OPINION: Botswana's decriminalisation of same-sex relations safeguards my dignity

by Dumiso Gatsha | Success Capital Organisation
Friday, 14 June 2019 10:26 GMT

A note in tribute of Kenyan author and LGBT activist Binyavanga Wainaina, who died in Nairobi last week at the age of 48, is seen during a memorial service at the Nairobi national museum in Nairobi, Kenya, May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Botswana's High Court ruling eliminated the risk of persecution on the basis of who I am and who I love in one morning

Dumiso Gatsha is a part-time PhD law candidate and a volunteer at Success Capital Organisation, which supports LGBT+ youth in Botswana

Sitting in the Gaborone High Court on 11 June was an emotionally taxing experience. I have been told so many times of how un-African, ungodly, unmanly and un-female I was.

I have had a colleague read the Bible at me at work to prove how queerness is not allowed. I lost my private sector job without due process and for unknown reasons a week after the court hearing and immediately upon returning from an LGBT+ conference. Employment law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation didn’t protect me in these instances.

Many other memories of bias or hate rushed through my mind as we all waited to see if our lives would change for the better.

As judgment was delivered, I fought back my feelings, remembering the many instances of passive aggression, lost opportunities and stares I'd had to endure for being who I am.

Then the judge spoke the magic words, declaring "all human beings are born equal" and that there was no place for discrimination in my country.

Sitting next to my partner in court amplified the emotions, as he expressed his own anxiety, then later glee at the beauty of a judgment that is unparalleled in ensuring that the rule of law and aspirations of a democratic society are inclusive and equal. 

The highlights for me include the court questioning the purpose of criminalising consensual same sex intercourse. Particularly when there are other provisions for addressing 'indecency'. The court also spoke of supporting the aspirations of a democratic society.

It further noted that our history as a country erased the very existence of homosexuality, particularly under colonial rule. And that such laws are best left in history. The same should be said for societal perceptions in our modern-day Botswana.

It also touched on religion as a leading influence into the criminalisation of homosexuality and the complexities of public interest and morality.

The unanimous judgment ensured that all our concerns - indignity, mistreatment, discrimination - were addressed.

I am at a loss for words at how impactful such a judgement can have on one's psyche and sense of belonging. Although I have been feminine throughout my adolescent years and later volunteered in queer activism, I always thought the punitive laws were irrelevant to my being. 

The risk of persecution on the basis of who I am and who I love had been eliminated in one morning. I no longer have to question my sense of belonging as a citizen.

Of course, a larger war remains in societal perceptions - in reconfigurating how queer youth articulate sense of self in an improved legal environment, in community-wide healing, and in building explicit protections into law.

The court’s deliberations were also notably binary given the issues of homosexuality presented before it.

But it really looked beyond the parameters of same-sex intercourse and the science of health outcomes. It recognised the anguish of self within the myriad of challenges in becoming and belonging, which are relevant to expression and bodily autonomy. It gave agency to those often unheard and unseen.

And the ruling opened up possibilities for expanding future legal work to include other members of the queer community. To go beyond sexual orientation to look at issues of gender diversity and the protection of intersex people.

My heart is filled with a hope that this judgment can spark conversations at many dinner tables, in the cut and thrust of our customary courts, and in boardrooms.

We are all deserving of protection and equality before the law.

If we can take anything from the judgement, it was that it spoke to the very humanity of these two birthrights.