By Lame Said
The war on homosexuality has been raging for decades. With people on opposite sides of the debate often fixated on whether homosexuality is inherent or learned behaviour, whether homosexual people are fully human, whether the world should rest on the face of this “scourge” of homosexuality which supposedly causes global warming, and whether the punishment against homosexuality is enough; this war has not evolved!
Other outrageous questions are whether gay and lesbian people can bear children, whether the “gay agenda” will eventually call for marriage equality and whether homosexuality will spread and therefore result in the extinction of Batswana. In one camp are the human rights organizations, their allies and sometimes the government. In the other camp is the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana (EFB), their allies, non-affiliated homophobic people and at times, the government. In the middle of this conflict are the gay and lesbian people and their families, who seek nothing but to live their lives with equal dignity.
It would be simple, almost appealing, to claim that the question of whether homosexuals deserve equal rights and constitutional protections is debatable and should be put to question in a democratic society. However, the rights, dignity and humanity of gay and lesbian people, guaranteeing them equality before the law and within society are not debatable; they are a given. While constructive and healthy discourse is necessary for the social development of a people, the discourse on homosexuality has not been healthy. It has been violent, degrading and abusive of gay and lesbian people. It has become a war that has now reached the Botswana Court of Appeal where fundamental questions regarding the equality of gay and lesbian people are now being discussed.
A war, no matter where it is fought, has real life implications for those whose rights are in question.
Therefore, it is time that we boldly question the actions of the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana (EFB), an institution of power that has led the onslaught of physical and online violence against gay and lesbian people. What is staged as the upholding of God’s commands has maimed the dignity of gay and lesbian people, destroyed families and encouraged physical and online violence against gay and lesbian people. We can measure the contribution of this institution of power to social justice or injustice just as we can measure that of a government.
What they instigated several years ago, with repeated degrading and homophobic statements in the media, is a strategic obstruction to any work of social justice organizations seeking equality and dignity for gays and lesbians. Branding gays and lesbian as criminals and perverts, the EFB has made it its mission to ‘purge the country of this evil’. The EFB has been vigorous in their work to portray gay and lesbian people as delinquent beings and deserving of nothing but to be thrown in prison cells and mental hospitals. If there was ever an opportune moment to describe hateful speech from a religious institution, this would be it. They went further to challenge the gay and lesbian group’s (LEGABIBO) application to the High Court to protect their freedom of association before suddenly withdrawing their challenge. We should be able to ask who the EFB claims to be protecting against homosexuality when the results of their dehumanizing campaigns have yielded family segregation, violence and hate.
There is a distorted idea of who ‘these homosexuals’ are- who are accused of opening the doors for paedophiles to claim rights too. It is the idea that homosexuals live in isolated communities, where they practice the ‘gay lifestyle’ of engaging in endless same sex activity, abusing alcohol and drugs and performing ‘evil’ acts in dimly lit corner bars where they also seduce heterosexual people and children to join their lifestyle. And then in the early hours of the morning they will crawl back to join the ‘rest of society’, camouflaged in assumed heterosexuality to maintain their secret identity. Of course, this is a harsh and ridiculous misrepresentation of the lives of gay and lesbian people. However, these are precisely the harmful stereotypes and ideas of gay and lesbian people that have fed the agendas of the EFB and other institutions engaged in this ‘war against homosexuality’.
More importantly, many Batswana have supported the dehumanization that is catalogued in the objectives of the EFB, resulting in more hate and fear of gay and lesbian people. When you strip someone of their humanity, you feel no discomfort with violating, insulting or even killing them. Strategic dehumanization is evident from Apartheid, where black people were thought of as not fully evolved humans and therefore subjected to many forms of cruel and inhuman treatment. EFB’s perpetuation of same-gender-loving people as perverts, delinquents and evils has the same effect. Not only has the EFB’s campaign affected this section of society but they have subjected the families of gay and lesbian people to secondary discrimination and shame for having family members who are homosexual. To assume separateness from the human struggle of gay and lesbian people does not inoculate them against being held responsible for the harm they are propagating.
Granted, everyone has the right to freedom of speech. It is also absolute that all rights come with the responsibility to exercise them in a manner that doesn’t violate another’s rights.
As Batswana, we champion Botho as a cultural value that defines how we treat one another. Are gays and lesbians exempt from being treated with Botho? At what point do we draw the line between freedom of speech and the premeditated dehumanization and violation of other people? When will we hold institutions with such power over public opinion to account for the immediate harm they cause, and the ripple effects of that harm in our society? Does our humanity and responsibility for one another diminish in EFB’s pursuit to save Botswana from homosexuality? Does someone have to kill a gay person before we appreciate the destructive potential of homophobic indoctrination?
This ‘war’ is not taking place in a bubble of human rights jargon and a theatre of intellectual verbal diarrhoea. This discourse is not one of hypothetical gays and lesbians and imagined experiences of violence, hate and discrimination. It is a struggle in our own homes, of families disowning their own, employers firing their gay and lesbian employees, landlords evicting their gay and lesbian tenants as they all find validation in the fast spreading homophobic messaging which affirms their actions. Institutions of power should exercise restraint, control, responsibility and a high degree of introspection when it comes to the application of their power. The gays and lesbians that are affected by the decisions of the EFB are real people who are breadwinners in their families, health care workers, police men and women who protect us while we sleep.
With power comes great responsibility but it cannot be said enough. For the sake of all Batswana, I hope the EFB will disarm their weapons.