Wrapping up Gay Pride Month

There’s quite a backlog of things I want to post since arriving home after mid-service training (and that minor addition of shaking hands with the First Lady), but as June gives way to July I didn’t want this little story to pass by.

Relative to many African countries, it’s my opinion that Botswana is on the progressive side of homosexual tolerance. Not being gay I can’t speak from personal experience, but I’ve observed an interesting aspect to Botswana culture that crosses over from the urban to the rural communities. It appears that though heavy religious influence leaves many in Botswana totally averse to the idea that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle (look at any internet comment thread on the subject in this country and this aversion becomes clear), I still think that with this culture in particular, tolerance is possible once people are given the opportunity to understand more of what being gay is, where it comes from, who is gay, and why. I feel fortunate to have been able to elaborate on this to a small group of people living and working just outside of central Francistown.

My co-worker and I attended one of the monthly ward multi-sectoral AIDS committee meetings,  which is a gathering of people from different sectors of society (religious, medical, schools, etc.) who meet to discuss matters arising surrounding HIV/AIDS. This meeting included people coming from an area that’s mostly impoverished, somewhat uneducated, and highly religious. During the meeting, one woman brought up increased delinquency and “homosexual tendencies” among students in her middle school, and wanted to know how to put it to rest. The parents were starting to worry that their kids were going to become gay if they were around other kids expressing homosexual behavior.

Now, I’m thinking that in middle school if a child is “acting gay” it probably means either he or she is going through a phase of sexual or emotional exploration without much meaning behind it, or the child is in fact, gay. Either way, some parents were sure that if their child became friends with these “delinquents” then they, too, would “get the gay.”

The coworker I was with and I have discussed homosexuality before, and she knows me to be pro-gay rights. She’s previously told me that as she learns more she’s becoming increasingly confident that intolerance towards homosexuals is an important human rights issue.  Given the chance to share the knowledge she’s learned, she asked me to address the meeting and give them my understanding of whether people are born gay, or if they can become gay by observing such behavior at a young age.

Nervous, I stood up thinking that the best way to explain it would be to put it in a blatantly clear and understandable way. So I compared sexual orientation with the other big controversial biological issue: race. I said, “It’s of my personal knowledge that choosing to be straight or gay is like choosing to be black or white. It’s how we are born, and it’s something we cannot change. I could paint my skin black every day, but at the end of the day I will always be white.”

An immediate sense of pride took over me, followed by a small dose of fear. It was the first time I had expressed my thoughts to a group of Batswana on such a sensitive topic (I usually keep it all to myself to keep the peace) and had no idea what people would say to that. They could have yelled at me, told me I was wrong, and that I would be punished in hell for such thoughts. But instead I got initial looks of shock but then quiet nods of understanding. I further explained that if the child acts gay it might be that he or she was actually born gay, and if he or she had not expressed that before it could be due to commonly understood societal pressures against homosexuality. I clarified that if the child was not born gay then he or she will not become gay by befriending someone who is.

The “painting skin” element to my comparison was particularly important, because these societal pressures don’t stop at adolescence – many Batswana grow up knowing they’re gay, but paint themselves to look straight every single day of their lives. Some get married, have children, and essentially live a lie to keep from being outed. I’ve occasionally asked people to think about it with the tables turned – to think of a world where they had to marry someone of the same sex in order to please everyone else. Looking shocked and disgusted, I think they tend to get the idea this way.

After the meeting, many of us sat around talking and enjoying our tea, when the ladies started giggling and laughing. They were reflecting on a man they all used to know – they used to call him “one of the ladies,” and referred to him with the feminine prefix “Mma” before his name, as he used to shop, socialize, and talk effeminately with them. They didn’t speak negatively about him at all, in fact, they spoke fondly of how nice he was and how easy it was for them to get along with him, and they were also discussing the realization that he was probably gay. For some it was the first time they realized that they had actually known someone gay. It seemed to click that just because he might have been gay did not mean he was a bad or negatively influential person.

Witnessing this was amazing. It gave me a sense of hope that if people are simply provided more education on the subject, then they might come to understand how hard it can be for some homosexuals in Botswana. Luckily, Gaborone is already somewhat of a hub for homosexual expression and tolerance. There are dance clubs akin to gay bars, and I’ve heard from a few friends there’s even a secret “I’m also gay” handshake. Hopefully, with more education and reflection, a slow but steady acceptance will enter people’s hearts privately, and then public action against this intolerance will follow suit.

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