGBT civil rights group in the States, I was really struggling. I remember telling him that I cared so much about LGBT issues and the marriage movement, but I couldn’t push myself to do it anymore. I was in tears, over-stressed by the campaign and telling him I felt like some part of me had died. I had learnt and grown so much over those 4 years, with many successes and a lot of enthusiasm, but that type of work ultimately wasn’t right for me anymore. I gave everything I had and then pushed myself one last time.
Through my email exchanges with Frank, and several meetings over the next few months, I would learn that Frank had resurrected that part of me.
Early on in my conversations with him, I realized that we needed to break open the mold of what it means to do work on LGBT issues in the developing world. At this point, most countries have some type of organization that works on gay issues, as small as they may be, but very little has happened in this area. For Frank, I learned he needed some 101 education on the differences and connections betwixt sexual orientation and gender identity / expression.
Sitting at a large table on his back patio, we spread out the minimal MSM educational resources we could get our hands on from the developing worlds of India, Vietnam, Ghana, Senegal, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
“Here are some drawings they used to spark conversation about MSM issues in Senegal,” he said as he spread out some laminated sketches in front of me, “What do you think of these?”
The pictures were all situations in which a gay man might be laughed at, harassed, physically abused, kicked out of his home, etc. I starred at one photo of three men throwing rocks at a presumably gay man. The person suffering this violence was depicted as very effeminate, wearing a flowered shirt and carrying a purse. I showed this to Frank and asked, “Why is this person being harassed?”
He paused for a moment, “because he’s gay.”
I responded, “No. He’s not being harassed because of his sexual orientation but because of his gender expression. They’re not throwing rocks at him because he’s making out with some guy in the public square. They’re attacking him because he’s effeminate and carrying a purse.”
In Senegal, yes, I’m sure most men who dress like that might be gay, but the majority of gay men don’t look that way. Looking at these pictures, it also occurred to us, that the population we’re dealing with is really just the tip of the iceberg. For the gay folks who are out of the closet or at all visible in developing countries, most of them are probably like the guy in the picture and easy to point out. Culturally, the same photos wouldn’t work here anyway because many men in Botswana are effeminate, and it’s generally a non-violent place.
With Frank and I, this led into a conversation about all of the pieces around sexuality and gender that make up who we are. I took Frank through an exercise on Identity to illustrate the multifaceted pieces that most of us, even LGBT folks, don’t even think about. But to work on these issues in the developing world, where there is even less information, understanding these distinctions would be so important, especially with our “tip of the iceberg” populations. Every one of us is a complex matrix of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression, which is why LGBT communities are filled with so much diversity within themselves. We’re all uniquely different and don’t fit perfectly into any culturally specified box.
Once Frank finally understood this, he felt as if a giant light bulb had been turned on above his head, and suddenly everything he’s ever learned about LGBT issues made sense. Everything from transgender people to lesbian drag kings unexpectedly became crystal clear.
I told him, “These are the complex issues we need to address, and we have to make it simple enough for our target audiences to understand. Whether we’re educating health workers or the police, the simple message we need to get across is ‘We’re all different, in many ways, and it doesn’t matter how someone looks, who they have sex with, or how they express themselves. Just do your job to help and protect people.’”
As the work on the project was growing some legs, it came time that I needed to ask my counterpart in the office if I could leave for about a week for some meetings in Gabs. At first, I wasn’t sure how I would do this. I didn’t want to tell her that I was working on gay issues, but I knew I had to share enough information that she would both let me go and also not be surprised when the specificities of the project came back to her. It’s common for PCVs to take on secondary projects, but how could I convince her to let me leave the office for a week for something that wasn’t technically Peace Corps related and/or directly related to our organization’s work?
I wouldn’t necessarily lie to her, but often simply withholding the truth feels dishonest. I thought about how much I hate lying about any part of me or about issues I care about, issues in this culture which seem to be labeled “that which shall not be named.”
Another colleague, Tshepo, and I attended a meeting together a few weeks ago where the issue of homosexuality came up. The organization hosting the workshop was debating whether or not they should incorporate education and awareness about gay and lesbian people into their work. One woman spoke up and said, “We can’t do this! This thing… this thing… it will just grow and grow until everyone is gay! We just can’t teach people about this. We shouldn’t even talk about it. It’s immoral, and it’s wrong and it needs to stop.”
This is when Tshepo spoke up. I had never heard her speak on this topic, so I had no inkling of what side she would speak for or what was about to come out of her mouth. She said something I had never heard before, and I found it to be a good perspective. “Everybody prays differently. Some people pray with their arms folded, some with their head down, some kneeling, and some looking up. Gay people love differently, but it’s all the same.”
When I finally talked to my counterpart about the project, I decided to phrase it as “human rights work around HIV,” which was true, and I gave her a 5-minute spiel about why I should leave for these meetings. I know her well enough to be able to anticipate what all of her concerns and apprehensions might be about me leaving, so I worded my speech fastidiously. In the end, she simply said, “That sounds fine.”
Knowing how argumentative she can be and how adamant she is about me being in the office to help with a variety of projects, I was shocked. It said a lot about our relationship, how much she’s grown to trust me, and how much I’ve learned about her.
She has said some supportive things about gay issues in the past, so I know that I might actually be ok to tell her about the focus of the project. However, even if I did get to the point where I thought I might be comfortable enough to talk to her explicitly about the work, I would still never come out to her or others in my community. This is not only because I don’t want to take the risk of how it might affect my other work, but because I think it would do a disservice to the gay people here.
There are enough myths about homosexuality being a “white thing,” a cultural idea from the west that is invading African nations. A white guy coming out in Botswana certainly wouldn’t help that. The best I can do is educate others through this secondary project and try to empower the gay people whom I know to do something that will create change for their own lives here. I’ll be living in a more knowledgeable and supportive environment again after my service, but this is their life-long home.
A week before I left my village to go to Gabs, for our meetings, I decided to host a diva dinner of my own. Part of it was a bit of an experiment. I invited a few divas I know in my village plus Chris and Lorato. Karabo couldn’t make it, but Dimpho, Max and Gothusang all came, and they each brought another diva with them. All I said was that I was hosting a diva dinner. I didn’t explain what that meant, who was invited, or if they should bring friends. It tells me that an organic grassroots movement of gay men in this country forming small groups is possible and simple. If they could at least find a way to systematically get together and talk about issues of health and safety, that would be huge.
The guys here are incredibly repressed, and I still have yet to learn how deep the oppression runs and how it affects the psyche of gay people who grow up in this place. Even when it’s just gay guys, they don’t talk about other guys; they don’t talk about sex, dating, etc., none of it. One of the reasons HIV is so high here is no one even talks about sex. I’ll start trying to crack their shells over time.
We had so much fun though. These guys are the most effeminate bunch of queens one can imagine. I was playing my iTunes throughout the evening, and these divas kept requesting for me to play Madonna. There’s something about the genetic makeup of gay men that makes their auditory systems pine for the voice and dance beats of Madonna. It transcends culture.
My place was spotless after they left, and all of the dishes done with perfect precision. I asked them not to clean up, but they insisted. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized they actually scrubbed and cleaned my stovetop! I continue to appreciate these divas more and more.
A few days later, as I sat in the conference room in Gabs, I wondered what it would be like for the divas to be in this room and see all of the supportive messaging. As the meetings began, with 9 of us from several partnering groups, everyone was briefed on the project, and it turned out to be much more complex than I had originally thought.
10 minutes into our first meeting, I was already in need of some clarity. So, I asked Oneille, a transman leading the local LGBT group, “What’s the focus of this workbook we’re creating? Many developing countries focus on the health needs of MSM due to the high HIV prevalence, but it sounds like we’re looking at something much bigger.”
He responded so clearly and articulately that, “We want to include everything, transgender people, intersex issues, women, everyone, and we want to educate all different types of people, service providers, teachers, families and LGBTI folks themselves…”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to the meetings about this workbook. I know what I didn’t expect was to have a conversation with a diverse and well-informed group of people about a highly inclusive and multi-pronged LGBTI movement in Botswana.
The people with the fledgling LGBT group here are starting from such a great place, a stage in thinking that, in some ways, is farther ahead than some LGBT organizations in the States. From the very beginning, there was completely agreement, no argument whatsoever, that we should include transgender and intersex people in all of our materials, that we should be explicit about those issues, and fully incorporate it into the curriculum.
They truly understand the depths at which oppression due to gender expression and sexual orientation are inextricably linked. It was incredible. Many NGOs in the States are still telling certain subsets of the LGBT community that they need to wait, that we need to take it one issue and one type of person at a time, playing an unending game of identity politics and debating alphabet soups of acronyms.
In America, the gay rights movement was catapulted by the Stonewall riots, instigated by gender-bending drag queens and transwomen who were quickly pushed aside, for a movement led primarily by gay men. In Botswana, they’ve only been active for a couple of years, but they’re starting the movement inclusively from the inception, with an organization currently led by lesbians and transmen.
This work is bringing it home for me. It’s not fighting homophobia through marriage rights for those at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s working for the people terrified to come out of the closet in a country with few options or resources in every aspect of life. It makes me think of how I felt as a young teen in small-town, rural Pennsylvania. For the LGBT folks in Botswana though, it’s not just a rough phase of adolescence; it’s their entire lives.
Frank and I took some time to debrief our meetings before I went back to my village, digging through countless materials from other countries. We’re trying to pull the best of what’s been done in a variety of areas from issues of coming out, health worker protocols, code of conduct for police, safer sex education for MSM, etc., and editing all of it to make it specific to Setswana culture. Toward the end of our conversations we realized something extraordinary. We’re creating a comprehensive manual of educational resources on LGBT issues that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the continent.
When I got back to my village, Max picked me up from the bus rank. Sitting on my front porch, we talked for a bit about my time in Gabs. I mentioned how moved I was by the people I worked with and the movement that’s initiating on the other side of the nation. I told him about Oneille and what he said when he first met me: “What’s wrong with the gay people in your village? Everyone’s in the closet.” Max wasn’t sure what that meant.
“Are you out to your co-workers? The other teachers?” I asked, realizing we’ve never talked about this.
“Well, I’m not really sure what ‘out’ means. I haven’t announced it to all of them, but it wouldn’t matter to me if they knew I was gay.”
“Really?” I was genuinely surprised.
“Yes. And some of my students have asked me about it.”
“And what do you tell them?”
“I tell them the truth, and no one has ever made a big deal about it.”
I was reminded, yet again, that I still have a lot to learn about this place.