As a Young Queer Man in Botswana, I Hid My True Self. Here's Why I No Longer Negotiate My Dignity.
Letlhogonolo Godsave Moremi, founder of Queer Pride Botswana, reflects on his fight for equality.
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On Nov. 29, 2021, the Botswana Court of Appeal upheld a 2019 ruling that found that the criminalisation of same-sex relationships was unconstitutional. The ruling was lauded by members of the LGBTQ+ community in Botswana and abroad as a critical step towards achieving true equality for queer Batswana.
Letlhogonolo Godsave Moremi is a corporate attorney and the founder of Queer Pride Botswana who, on the day of the court's ruling, tweeted, “WE WON!” Here, Moremi reflects on his life as a young queer man growing up in Botswana and what the recent ruling means for him personally as well as an activist fighting for a better life for queer people in the country.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
Editor's note: This story contains details that some readers may find traumatising.
As a child, I didn’t know it was wrong to be a boy who “looked like a girl” or “acted like a girl.” I always thought every time the elders would say, “O montle jaaka ngwanyana” ("He is as beautiful as a girl"), I was getting compliments of the highest order. Which, to be fair, I was — but perhaps the expectation was that I wouldn't be comfortable being that way, at least not for too long.
The first time I learned that hard lesson was when I was about 4 years old, when a relative’s male friend got curious about whether I was indeed a boy with a penis and sought to have his question answered at my expense. To satisfy her friend’s curiosity, she, my loving and caring relative, called me over to her and I sat on her lap like I always did — happily, innocently, thinking I was safe. Unexpectedly, she proceeded to take off my trousers and underwear. Alarmed, I scrambled to get away, but I was a child, weak and defenseless. Against my will, I was stripped naked from the waist down and my genitals presented to this man to satisfy his curiosity about my sex. I left the scene crying, feeling what I can only describe as violated.
At that age, I knew nothing about “dignity” as a concept, but at that moment, I knew my dignity had been violated. And for the first time in my life I felt like I was broken. That was the first of many times I would learn my dignity was not my own. My dignity depended on other people’s curiosities, opinions, desires, and approvals. It was something given to me at their choosing, but never mine to own.
I am Letlhogonolo Godsave Moremi, and I am a 27-year-old gay Motswana man living in Botswana. I am an attorney by profession, and an LGBTQ+ activist by calling.
Of course, all that means I happen to talk a lot. My love for speaking began at Tlogatloga Junior Secondary School, where I was a member of the debate team. In time, debate became my gateway drug to law school. Using my voice against injustice became the thing that fulfilled me the most. Growing up, my personal life was occupied by many silences about myself, my beliefs, needs, and desires. From home, to school, to society at large, I listened to friends, loved ones, and strangers alike talk about how people like me were depraved, perverted, animals worthy of punishment.
I listened, almost every day, and kept a painful silence. I learned to bite my tongue to not upset anyone. I learned that silence protected me from ever being seen as one of “them," but one can only remain silent for so long. Advocacy, from debate to becoming a lawyer and an activist, became my platform for finding my own voice, even if I had to do so by speaking up for others before speaking up for myself. In some ways, advocacy allowed me to speak up for myself without ever having to say I am speaking up for myself. I knew I deserved respect. I knew I deserved to live a dignified life like any other ordinary person. I just couldn't ask for these things without exposing myself, and so the cause of others like me became the disguise I wore to demand my own dignity.
Growing up queer in Botswana, I learned early on to be like a chameleon, changing colours to blend in as I moved through people and spaces, negotiating my truth, my safety, and my dignity. In my teenage years, that meant denying my sexual orientation to myself and to anyone who asked. It meant doing all that I could to distance myself from anything and anyone that could in anyway appear to be queer.
When silence wasn’t enough, I joined in when my peers and elders cast proverbial stones at those who did not deny themselves their truth like I did mine. Yet after the mob had had its fun, all that was left was me having to confront myself, having to reconcile the violence I visited upon myself through the bodies of others.
In hindsight, my entire youth was a series of dissociative experiences in which I witnessed myself through the lives and bodies of others. For better or for worse, I did not exist. All that was were fragments of fears, hopes, and dreams, witnessed in glimpses through the lives of those who did not hide like I did.
It did not help that, having been raised in a Christian family, I was well aware that those who committed the sins that occupied my pubescent fantasies were allegedly sure to taste the flames of hell. So many of my days were spent asking God to take this cup of suffering from me, at the same time envying those who seemed to drink from it with ease. Every day I was at war, against myself and society in this world, and eternal damnation in the next. It was truly a dark time of self-loathing while also wishing others could love and approve of me as I was.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I was able to lose my fears and no longer hide behind the lives of other people. Gingerly, I began to realise that if I truly wanted a better world for myself and other people like me, I could not achieve that with one foot in. So I stepped in with both feet and learned to stand in my truth, no matter how badly my knees shook in terror and my voice cracked with fear.
Social media became a platform where I truly found freedom of expression. At first, it was the safety of hiding behind it that allowed me to be fearless and unfiltered. Over time, as it surely will happen in a country as small as Botswana, the digital world and the real world began to merge. I could no longer be an avatar in cyberspace, but became a human being who took pride in themselves and began negotiating less of my dignity with people and spaces around me. It was only at that point that I realised I had never known what true freedom was. The taste of it was beautiful, and to hold it in me felt powerful. In this newfound freedom, I found a new love for a community that I had always made sure to keep at a distance.
It was out of this love that I founded Queer Pride Botswana as my way of contributing to building a true sense of community, where LGBTQ+ people in Botswana could commune and learn to care about each other beyond the unity necessitated by having shared oppressors.
Queer Pride Botswana was founded in May 2019 as a social movement for creating safe community spaces for queer people. Our work platforms the artistic and entrepreneural capacities of queer people whose work becomes the focal point of our events and spaces. Following this model, we have succesfullly created one-day spaces such as Pride Night 2019, the Queer Women's Market, and my personal favourite, "SEREPUDI," an exhibition of queer artists' work confronting shame and secrecy around queer sex and sexuality.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered our ability to create and curate more spaces for now. Queer Pride Botswana has been supported in its work by NGOs and civil society organizations such as Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) and the Tebelopele Voluntary Counselling and Testing Center, which have provided assistance and partnerships for our events. We have also received immense support from members of the Queer community who volunteer their time, skills, and labour towards our various projects.
Our work has also been well received by members of the broader public who attend and support the queer entrepreneurs and artists we give platforms. It is always heartwarming for me to witness members of the Queer community show and take up space at the spaces and events we create. It's important for us that the people we do this work for have a real sense of ownership of the spaces and narratives that come out of what we do. Witnessing that has been the greatest reward. Writing this, I wonder if founding Queer Pride Botswana was also an act of penance for me — a way of healing the wounds of my own desperate attempts to distance myself from a community I was terrified of being labelled as being a part of.
As an attorney, I am well aware that dignity is the foundation of all human rights. This right to dignity is enshrined in our constitution of Botswana. However, I have also learned that dignity is a given for some but not for others.
When the High Court of Botswana in 2019 declared provisions of the Penal Code that criminalised consensual same-sex sexual activity, I remember being in court on the day of arguments, listening to the judges and attorneys publicly dissect the sexual life of Letsweletse Motshidiemang, the brave young man who was the plaintiff in this case. It was a reminder that my dignity and those of others like me was yet again debatable, not ours to own. In that gallery I felt like that young boy again, stripped naked to satisfy the curiosities of those with greater power over me. I felt this for myself and for Letsweletse, whose most private moments were being laid bare for all to scrutinize. I wondered if asking for basic human freedoms really meant we had to be treated in such undignified ways.
I would later watch the appeal of the High Court decision by the government, having to witness Sidney Pilane, the advocate representing the State. using both court and media platforms to spew homophobia and call us everything short of dogs. I can only be thankful that the Court of Appeal, in the end, decided that as queer Batswana, we deserve to enjoy our right to dignity like everybody else. Afterall, even for us, “fatshe leno la rona” (“this is our land”), as appropriately translated from the first line of our national anthem.
As I sit here, basking in the victories of fearless queer folk who have, throughout our history, fought for us to be where are today, I am reminded that the battle for equality is far from over. While we celebrate the legal strides that have been made, we are yet to achieve a society that truly understands the violence it visits upon queer bodies every day, and the humanity we are denied in big and small ways.
We exist in a society that has for decades inured itself in the colonial anti-queer ideology, to the point it has accepted such ideology as its own "culture." To truly achieve equality and dignity, we must begin to undo the social, political, or otherwise cultural ideas and practices that would have us believe that those who are different are somehow undignified.
If I had grown up in a world like that, I would have known to use my voice for myself. I would have known I can speak out when I was forcefully undressed to prove my sex. I would not have bitten my tongue for so much of my life. I wouldn’t have spent years living in so much fear. I would have known and seen that I matter.
That is the Botswana I want for myself and the queer folk of now and tomorrow. A Botswana where we can all live dignified lives, without question, without being debased for debate.
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