By: John McAllister
Would it surprise you to learn that 200 years ago there were no homosexuals? Not that men did not have sex with other men or women with other women. Same-sex relations have always been there, in every society, at every time in history. But the idea that there were homosexuals — people whose personal identity was defined by a lifelong sexual interest in the same gender — was something that European doctors came up with in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Since it was a new idea, there needed to be a new word for it. Several were invented — invert, pederast, urning, uranian, and others — but homosexual was the one that stuck. But where did this new idea come from? If there had always been same-sex relations, why this new need to come up with a special label for people who engaged in them? Up to this point, European science had progressed by classifying natural phenomena into categories — genera, species, typologies, and so on — as the first step in understanding them.
Now science started to use the same method for human phenomena, including sex and desire. And since doctors already tended to think in terms of “binaries” (simple opposites) like healthy/ill, sane/insane, man/woman — they proceeded to divide sex and desire into opposite categories — heterosexual/homosexual. From that point on, people were thought to have fixed, distinct sexual orientations that defined their identity (i.e., the essential category of person they were), not just preferences or inclinations for various kinds of sexual acts.
Before this, there was no concept of sexual orientations. There were only sexual acts. Those considered “unnatural” or “immoral” — such as anal and oral sex acts generally were, thanks to a sex-phobic church — were known collectively as sodomy, regardless of the gender of the partners. A man and a woman could as easily commit sodomy as two men or two women. Performing such acts made you a sinner, but it did not define your identity or make you a different type of person. According to the church, everyone was a sinner in one way or another. Later on, the doctors added more orientations to their new system of sexual categories. Bisexual. Transgender. Intersex. But it was always about defining people by their gender and what they do (or are imagined to do) in bed, and then using these categories to privilege the majority and marginalize everyone else.
When European colonialists came to Africa, they brought their binary ways of thinking with them and in the new education systems they imposed on African societies, they brainwashed Africans into thinking in terms of sexual orientations and gender identities too. Pre-colonial African societies had their own ways of dealing with same-sex relations. Some denied them, some ignored them, and some accepted them. But for the next hundred years, they were taught the Western pseudoscience that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Africans were a different kind of people and that their identities were totally determined by their sexual desires. It was all about sex — sick, unnatural, deviant sex.
Then the West had its “sexual revolution” and started to change its mind about homosexuality and transgenderism, and finally LGBTI Africans began to demand a change of mind here too.
In Botswana the LGBTI community first got together in 1998 and formed an association, LeGaBiBo, to campaign for their rights. For the past four years, the Botswana government has refused to allow LeGaBiBo to register and operate normally like any other welfare organization, even though the constitution guarantees everyone the right to associate and organize freely. The government claims that it cannot register an organization that enables illegal activities, but this is just a hangover from the old-fashioned, colonial obsession with what people do sexually. As LeGaBiBo’s brilliant legal team argued at the Court of Appeal hearing on 15th January 2016, LeGaBiBo is not about enabling illegal activities. It’s not about sex. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is not illegal in Botswana, but sexual acts “against the order of nature” are. That law is unnecessary, unjust, and immoral. It condemns tens of thousands of citizens for natural sexual desires that harm no one, it destroys families, and it ruins lives for nothing.
Even if the law is rarely enforced, it stigmatizes and marginalizes lgbti Batswana and prevents them from exercising their full rights as citizens — as the refusal to register LeGaBiBo shows. It encourages homophobia and gives homophobes the idea they can insult, abuse, rape, or beat up anyone perceived to be “gay.” A law that does this needs to be repealed. Citizens have a right to organize for the repeal of unjust, harmful laws, and that is why LeGaBiBo was formed 17 years ago.
Campaigning against an unjust law is still LeGaBiBo’s main business. Since that campaign needs public support, LeGaBiBo also has a mandate to educate Batswana on why their LGBTI family members, neighbors, and colleagues pose no threat to society and should have the same rights as everyone else. Every community organization is concerned with the welfare of its members, so LeGaBiBo also provides psychosocial and health services to its LGBTI brothers and sisters throughout Botswana. Everyone has a right to such services. As part of these services LeGaBiBo distributes free personal lubricants and condoms, as well as information on STI and HIV prevention. We work in cooperation with government ministries and departments and international organizations such as WHO, UNAIDS, and many others. We are not enabling people to have “unlawful” sex; we are protecting our community’s health.
The old-fashioned, colonial idea that lgbti identities are all about sex is just wrong. Heterosexual people understand that their own lives are about much more than just their sexual desires. They have jobs, hobbies, friends, families, their faith, and goals of all kinds. Lgbti people are no different. We should have the same rights to enjoy all these things that everyone has and that the constitution guarantees. That is LeGaBiBo’s goal. It’s about much more than just sex, and there is no reason it should not be registered. Private, consensual relations between same-sex partners are a victimless crime. They harm no one and should no longer be illegal. In a democracy, LeGaBiBo must have the right to organize to persuade other Botswana, and the government, to accept this. Denying us registration is a denial of democracy.