As even a minister acknowledges, men who express gender as women and don’t reveal that fact risk brutal assault, writes BASHI LETSIDIDI.
It is something that definitely tickles the funny bones (raucous laughter is indeed the first reaction of one interview subject) but is certainly not a laughing matter when, as happened in the Philippines two years ago, the result is tragic loss of human life. In the dead of night, boy meets boy but half of the equation is not that obvious because with female attire, wig and make-up, one expresses gender as a girl. Much later in the wee hours of the morning when boy has plied the other boy with never-ending stream of Savanna cider, when both parties are home, Boy 1 makes a shocking discovery. In a fit of atavistic rage, he pummels Boy 2, yanking off the wig and for the first time, coming face to face with the real person he has been flirting with all night. Not all such cases end up at the police station but the men who express gender as women have been subjected to severe beating.
The Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) association says that it is aware that some of its members have been beaten up when an ill-starred night has panned out in the described manner. Its spokesperson, Caine Youngman, says that in conversation with their members who have been subjected to such treatment, it emerged that the latter really thought there was nothing wrong with what they are doing. “They identify as women and you have to understand that while some have not taken out their birth sexual reproductive organs, they are on hormonal therapy,” says Youngman adding that the latter are sexually attracted to men. “So they believe that men who approach them see them as women.”
Heterosexual men certainly do see them as women on account of one huge information gap – not knowing that such people were born as men. That being the case, is there no obligation on the transsexuals to come clean with the men who don’t have such information? Youngman’s response is that both parties are equally responsible. He explains that when two people meet in a romance-oriented context, they share the responsibility of “assessing each other silently” to ascertain compatibility. “If Party A suspects that Party B is different, he should drop hints and gauge his reaction. However, we have this problem in our culture where we don’t say exactly what we want but wait for the very last minute to do that. The other problem is that a lot of what you describe happens at night in bars that play loud music when both parties would be intoxicated and not get a chance to talk and get to know each other better.
The outcome would be a lot different if they meet in a more relaxed environment,” Youngman says. That could well be but some of the men who express gender as women seek to willfully mislead heterosexual men. A Gaborone man says when he met an usually and incredibly wide-hipped romantic target at a Mogoditshane nightclub, he duly observed all the courtship rituals appropriate for such situation. Yet, something didn’t look right. “The hips were just too symmetrically perfect, too huge and she wouldn’t let me lay my hands on them. Each time I tried to she would immediately push my hand away forcefully,” the man recalls. “As the night wore on, I got suspicious and finally found a way to check whether the hips were real. Coming back from the toilet, I crept up on her from behind, reached down to touch her hip and came against something hard and not at all fleshy. When I had moved away from her, somebody later told it was a costume of some sort.”
The consequent investigation he carried out also turned up information that caused bile to rise in his throat. He further learnt that a drunk soldier from the nearby Sir Seretse Khama barracks had unwittingly gone all the way with a befrocked and dolled-up man he thought was biologically born a woman in a bush behind the nightclub. A man who expresses gender as a woman is not encroaching on anyone’s comfort but cases from around the world show that if some believe that such gender expression interferes with their own expression of heterosexuality, there can be a very serious problem. Last year, a British woman called Gayle Newland was convicted of sexual assault after conning another woman into sex multiple (10) times in 2013. The prosecution’s case was that Newland pretended to be a man and maintained her ruse by using a prosthetic penis and blindfold.
The victim told the court that she is straight and consented only to sex with a man, not a woman. The British case was not as tragic as a similar one in the Philippines where a United States marine killed a transgender woman, Jennifer Laude (Jeffrey at birth), whom he had met at a disco. The soldier, Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, killed Laude later that night in his hotel room upon discovering that the victim was anatomically a male at birth. Testifying during his trial, the soldier said that he choked Laude with an arm lock until she was no longer moving. His lawyer said that Pemberton “acted to defend his honor when he discovered that Ms. Laude had a penis”, that he felt “like I was raped by Laude”, that he was “repulsed, felt violated and angry” and that “he would not have agreed to have [oral] sex with him if he knew he was a man.” The Motswana nightclubber says he almost threw up himself and felt violated.
According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Laude's friend, Mark Clarence Gelviro, said he was asked to accompany the pair to the hotel “but then Laude told him to leave before the foreigner could discover that they were transgenders."
While he doesn’t dispute that there are transgender women in Botswana who mislead heterosexual men, Youngman hastens to add that the former are “opportunistic individuals” who are to be found anywhere in society. There would be expectation by ill-fated Romeos who encounter men who express gender as women that the latter should come clean from the get-go but Youngman counters by saying that such details are never expected of anyone upon meeting for the first time. “It never happens that when you meet someone for the first time you say ‘I’m HIV positive’. Likewise, a transgendered woman doesn’t say ‘I’m trans’ on meeting someone who expresses romantic interest in her,” he says. The other defence he mounts in defence of the latter is that when approached by a man, they would themselves not be sure about the sexual orientation of the pursuer and one of the categories of pursuers that he lists is of men who desire transgender women.
While he uses terms like “gender expression”, “gender identity” and “sexual orientation”, Youngman admits that “there are no exact Setswana terms” in the equivalent. That is bound to be problematic when LGBT issues are explained in Setswana. Youngman says that they have found descriptive Setswana to explain these concepts in human rights forums when they don’t use English. Such forums have taken place in Gaborone, Mochudi, Maun, Francistown, Selebi Phikwe and Bobonong where LEGABIBO met with traditional leaders – dikgosi. Youngman says that dikgosi need this sensitisation because they are the first port of call for parents enraged by children who don’t conform to gender and sexual convention. In the Setswana Youngman uses, a parent so aggrieved would tell a kgosi about a boy child acting girly: “Kana ngwana ke yo o itirile mosadi.” One kgosi attending such forums reportedly said that he had one boy corporally punished and that at the end of the session, expressed remorse because he now had deeper appreciation of the issue.
Next to former president Festus Mogae, the Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Botlogile Tshireletso, is perhaps the only other prominent Botswana Democratic Party figure who has expressed public support for the LGBT community. She appreciates the disclosure issue at hand no differently from Youngman, saying that transgender women really do consider themselves to be no different from naturally-born women. “When a man approaches them they feel good because it validates their self-conception as women and being themselves attracted to men would be less inclined to raise any red flags,” she says. Tshireletso sympathises with these people for not disclosing their at-birth gender, saying that they do so out of fear of what might happen. Paradoxically, what might happen when they don’t make such disclosure is what they must also fear.
The minister, who is the Mahalapye East MP, is aware of the beating transgender women often have to suffer for not making such disclosure. She reveals third-hand knowledge of such beating that occurred not too ago in Mahalapye. The story she retells has an all too familiar arc: a man meets another man who expresses gender as a woman at a bar; Savanna, Savanna, Savanna, Savanna, Savanna; and then off to the man’s place where Romeo discovers a disturbing fact about whom he thought was that night’s Juliet.
“The story I heard is that the man beat him so bad that he nearly killed him. Maybe if this issue was not taboo, people could talk about it openly. That way there would be more understanding and all this violence would be avoided,” the minister says.
Tshireletso’s public advocacy of gay rights has brought her closer to the LGBT community and her interactions with them has enabled her to reach a deeper appreciation of the trials and tribulations that some individuals in this community have to deal with on a daily basis. She tells the story of a woman who finds herself unable to use her national identity card because, to all intents and purposes, she has evolved into a man with a beard and a deep voice. “Accessing a variety of services is problematic for her because those she encounters say that the ID she carries is not hers. In the case of health clinics, she finds it extremely difficult to get medical care because the identity card shows a gender that she doesn’t physically resemble,” says the minister, adding that the person in question recently asked her to intercede on her behalf by “begging” Edwin Batshu, the Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, to authorise change of the gender assignation on her ID.
The dissenting voice is that of Ontlametse Mpaku, the spokesperson of a new men’s rights group called Men and Boys for Gender Equality. To establish his credulity on the subject, Mpaku says that he has himself heard about a numerous cases of the issue at hand including one in Molapowabojang. His information is that in some cases, the men expressing gender as women dangled false sexual promise to get the men they had hoodwinked to open their wallets and show them a good time. Mpaku, who believes that this level of deception amounts to “provocation”, says that men who express gender as women have an obligation to come clean from the get-go.