In the wake of June’s landmark ruling, that saw Botswana’s High Court decriminalise same sex, there has been no better time than now to start having open, honest and impactful dialogues about issues concerning LGBTQI+ people in our communities.
For those whom may have missed this key update in Botswana’s history; the court ruled that Sections 164 and 167 of Botswana’s Penal Code which outlawed ‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’ was unconstitutional.
Society in Botswana is overtly hostile to the LGBTQI+ community, and societal homophobia often leads to alarming mental health issues within the community. Statistics paint a frightening picture of the stresses in the lives of young LGBTQI+ people, a 2017 survey shows that lesbian women experience the highest number of sexual and physical abuse and diagnosed depression. They are followed closely by transgender women and bisexual men and women. This information was gleaned from an affidavit. What might strike mostly surprising to some, is that in terms of mental health illness in the queer community, Botswana is 10% higher than the USA.
Too often, queer youth feel isolated and alone. Violence and hostility at home and school have led many LGBTQI+ youth to drop out, run away, abuse drugs, and/or attempt suicide. At the same time, research shows that homophobia and the fear of being thought of as gay forces many youth whom are yet to fully discover their sexuality to: act ‘macho’ or ‘feminine,’ depending on biological sex; limit or minimize their friendships with people of their own sex; become sexually active or increase their sexual activity in order to ‘prove’ their heterosexuality.
Valuing the queer community provides an ethical imperative to acknowledge and serve the LGBTQI+ equally and positively along with heterosexuals and those who conform to society’s gender norms. LGBTQI+ youth especially need and deserve help to survive in the face of family rejection and school harassment, against heightened rates of suicide, victimization, and all prejudice. They should be able to thrive as valued members of the very communities they live and work in.
When agencies provide services to youth, they have an obligation to promote the health and well-being of all the youth in the program, including LGBTQI+ young people. At the same time, providing a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQI+ youth will help agencies to provide a safe and supportive environment in which straight youth can thrive as well.
I recently hosted the first ever BANANA CLUB, born from my ARTvism blog Bananaemoji.com, BANANA CLUB is a platform aimed at informing, inspiring and engaging with the community in an effort to lead relevant and dynamic conversations. The introductory session set out to unpack the topic, “Mental Health Awareness in the Queer Community”.
Through this engagement those in attendance, got to learn that the queer community suffer from mental health problems at a high rate, yet there is currently no specialised provision of healthcare for us. A considerable crisis, especially when existing facilities do not always prove to be effective. The platform did not offer mental health “advice” but rather looked at how the current system is succeeding or failing and gave those whom usually do not have a voice, a safe haven to openly discuss. The mental health crisis amongst queer people is an issue of national relevance that requires a collaborative effort with our communities to find solutions to issues and problems that affect us. All that is required is community and concerted efforts.
Different queer people suffer to varying degrees and no two people will ever have had the same experiences. However, by being able to meet with others in an autonomous and protected environment, we are able to discuss the similarities in our stories, to provide each other with support and counsel. These spaces are often social hubs and a place where many activist campaigns begin. Queer activism, especially the kind borne from these kinds of autonomous spaces provides a fundamental opportunity to educate the broader community about issues that affect the daily lives of queer people. Apart from being a form of education, these campaigns can affect real policy changes at universities, and in government.
Safe spaces can exist in residences like bars and nightclubs though such venues are more socially focused than the type of space hosted by BANANA CLUB. These are places where one can go to be with friends, have a drink, and not have to spend the entire night worried about whether they are passing as straight; whether the person flirting with them is interested in sleeping with them or harming them; spaces where one can use the bathroom without fear of ridicule, harassment, or being kicked out of a venue.
Just late last year, video footage circulated on social media depicting the public battery of a transgender woman in Gaborone. The woman was violently attacked by men, women and security personnel in Gaborone while bystanders stood by yelling obscenities at her and filming the incident leaving her hurt, exposed and humiliated under the pretext that they were ‘defending public morality and instilling good behavior.’
What some may not realise is that the most minute of acts, like the simple acts of having security guards recognise one’s gender or having bar staff compliment their outfit are small moments that have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the emotional wellbeing of a queer person. Providing the slightest relief from the constant worry about how they are being perceived.
That said, the most important safe space in life is the one that travels with YOU, the one that’s made of friends and our broader social network. When I am a part of a group of other gender and sexually diverse people I am at my safest. Having heterosexual friends around who will correct strangers when I get heckled is a truly reaffirming experience
The safest space of all is created by having all sorts of wonderful queer people around; by engaging with a community that loves and supports each other; by encouraging people to be themselves, whether that’s femme or butch or somewhere in between. This community is the real safe space. Knowing that there’s strength and safety in numbers.