Guarding My Sexuality in Botswana

- A Peace Corps Volunteer

The other day a fellow PCV invited me to an LGBT pool party coming up in Gaborone, the capital. This was strange to me to begin with because I don’t know any locals who are members of the LGBT community. My village is very small and very remote. And considering the climate in my area regarding issues of homosexuality, I am not out as a gay man. Since Botswana is very small (only 2 million people) I am always somewhat on guard to make sure I don’t accidentally out myself, because word travels fast.

For me this has been easily the most difficult part of my service. Back in the United States I was a very vocal advocate for LGBT issues. I first started coming out to people when I was 15. During my time in college I was the head of the GSA on our campus and the Diversity Committee of our Student Senate. So feeling the need to head back into the closet has been challenging to say the least. Nowadays the only time I mention anything related to being gay outside of my contact with other PCVs is when talking about respect and social responsibility towards all people with the kids I work with. Even then I still distance myself from my own orientation. I always lead off with, “I have friends back in the US who are…”

At times I feel that I am closing off a part of me, and that does make it harder to have friendships with the people in my community. When I am hanging out with teachers from the school, or the nurses over at the health post the conversation often drifts to, “Why aren’t you dating anyone? Did you have a girlfriend you left in the US?” And so on. So while I can have good conversations with people, eventually it leads back to me having to lie yet again, and keep guarding myself.

There has only been one instance during my service that caused me severe discomfort, and even some fear, regarding being gay here. I was at a multi-day event and one of the teenage girls had told another PCV that she was a lesbian. The PCV asked if I would be willing to talk to her since the girl had a lot of questions she was unable to answer. There were many reasons in my head why I should not do it, all of them concerning self-preservation of my hidden identity. First of all, with how small Botswana is, if word got out the people back home would probably know I was gay before I even showed up back there. Secondly, the girl lived in my shopping village, so there was a chance I would run into her often.

Despite this I decided to go ahead with the conversation. I came to Botswana to help people, and this was a way that I was uniquely qualified to give help. She mostly was looking for advice on how to talk to her family about being a lesbian. She was already out to a few friends, so I told her to use them for support, and also not to feel rushed to tell her family if she wasn’t ready. All in all it seemed to go pretty well.

In the next few days that girl ended up telling some other event facilitators that she was a lesbian. As soon as I had heard about this from the other facilitators I grew quite nervous since I was not sure if she had told them about me as well. From what I was able to gather from her, she did not. There is still the chance that she could tell people somewhere down the road, which is a risk I knew I was taking, but one I felt necessary to try and help her out.

I still think that at any day people here could start to figure out I am gay. Not only because of that event, but also because I have started to become closer with my co-workers to the point where I even have a few of them on Facebook (which considering some of the things I post is a big deal). I have even lately been considering telling some of them who I am closest to. Yet, I have not quite reached that point, and until then I am completely isolated in my village regarding even people to talk to about being gay.

But I do have a friend who lives much closer to the capital. She has LGBT friends (mostly people of other cultures working here). They have movie nights, and other events aimed at bringing LGBT people in Botswana together. In a sense Botswana is 2 different worlds. In the bigger areas, and especially the capital, you can go around fairly unnoticed. This means you can find other LGBT people and not have to worry about censoring yourself all the time. But in the remote areas, you are lucky if you are able to walk to the tuck shop without stopping and talking for a minute with at least 5 different people.

And for me, I am starting to meet some more LGBT people. I did end up going to that pool party in Gaborone. And to my big surprise (since I thought I would never even be able to talk about it during my time in Botswana at all) I actually met someone there who I am now seeing regularly. And while our relationship is very under the radar (although several of my PC friends know) it is still liberating to be able to express that part of myself.

So I think I would have to say that Botswana has some LGBT culture, but unless you are posted to a large area you may not find it that easily. And while yes, being gay in Botswana can be very challenging, the work we do here is very rewarding. I have tough days, when I just want to go home and beat my head against the wall, but ultimately the work I do with the youth in my community is more important to me than my discomfort about closeting myself. After having been here a year, I can say you get a little more comfortable about covering your orientation, and that I have made small headway with at least being able to talk about homosexuality with some people in my community, though always devoid of personal identification.

All in all though, I am actually very grateful to be a gay male in Botswana, even if I am closeted. This experience has taught me much more about myself, my limitations, and my strengths and has caused me to appreciate how much I have grown. I would say to anyone that don’t let being a member of the LGBT community stop you from engaging in challenging situations, at the very least you will learn a lot from it.

You can contact the author at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Botswana: Closets Filled with Hope

-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.

You can contact the writer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org.

GLOW: Where the Light Shines Through

Abuse is pervasive in Botswana. It creeps into almost every corner of society and haunts the psyches of many. Most don’t even realize what it does to the potential progress of this country or how it affects every individual. Subconsciously, it affects the lives of almost every Motswana.

Kids are taught that abuse and violence are ok early on in life. Students are hit by teachers with sticks if they’re late, if they give a wrong answer, or if they simply cross someone the wrong way. If an entire class fails a test, it’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s the kids’, and they all get lashes. The schools don’t seem to be interested in thinking of a better way to “control” and discipline kids. Instead, they hit them, and it squanders any hope for most kids to be creative, try new things, take risks or fulfill their dreams.

At home, with parents who may have grown up in a similar system, or whose own parents beat them, they don’t know any other way, so many, not all, but many parents hit their kids. Domestic Violence is so widespread that many wives and girlfriends think their man doesn’t love them if he doesn’t hit them. Girls and women are hit with belts and sticks, sometimes tied up and burned and sometimes murdered. Often the women and children are blamed for the abuse, as if they deserved it. Therefore, in most of these cases, even with murder, no charges are pressed, and the police don’t get involved.

Camp GLOW 2008 is one of those rare opportunities, although only a week, which allows adolescents to escape that world and live in a different place. This year, I participated at a camp that brought together 27 boys and 26 girls from villages all over the country to learn about a wide variety of topics through educational activities, including HIV/AIDS, what it means to be a leader, human rights, planning for their futures, gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV). The kids also participated in a lot of fun activities throughout the week, most notably the Mock Protest around the issue of condoms in schools, a theatre competition and a fierce dance off.

While at GLOW, there’s no hitting, beating, yelling or scolding. These future leaders get to learn in a supportive environment, have fun, and receive positive reinforcement for all of their good behaviors from participating in sessions to helping out others. With the incredible help of 35 facilitators who I got to train, learn from and work with, this year’s Camp was a huge success. After the Camp, these kids went back to their villages where they will form local GLOW Chapters in their schools to teach and organizer their peers around HIV/AIDS and GBV. The light that GLOW brings to the lives of these kids was evident in light in their eyes.

To contact the author send an email to lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Botswana in the Closet

– 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.

“Yes…”

“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.”


You can contact the author of this article by emailing lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

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