In the United States, it’s not common to hear “Africa” and “LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights” in the same sentence. When the two phrases are heard together, it’s usually because of egregious human rights violations that make international news – think Uganda’s heinous bill criminalizing same-sex sexual relationships several years back.
Obviously, Africa is a large and diverse continent. What we see on American news networks doesn’t, and can’t possibly, portray the nuance of LGBT or queer issues in different African countries. In South Africa, for example, same-sex marriage is legal, but anti-gay hate crimes are common.
Recently, in Lesotho, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with such issues in a few ways. My experiences are just that – my experiences, as one person, and as an outsider to Basotho culture. While I don’t claim to speak authoritatively on the topic, I do think (or at least hope!) that my experiences can shed some light on the diversity of perspectives in this region of the world – a diversity that I think many Americans fail to imagine.
My first contact with LGBT issues in Lesotho was during a Peace Corps workshop. Several organizations spoke to PCVs and their local counterparts about their work, including a (gay, male, Mosotho) representative from Matrix. Matrix is Lesotho’s LGBT organization, and its employees run a variety of projects, ranging from sensitivity training in schools to support groups. During our workshop, the Matrix rep talked through the differences between gender, sex, and sexual orientation, giving examples of each and even defining terms like “intersex” and “pansexual.”
This presentation received mixed reviews. During dinner that night, I overheard a table of Basotho men grumbling about the presenter and his points. Their complaints were what you’d expect – homosexuality is sinful and wrong, etc. But not everyone reacted this way! My counterpart was confused at points, and some of this information was clearly new, but she was open minded and whispered questions to me throughout the session. After the presentation, she told me about a former student of hers, a student she liked a lot, who was gay.
Several weeks later, I learned that there’s an active queer community in my small district capital! One of the bars frequented by my town friends has a drag night once in a while. Apparently it’s public knowledge that certain folks, even a member of the police force, are openly dating members of the same sex.
This information made me curious, so I broached the topic with my colleagues at lunch one day. I’ve chosen not to talk about my own dating life or interests with the other teachers, at least for the time being, but I asked what they thought about gay people in general. Again, the responses were mixed! The general consensus was something like, “Gay men and lesbians exist in Lesotho, but mostly in urban areas. We don’t care as long as we don’t have to participate in any way… But gay sex is probably a sin.”
Since this conversation, I’ve worked with one of my co-teachers to translate a lesson about LBGT issues for a Peace Corps resource on Life Skills teaching. Side note – PCVs in Lesotho do wonderful diversity work, and all PC staff is well-trained on these topics. Anyway, my counterpart was open-minded and patient throughout the process, asking me to explain tricky concepts a few times so she could translate them exactly right. At the end of our work, she even asked for a copy of the lesson for her own use!
Most recently, I helped organize a weekend camp for girls in my district. One of my main roles was inviting Matrix, the same LGBT organization, to lead a session. The organization’s director, a transgender man, spoke to the girls and fielded questions. Talking openly to a transgender person about sexuality and gender is an opportunity that didn’t come for me until college. It was a great feeling to know that these Basotho girls had been exposed to different ideas about gender at a younger age!
I guess what I’m trying to say is this – Africa is a big, diverse place. Lesotho is a smaller, diverse place. Just like in the United States, or any other place on Earth, there are hateful and closed minded people. Some of these people happen to be in power, and some are just regular people who are uninformed or bigoted. But again, like any other place, some people are curious, open-minded, tolerant, and accepting. When I was preparing to come here, I heard so many versions of the same concern: “aren’t you afraid to live someplace where everyone is so homophobic?” It’s a well-intentioned question that I asked myself, too, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised time and time again with the reality.