International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, Intersexism and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT) falls on May 17 annually.
When commemorating international days, the inclination is usually to explore the history of the recognition of that day. Although that is of great importance, for this day, I think it would profit us more if we explored the rich and peculiar history of the movement in Botswana.
There is a misconception amongst many that diverse or non-conforming sexuality and gender identities are not only a choice, but that they are novel Western-inspired lifestyles with no place in an African traditional society or in the chosen religion of Christianity. I think there is a difference however between acceptance of something and its existence.
I think diversity has been present for as long as humankind has existed, and I think for many years, people have found reasons not to accept it, and various reasons on which to base their rejection.
I also think that there have been great feats made towards the reduction of stigma and discrimination, which we must celebrate. It is on this basis that I reached out to Caine Youngman, one of the longest serving sexuality diversity and gender identity human rights activists and advocates in the country.
Caine is also one of the founding members of the active sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) movements in the country, having worked with and for the movement for 16years. In one of the earliest Court applications for the formal registration and recognition as well as for decriminalisation of same-sex intimacy, Caine was the main litigant. The case commenced in 2009 with a Notice of Intention to Sue, submitted to the Attorney Generally, followed by the filing of an Application to the High Court. This strategic litigation case was part of a wider advocacy for the recognition, protection and promotion of the rights of LGBTQIA+ as human rights.
This was important as the violation of the rights of the community had been normalised, with rife stigma and discrimination, concealed by the fact that Batswana had not had the physical responses and reactions to persons of the community, as in other countries.
The perception was that because people were not being stoned to death or raped for being homosexual or for being transgender or gender non-conforming, that therefore there was no violence. There was no recognition of the effect of stigma and discrimination stemming from the non-acceptance of LGBTQIA+ persons. When the case was registered, it publicised the real and lived experiences of people.
It brought to light the engrained misogyny amongst our people and confronted the failure to protect our own. It showed the violence suffered daily by LGBTQIA+ persons and unveiled the truth – that Botswana is actually quite hostile for some, and that for as long as that is the case, we can never be said
Caine described how following the media reports on the case, he would, from time-to-time find a young person at the gate of his parents house, looking for a safe place to stay for some time as they had been kicked out of home for their sexuality or their gender identity.
It was around then that the realisation kicked in that being an activist is like being married or being in a committed relationship, only this time, you would have committed your life to those whose lives you fight for; and unlike many jobs, it does not stop when you knock off at 1700hrs, or when you close your laptop.
There have been quite a number of very critical and crucial cases, after that of Caine filed in 2009 and withdrawn later for strategic purposes. Many of these cases followed the clear strategies conceived by the national movement when considering the outcomes of the State v Kanane case in which the Court of Appeal had found that Batswana were not ready for decriminalisation of same sex intimacy. The culmination of the positive decisions in these cases is a now strong and empowered movement, confident in the justice system which too, in this regard, has gone to great lengths to overturn the problematic decisions of the judges who had come before.
The impact has been more reports of cases of assault or abuse, credited to the justice system’s unshaking position to protect all Batswana, unlimitedly. This powerful position has emboldened the community in Botswana, unafraid to speak out against discrimination and stigma. In fact, the engagements of the movement with traditional leaders and some religious leaders highlighted how the changes in the judicial decisions, positively influenced them to be more protective of the LGBTQIA+ constituents.
IDAHOBIT, Caine said is a day of stopping, even if only briefly, to look back at how far the movement has come, remembering both the wins and the losses. How the audacity and bravery of one person who decides to put their own bodies and names where their hearts are, can go a long way to freeing a generation from stigma and discrimination…or at least reducing them.
It is an opportunity to refuel, if you can, and regain the strength to keep going. There is yet a long way to go. However this year, we ought to celebrate how far the movement has come and what it has done for many. It has not negated the sacrifices made by those who have put their lives on the line for the benefit of the many. And look what happens with a love like that.