Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dying to be free

BY MPHO KUHLMANN

It’s a sight that was expected to make Botswana’s homophobes shudder and quake in disgust. But a group of cheerful gays, transvestites and lesbians posing behind a colourful flag outside the Gaborone High Court buildings somehow made for a spectacular snapshot. The group shot portrayed Botswana’s LGBTs as a happy, amiable and well liked lot, thanks to a cognitive bias known as “The Cheerleader Effect”, or should it be “Queerleader Effect.”  Behind this picture of joy and excitement however are scores of men and women whose lives are anything but.

In a country like Botswana where most people still frown at queers, coming out of the closet can be a life and death decision. The local media is replete with stories of how gays and lesbians have been assaulted by homophobic mobs and in some instances left for dead. In other cases they have been kicked out of their homes and shunned by friends.

Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior lecturer at the University Of Botswana says, “Regardless of whether the parent-child relationship was good or bad before the child came out, being rejected by those who are supposed to love and protect you unconditionally is devastating. Severe damage is done to self-esteem, trust, security, future relationships, and one’s view of the world. Mothers are often blamed for any perceived flaws in their children. Many men feel it is a mark against their masculinity to produce a gay child. Other parents feel shame due to religious teachings. Still, others are upset that their children don’t fit in with socially prescribed gender roles. They seem to forget that gender roles, clothing styles, and what is perceived as masculine or feminine have changed many times throughout history. It is a misguided sense of shame, a shame so extreme at times that it can be relieved only by disconnecting and distancing from the child. When parents feel shamed by their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender kids, they typically blame the child instead of looking at their own feelings. They resolve their discomfort by getting rid of what they perceive as the sourceÔÇöthe child. Ironically, the parents end up placing the burden of their child’s care on the very society that created the situation. These now-homeless youth are vulnerable to abuse, drug addiction, and prostitution. They have committed no crime, but are treated worse than criminals. The emotional damage is just as painful.”

In Botswana, it was once in the statute books, but has now been revised down to a rule of thumb that homosexuality is an “improper” sexuality, subordinate to other groups that have different ways of putting their sexualities into practice. Many parents feel uncertain when they learn that their child is gay. They are unsure of how to react, and they don’t know how to support their child. They love and want to help their LGBT child but at the same time, don’t want to encourage their child’s gay or transgender identity. Often times after the revelation of the sexual orientation, the home of these young people turns into a scene of major conflict and one way parents try to resolve this issue is through physical and psychological violence. Youth often hear “tone it down”, “do you have to wear those clothes?” and take them as rejection but too often parents use them to mask their anxiety and fear of what can happen to their child in a hostile world.

Caine Youngman of LEGABIBO Botswana says, “First things first, coming out is a personal decision. It should never be forced or coerced. Personally, I’m not for an unjust and an unguided come out ÔÇô feeling peer pressured because the other person has come out. This is because by coming out you are basically putting yourself up for scrutiny, there are instances where people are kicked out from the homes they are renting out by their landlords after finding out their sexual orientation which  is honestly none of any one’s business. Parents kick out their kids when they find out they are gay. Coming out is a lifetime process, it is mandatory, one doesn’t have to come out, they do so for people understand them better. Unfortunately, coming out has been used to ridicule people, when people find out about your sexual orientation and they become against it they immediately disregard the fact that you always lived with them peacefully. They start acting out because now they suddenly know this other side to you. I always tell people that they need to understand what they stand to lose when coming out, you need to understand the environment you live in, the security concerns etc all these play a part in making your decision. Reactions by parents are understandable, most times if as a child you do something out of the ordinary they should be able to call and sit you down. Unfortunately in our culture, we have always been talked to, parents tend to always want to feel like they are right and what they say goes, there’s not much listening to the other party. I think it’s important to understand that in as much as we cry and say our parents are quick to reject us and judge us we need to understand that it’s unfair on our part to expect our parents to accept us and our decision immediately. As the LGBT it has probably taken some of us a long time to come to terms with what we are, I’m not saying its fine for parents to reject us I just think we should cut them some slack.”

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.