‘We feel left be­hind’

Lesotho Times - - Big Interview -

THE gov­ern­ment says it is look­ing into de­crim­i­nal­is­ing same-sex re­la­tion­ships to stop the spread of HIV. Last month, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Mo­thetjoa Mets­ing said the move would re­move bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ing mem­bers of the Les­bian, Gay, Bi­sex­ual, Trans­gen­der and In­ter­sex (LGBTI) com­mu­nity from ac­cess­ing HIV and AIDS ser­vices.

In Le­sotho, the LGBTI agenda is driven by Peo­ple’s Ma­trix, a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion that fights for their rights and con­trib­utes to their so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

In this wide-rang­ing in­ter­view, Peo­ple’s Ma­trix Direc­tor Tam­pose Mothopeng, speaks with Le­sotho Times (LT) re­porter Pas­cali­nah Kabi, about is­sues af­fect­ing the LGBTI com­mu­nity.

LT: What is Peo­ple’s Ma­trix?

Mothopeng: Peo­ple’s Ma­trix was es­tab­lished be­tween 2007 and 2008, and was called Ma­trix Sup­port Group at the time by a group of peo­ple who had some­thing in com­mon and fac­ing sim­i­lar chal­lenges.

We have since changed the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s name to Peo­ple’s Ma­trix and also amended the con­sti­tu­tion. We, how­ever, have not shifted our fo­cus which is ad­dress­ing the chal­lenges the LGBTI com­mu­nity faces. What has changed is that we are no longer gen­er­al­is­ing but ad­dress­ing each chal­lenge as it comes.

Peo­ple’s Ma­trix deals with broader is­sues of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­tity (SOGI) and gen­der ex­pres­sion in gen­eral be­cause lim­it­ing the scope to LGBTI left other con­cerns unat­tended. You will re­alise that some of our mem­bers face chal­lenges be­cause of the way they present and iden­tify them­selves, while oth­ers face chal­lenges be­cause of their sex­u­al­ity.

LT: What are the chal­lenges par­ents face when their chil­dren iden­tify them­selves as LGBTI know­ing that they gave birth to a “boy” or “girl”?

Mothopeng: When a child is born, they ei­ther have a male or fe­male body while oth­ers may have an in­ter­sex body.

These bi­o­log­i­cal con­struc­tions caused com­mu­ni­ties to con­struct so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions of gen­der ex­pres­sion or iden­tity.

So­ci­ety ex­pects a per­son born in a male body to be mas­cu­line. We also want to see such a per­son do­ing cer­tain jobs and as­sum­ing cer­tain re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The per­son will then grow up be­liev­ing they are sup­posed to be­have and feel in a cer­tain way be­cause of the so­ci­etal con­struc­tions. How­ever, de­spite all these so­ci­etal con­struc­tions, a per­son born in a male body may end up say­ing: “I don’t feel com­fort­able with the way I am sup­posed to be­have, so I will take the route that makes me com­fort­able.”

For in­stance they may start wear­ing a dress be­cause that is what makes them feel com­fort­able. They may start do­ing cer­tain jobs that so­ci­ety does not ex­pect them to do. They may start iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as fe­male, yet they were born in a male body.

They may also have their own sex­ual attractions con­trary to so­ci­etal dic­tates. Sex­ual at­trac­tion is an in­built thing, and you can never tell a per­son what their body should be at­tracted to.

If a per­son iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as male feels at­tracted to women, it means they are het­ero­sex­ual. A per­son at­tracted to peo­ple of the same sex is de­fined as gay ac­cord­ing to so­ci­etal con­struc­tions. There are also bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der and in­ter­sex peo­ple. These are mat­ters of the heart and not some­thing that hap­pens out of the blue.

LT: What are the chal­lenges the LGBTI com­mu­nity faces in their quest to get their fam­i­lies and so­ci­ety in gen­eral to ac­cept them as or­di­nary peo­ple?

Mothopeng: The pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem and the power im­bal­ance be­tween men and women have all con­trib­uted to the neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards the LGBTI com­mu­nity in this coun­try. Some re­li­gious be­liefs also pose a chal­lenge to the LGBTI com­mu­nity in that they teach peo­ple to see the world in a rigid man­ner.

When ad­her­ents of such re­li­gions see peo­ple who don’t con­form to their way of life, they dis­crim­i­nate against them.

There are also is­sues of health be­cause sex­u­ally-trans­mit­ted in­fec­tion rates are high within the LGBTI com­mu­nity be­cause we are not be­ing catered for. Most of the HIV ser­vices are for het­ero­sex­ual peo­ple.

We be­lieve Le­sotho has not yet ad­dressed these is­sues, and that is why the LGBTI com­mu­nity is left out. The LGBTI com­mu­nity is also left be­hind on sex­ual vi­o­lence or gen­der-based vi­o­lence is­sues.

LT: You re­cently pre­sented a con­cept pa­per to the Par­lia­men­tary Port­fo­lio Com­mit­tee on the So­cial Clus­ter. What was the re­sponse of the com­mit­tee mem­bers to the is­sues raised by the LGBTI com­mu­nity?

Mothopeng: There is a South­ern African De­vel­op­ment Com­mu­nity Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans Fo­rum, which is a re­gional pro­gramme ad­dress­ing sex­ual re­pro­duc­tive health rights.

Le­sotho has rat­i­fied this pro­gramme, but be­fore it is im­ple­mented, the coun­try must first un­der­stand this is­sue through its par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees. I was in­vited to give a pre­sen­ta­tion on the work of the Peo­ple’s Ma­trix to the com­mit­tee. I took them through the SOGI is­sues which they needed to un­der­stand be­fore we could talk about HIV is­sues. This is be­cause some peo­ple con­fuse is­sues, while oth­ers don’t even un­der­stand is­sues sur­round­ing men hav­ing sex with men.

It was im­por­tant for us to take them through these is­sues, so that when we dis­cuss the chal­lenges the LGBTI com­mu­nity faces, they have a clear un­der­stand­ing of what we are talk­ing about. I was told they ex­pressed an in­ter­est in hav­ing me make a pre­sen­ta­tion to the Na­tional Assem­bly.

LT: What prompted this new ap­proach to the LGBTI com­mu­nity?

Mothopeng: It would ap­pear there is a force or power push­ing them to try to un­der­stand or en­gage us. I don’t like such a sit­u­a­tion. I pre­fer a sit­u­a­tion where some­one will­ingly comes to me say­ing “I want to un­der­stand this”. So, ul­ti­mately I am not sure if peo­ple are com­ing to us on their own vo­li­tion or be­cause of other forces.

As a young leader, I be­lieve that I can­not lead a group of peo­ple or com­mu­nity that I don’t un­der­stand. If I am a leader, I have to un­der­stand the di­ver­sity within the peo­ple and try to bring them to­gether so I can re­spond to their needs. That way, I know I am not leav­ing any­one be­hind.

Our lead­ers should un­der­stand the di­ver­sity in the com­mu­ni­ties. They don’t need to first go to Geneva or South Africa to know there is a LGBTI com­mu­nity in Le­sotho.

They can only un­der­stand the needs of the peo­ple they are lead­ing if they know them. For them to do that, our lead­ers need to work closely with the LGBTI com­mu­nity so they are bet­ter able to re­spond to our needs.

Lead­ers should lead from within and not from the top. I am pas­sion­ate about lead­er­ship is­sues and fully un­der­stand when lead­er­ship is not in­clu­sive. There were few lead­ers from par­lia­ment who ap­proached us after the pre­sen­ta­tion and I re­garded those peo­ple as great lead­ers who quickly re­alised they had left some of the peo­ple whom they are lead­ing be­hind.

On that note, I feel like some of our lead­ers are only com­ing to us be­cause they are un­der pres­sure to en­gage.

LT: Le­sotho has in­cor­po­rated the Com­pre­hen­sive Sex­u­al­ity Ed­u­ca­tion (CSE) in the school cur­ricu­lum. Do you think CSE will help chil­dren grow up more aware of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion?

Mothopeng: Ac­tu­ally, CSE was part of our ad­vo­cacy ini­tia­tives. Al­though the CSE con­cept does not clearly state or seek to deal with LGBTI or SOGI is­sues, we are still work­ing hard to en­sure that SOGI will be in­cluded in the CSE con­cept.

How­ever, for now, I can­not say it is help­ing us much. This is be­cause most of the teach­ers are still not con­ver­sant with LGBTI is­sues. It means they will only teach the top­ics they know, and our is­sues will al­ways be left be­hind. Un­til we de­velop an ef­fec­tive strat­egy for reach­ing out to pri­mary schools, I am afraid we will con­tinue to face these chal­lenges as a coun­try.

Our pro­grammes are cur­rently for high school learn­ers and the out­come is not as good as it would have been had we started in pri­mary schools. It is, how­ever, al­most im­pos­si­ble to pen­e­trate the pri­mary level be­cause there is a lin­ger­ing fear that we are re­cruit­ing kids into the LGBTI com­mu­nity. This is not true. We are only try­ing to sen­si­tise these chil­dren from an early stage so that they un­der­stand and ac­cept each other.

LT: Do you have joint aware­ness cam­paigns with non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions, schools and other stake­hold­ers?

Mothopeng: I can’t re­ally say we are work­ing with any­one at the mo­ment, but we can only take so­lace in know­ing that we have trained health prac­ti­tion­ers and they are help­ing in­ter­sex chil­dren whose par­ents do not know what to do with them.

When­ever in­ter­sex cases arise, we re­ceive calls from health­care cen­tres re­quest­ing as­sis­tance. Though we are ready to help, par­ents do not want any­thing to do with us.

I re­mem­ber re­ceiv­ing a call from a HaAbia res­i­dent in­form­ing us about a child with am­bigu­ous gen­i­talia - which is a birth de­fect of the sex or­gans that makes it un­clear whether a child is a girl or boy. The par­ent had hid the child’s sex­u­al­ity to the other res­i­dents, and it was only re­alised after the child un­dressed while play­ing with the other kids in the ab­sence of the par­ent. The child was ex­posed to un­nec­es­sary em­bar­rass­ment.

LT: What is your re­ac­tion to the view held by some peo­ple that LGBTI peo­ple can be­come het­ero­sex­ual?

Mothopeng: It is so un­for­tu­nate be­cause at times LGBTIS are forced to pre­tend they have be­come het­ero­sex­ual to please their fam­i­lies, while do­ing the op­po­site be­hind closed doors. A per­son’s sex­u­al­ity can never change. It is so sad that the pub­lic buys these so-called “re­pen­tance” sto­ries. You also have peo­ple in high level po­si­tions mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for oth­ers by la­belling them with the deroga­tory name “Lita­bane”, yet the same peo­ple call vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren to their of­fices to have sex with them after hours.

After hav­ing sex with the vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, they go home to their spouses and pre­tend to live “nor­mal” lives. Ul­ti­mately, they in­fect the dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren and their wives.

It is so sad that peo­ple refuse to ac­cept them­selves and I don’t know why.

Peo­ple’s Ma­trix Direc­tor Tam­pose Mothopeng.

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