‘We feel left behind’
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.