[originally published on Hola Africa]
Recently Botswana’s LGBT community had every reason to celebrate as we won the right to openly existwithout fear of prosecution, post the decriminalization of same sex relationships. Timelines were ablaze, the streets were alive with both glee and outrage and as I went about my days I couldn’t help but wonder if I was too nonchalant about this very important thing that affects me and our community. Everywhere I went people were talking about it, friends from all over the globe texted me congratulatory messages as if I had somehow been at the forefront of this fight despite being well aware that as a straight passing queer woman I don’t even really bear the brunt of queerphobia. And in all of that, I remained morose.
That evening I went to dinner with a friend of mine to “celebrate” the win. We walked through the mall hand in hand and I could see that on this particular day, the people were beginning to wonder whether we were just two close friends or lovers. Men glared, women stared, it was all very dramatic and as we sat across from each other absentmindedly drinking wine later on that evening it hit me – Everything and nothing would change.
Queerphobia does not exist because of laws, though they contribute greatly to it.
There are a plethora of reasons why queerphobic people feel like their shit is justified because queerphobia seeps into right about everything – culture, religion, law. Many institutions and structures are built on ostracizing others and have the numbers to stand unshaken in their beliefs – in the face of what they deem “wrong”. Repealing 164 wouldn’t automatically make Botswana a safer place, definitely not overnight, but I contorted myself to reach for a glimmer of light and that light came in the form of Botswana’s first official Pride. (Let the record state that I got an alice band with a unicorn horn and synthetic rainbow bang and everything!)
A Pride and the threat of continued prejudice
Lawyer, advocate and brand manager/PR consultant Letlhogonolo Moremi got right on the job of putting together Pride BW – to be hosted at a cozy coffeehouse – and provide a safe, accessible place for us all to get together and cut a rug. I was ecstatic to witness the connections I expected to be made that night and spent a significant amount of time daydreaming about what it would be like. All of us in one place, peacefully, without the fear of any sort of violence or judgement.
See, while this was set to be our first Pride, it obviously wasn’t the first time queer people would congregate to enjoy each other’s company. There are places in the city we can go, however, one comes to find that oftentimes these places are in the shadows and frequented by straight people as well which means it gets a bit tricky trying to relax, you know? And if we’re being honest, I thought about that as well. I thought about the possibility of the homophobes getting the notion to come be disruptive, but I wasn’t sure whether or not that was a real possibility so I let it go. Things always play out how they play out in life, worrying is a thing to do if one feels like it, I believe.
So Pride rolls around, I don my finest all black, ultra femme ensemble, pre game on Autumn Harvest because goddammit if I’m cutting loose, I’m cutting loose (Sorry, kidneys!) and we were off to the races! The organizers had taken great care to provide condoms, dental dams and finger cots for those in attendance and I for one was ecstatic to add to my collection. (If you’re reading this, let’s figure out a lube plan as well, guys?)
The turnout, however, left me feeling dismayed. The place wasn’t teeming with queer babies in the throes of freedom and glee. To my recollection, there was a group of what appeared to be tourists, a handful of gay men, a smattering of lesbians and aside from the sound crew and the other queer babies I already knew no new faces. Which then left me to wonder many things but at the top of my list of questions was “Why?” Where was the community on the one day you’d think they’d show up? The answer only came to me weeks later.
In the midst of my excitement I’d forgotten to account for the reality that many members of the community were probably not open/out in the real world. The people I expected to turn out in droves possibly didn’t have the freedom to come to and be seen at a blatantly queer event because there’d be too many questions to answer if they were. Which led me back to the initial realization that the law does not, in this case, change the reality of how people choose to think and behave. While 164 had been repealed, queerphobia wasn’t. People would still have shit to lose by being open/out, in their personal lives, and something as simple as being seen wearing a rainbow flag at Pride could greatly alter the lives and relationships of members of Botswana’s queer community. Many would still have to congregate at the underground clubs I previously mentioned because they’d been in the shadows for so long. And that was just the reality of the situation.
Being visibly queer and safe is a privilege in a society where a simple gesture/rumour can get you assaulted/disowned, and in this case it wasn’t a privilege many could afford – not this soon, anyway.
Thinking on it I also find myself wondering if the possibility of the event being documented could also have been a factor that led to people not showing up. Every occasion ends up online nowadays and we’re all aware of that. We also know how quickly viral content travels. It led me to wonder if perhaps banning cameras at the events would make attendants feel safer but then, what would that mean? Would a celebration of Self out of sight, albeit for safety reasons, go against the very premise of Pride? The jury’s still out on that one for now but let the record state that since Pride, the Government of Botswana is back in court trying to get back it’s right to peddle queerphobia and is seeking to have the ruling we were all excited about get overturned. (Read more on that over here). The more things change, I find as I grow older, the more they truly stay the same.