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Botswana religious groups threaten rule of law and refuse LGBTQ rights

Country’s Council of Churches applauded 2019 decriminalization ruling

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The Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana holds an anti-LGBTQ rights march in Gaborone, the Batswana capital. (Photo from the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana's Facebook page)

By Bradley Fortuin and Matlhogonolo Samsam | Botswana is considered a secular state and all people have equal access to religious organizations and institutions. There are three Christian umbrella bodies in Botswana — being the Botswana Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana and Organization of African Instituted Churches — all of whom have great influence io public perceptions and attitudes towards various social and rights-based issues.

Faith in action, embracing diversity!

The Botswana Council of Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church, in 2019 released a statement applauding the Court of Appeal in decriminalizing consensual same-sex sex in the country. In the statement, the council encouraged its members to abide by the judgment and not discriminate against anyone who identifies as LGBTIQ+. The BCC has been intentional about their views on LGBTIQ+ rights and has continually engaged with queer organizations to get human rights literacy. It is safe to say that they are friends of LGBTIQ+ persons. 

Religious discrimination: A barrier to LGBTIQ+ persons‘ rights in Botswana

Recently, there has been a visible increase in anti-LGBTIQ+ rights rhetoric by the EFB and its members, who include politicians. The EFB has been imposing its assumed Christian values on to the nation — a nation that is diverse in beliefs, cultures and identities. Discriminatory behavior towards the LGBTIQ+ community is on the rise, with the EFB being a notable obstacle to progress towards equality. The constitution does provide for freedom of religion and religious practices, but to what extent does religious practices become incitement of violence and hate towards the LGBTIQ+ community?

On Nov. 29, 2021, the Botswana Court of Appeal upheld the decision by the High Court to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual acts in the country. Beyond this, it affirmed LGBTIQ+ people’s rights to liberty, dignity, privacy, equal protection before the law and body autonomy, as enshrined in the constitution. When the Parliament of Botswana assumed its July/August 2023 session, a bill to amend Sections 164 (a) and (c) of the Penal Code was tabled by the Minister of Defense, Justice and Security, Mr. Ronald Shamukuni. These sections criminalized carnal knowledge against the order of nature and have since been struck down by the High Court and the Court of Appeal in front of a total of eight judges. The procedure to table the bill in Parliament has been said to be standard practice and will in no way go against the orders of the court.

The church threatening Parliament and parliamentarians endanger the rule of law and create an imbalance in the separation of powers by encouraging Parliament to go against the decision of the Court of Appeal. The courts and judges are — and must be — independent of Parliament and the government. The judiciary has already held sections 164 (a) and (c) of the Penal Code to be unconstitutional and ordered it to be repealed. Within the legal framework, Parliament must now adhere to the court’s order and repeal these offences. For the Legislature to attempt or to go against the court’s order shows ignorance of the law, undermining of the Judiciary and disregard for vulnerable and marginalized groups. 

The rise of anti-LGBTIQ+ movement in Botswana

Since the motion of intention to table the bill, there has been a stir and public outcry regarding LGBTIQ+ rights and liberties led by the anti-rights movement. The EFB and some politicians have been against the protection of LGBTIQ+ people and increasingly engage in discriminatory behavior against the community. The church, in all its might and power rallied and organized demonstrators to march against the amendment bill by Parliament. There have been three demonstrations in the last four weeks across the country. 

Why is the EFB and some politicians opposed to LGBTIQ+ rights? Why are they a barrier to progress towards equality and inclusion of a group that has been vulnerable and marginalized for a long time in Botswana? Why is the EFB vehemently advocating for the recriminalization of LGBTIQ+ rights?

In its messaging, the EFB has been consistent about their message — that LGBTIQ+ rights have no place in Botswana. Amidst this messaging, with the influence that the church has, and the number of followers in the EFB denominations, this card has been used to persuade and manipulate politicians to reject the amendment bill if they want to survive politically. 

Botswana goes for its general elections in 2024, and now is the perfect time to start campaigning — or de-campaigning — for politicians. Several politicians are now at the mercy of the EFB and voting for LGBTIQ+ rights is feared to be political suicide. When, however, politicians and the church are willing to rally against the courts, our democracy is at stake.  

Avoiding tyranny of the majority

The EFB and some politicians called for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people to be put to a referendum and to have the public decide. By doing so, there is the risk of the majority imposing its will on the people. LGBTIQ+ rights are not a popularity contest and should not be contingent on popular opinion; basic human rights should not be up for debate or subject to the changing whims of the majority as they are not dependent on popular opinion but are inherent to all human beings. LGBTIQ+ individuals have historically faced exclusion, discrimination, prejudice and violence and subjecting their rights to a referendum perpetuates this vulnerability. It undermines the principles of dignity, liberty and equal protection under the law, entrenched in our constitution and upheld by our courts. The views of the EFB are not the views of Batswana at large. 

In 2016, the Afrobarometer reported that at least 43 percent of Batswana are not opposed to LGBTIQ+, while in its 2021 report, it reported that 50 percent of Batswana are open-minded and unprejudiced to LGBTIQ+ people. The increased acceptance of LGBTIQ+ persons in Botswana reflects that public opinion is in fact not what the church and politicians are assuming.  

To promote fairness and equality, religious organizations must understand that they are separated from governmental structures and should refrain from wielding undue influence on legislative issues that impact members of different faiths, beliefs or those who are not religious. The call to deny LGBTIQ+ people their rights because of fundamentalist religious beliefs perpetuates inequality and discrimination and sends the message that certain groups of people are less deserving of rights and protections in Botswana.

Bradley Fortuin is the LGBTIQ+ Program Officer at the Southern Africa Litigation Center and a social justice activist.

Matlhogonolo Samsam is the Media and Community Liaison Lead at Black Queer DocX and a queer feminist working towards the development of an inclusive LBQ+ society.

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Commentary

O’Shae Sibley’s murder is an attack on LGBTQ people and their expression, as both rise

More than 350 anti-LGBTQ attacks reported between June 2022 and July 2023

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O’Shae Sibley (Headshot from O'Shae Sibley's Facebook page)

BY HENRY HICKS IV | What do the banning of a children’s picture book about two male penguins, white supremacist stand-offs outside of weekend brunches and a killing during impromptu dancing at a gas station have in common? Plenty. Each impinges on the escalating trend of attacks on LGBTQ+ people and their right to free expression. 

On the evening of July 29, O’Shae Sibley pulled into a Brooklyn gas station parking lot with his friends to fill up their gas tank. As they waited for the tank to fill, the group spilled from the car and used the moment to move joyfully in the hot summer night, cranking the car radio’s volume and dancing together. Sibley, a gay man, was also a skilled professional dancer and choreographer. He displayed his talents this night, voguing to the sounds of Beyoncé, an artist that Sibley and his friends were fans of. By coincidence, the artist was performing just a few miles away that night, with professional voguers joining her on stage.

Vogueing, a dance style born out of the traditionally queer ballroom scene, is known for its electrifying dips, drops and duckwalks. The style has been prominently featured in the Golden Globe-winning television show “Pose” — and, more recently, on stage in Beyoncé’s all-consuming Renaissance World Tour. The energy of the ballroom scene has spirited communities across the country, as Beyoncé’s tour has touched down city-by-city, and Sibley and his friends were not exempt to this reach. He was, in fact, eager to participate in his artistry as someone known for his role as a dancer, choreographer, and active member of New York’s ballroom community. 

As he and his friends vogued to Beyoncé in the parking lot, moves that Sibley was adept in as an artist himself, they grabbed the attention of hostile onlookers. As captured on surveillance footage, Sibley was first berated with homophobic slurs — Sibley’s vogue performance seeming to signal his sexuality to his attacker. Shortly following the verbal assault, things turned violent. Sibley was stabbed and murdered in a tragic hate crime, fueled by homophobia and triggered by Sibley’s open expression as a dancer and artist. 

In mourning, and in defiant protest in the days following, the New York City queer community  hosted a memorial at the site of his murder where they honored his memory through performance, with a vibrant and resistant ball

“You won’t break my soul. / You won’t break my soul, no, no. / I’m telling everybody,” Beyoncé sings defiantly in her single, “Break My Soul.”

The murder of O’Shae Sibley was devastating — and a signal of a disturbing trend. Increasing violence toward LGBTQ+ people, and attempts to quash their personal and artistic expression, are on the rise in the United States. Advocacy organizations such as GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League have reported surges in harassment, vandalism and physical violence against LGBTQ+ people — with 356 instances being reported between June 2022 and April 2023. Transgender people, as well as drag performers, have been targeted at notably high rates. The Human Rights Campaign reported 34 murders of trans people — mostly trans women of color — in 2022  (HRC emphasizes that the actual number is likely higher, as most attacks go unreported, or are reported inaccurately.) 

Drag shows across the country have faced threats and intimidation from armed protesters, including the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys. Gay bars have been targeted by armed assailants, such as the tragic massacre thatoccurred at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., last November. Hospitals providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth have been targeted with bomb threats. On Aug. 18, a California store owner was shot and killed for displaying a Pride flag. Harassment, threats of violence, and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community have steadily risen in recent years. It is clear that this bigotry has been emboldened and its first goal is to silence the free expression of LGBTQ+ people, through violence if necessary. 

The exponential increase in physical violence against LGBTQ+ people over the last few years cannot be divorced from the recent legislative environment that has grown ever-more hostile to LGBTQ+ expression. Bills categorizing drag shows as obscenity, book bans targeting LGBTQ+ authors and stories about queer identities in schools and public libraries, as well as other legislative attacks are part of this trend against the LGBTQ+ community. The attacks, both physical and through laws and bans, risk enabling a culture that normalizes repression of queer voices and increases the risk of violence aimed, in part, at suppressing expression of LGBTQ+ people, even when individuals are simply voguing to Beyoncé in public. 

Starting in 2021, we’ve seen a historic surge in book bans around the country, targeting LGBTQ+ voices and stories at a disproportionately high rate. PEN America has reported that among the top eleven books targeted by bans in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, four focused on LGBTQ+ narratives. These challenges, paired with the historic number of bills targeting LGBTQ+ people in state legislatures across the United States — with at least 566 bills ensnaring the broader LGBTQ+ community, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker — contribute to the normalization of repressing personal and artistic expression of queer people. As these policy attacks continue to advance, violence against the LGBTQ+ community has surged. 

And while O’Shae Sibley’s murder occurred in New York, a state that has passed no anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the most recent legislative session, his brutal killing shows just how pervasive the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative attacks on free expression in other states are, shaping a culture that spills across borders and impacting LGBTQ+ people throughout the country. Even states perceived to be supportive to the LGBTQ+ community, such as New York, are not immune to the cultural reach of anti-LGBTQ+ repression and intimidation: the home and office of Erik Bottcher, a gay city councilmember in New York City, was vandalized last December after he voiced support for Drag Story Hour, and more recently, a rainbow Pride flag at a Manhattan restaurant was intentionally lit on fire.

Political threats to LGBTQ+ expression, whether it be through restricting and chilling on-stage performance or making it virtually impossible to even acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ+ people in Florida and other states’ schoolshave and will continue to put LGBTQ+ people at risk everywhere, chilling their ability to express themselves and potentially even sending them back into the closet, which, at its core, is a form of self-censorship. 

A culture of free expression, where people can speak, write — or dance — free from fear of violence, is essential to a thriving democracy. LGBTQ+ people deserve to equally enjoy this right — through creative performance, gender expression, or displays of joy. The ongoing trend of legislative attacks on drag, attempts to label LGBTQ+ stories as “obscene,” and the accompanying trend of violent assaults on LGBTQ+ people are attacks on free expression and must be condemned as such.

Henry Hicks IV is the coordinator for PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression program. PEN America is committed to defending against attacks on LGBTQ+ free expression. 

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Commentary

Fly the Rainbow Flag in honor of Laura Ann Carleton, an LGBTQ ally

Murder in Cedar Glen, Calif., has sparked outrage around the country

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Laura Ann Carleton (Family photo shared on social media)

The Gilbert Baker Foundation mourns the Aug. 18 murder of Laura Ann Carleton, a gift shop owner in Cedar Glen, Calif. A longtime LGBTQ+ ally, Lauri was shot dead by a man who complained about the Pride flag displayed at her store. Carleton leaves behind a husband and nine children.

The world has reacted with anger to this shocking hate crime. But people should not be surprised. This is the inevitable conclusion of mounting Republican Party and conservative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. They label us as groomers, they lie that we are recruiting children. They ban our books, halt trans care, censor our school curricula. And all this hatred creates more hatred. Now it has led to the brutal and senseless murder of a straight woman whose only crime was to support her LGBTQ+ friends by flying a Pride flag.

The blood of Lauri Carleton is on the hands of every conservative politician who makes verbal and legislative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. Make no mistake; this horrendous crime is no isolated incident. Across the country the Rainbow Flag has been banned in 40 cities. Right-wing legislators have also tried to ban the flag nationally — over 30 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted for such a proposal earlier this year. This wave of censorship and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has created a climate ripe for hate crimes, and now a brutal murder in Cedar Glen.

The Gilbert Baker Foundation unequivocally condemns the rhetoric of hatred promoted by conservative and homophobic politicians. Words have consequences. Words of hate have even greater consequences. In memory of Lauri Carleton, the foundation asks every American to display a Rainbow Flag — at their homes, at their businesses — to let the haters across America.

Charles Beal is the president of the Gilbert Baker Foundation.

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Legal registration of NGOs is vital for advancing human rights of LGBTQ, intersex rights in Africa

Kenya and Eswatini groups have won legal victories this year

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(Photo by NASA)

By MULESA LUMINA, KAAJAL RAMJATHAN-KEOGH AND TANYA LALLMON | Upholding the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, other gender diverse and intersex (LGBTQI+) people remains a pivotal human rights concern across Africa. In recent years, despite significant but sporadic victories in several African courts affirming the human rights of individual members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to uphold LGBTQI+ rights, including their members’ right to freedom of association, many obstacles hinder such organizations’ ability to register with appropriate authorities in order to operate legally. 

As unpacked in a webinar organized by the International Commission of Jurists, such obstacles include bureaucratic red tape, a dearth of domestic laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) and the existence of criminal laws targeting and perpetuating discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. The severe anti-LGBTQI+ backlash from community and religious groups exacerbates the situation and compounds these obstacles, further undermining advocacy efforts. 

The Kenyan Supreme Court in February 2023 ordered that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission be allowed to register because the authorities’ initial decision to refuse registration was discriminatory and unconstitutional, violating the right to freedom of association solely because of the sexual orientation of the organization’s members. In June this year, the Supreme Court of Eswatini became the latest African apex court to rule in favor of registering a LGBTQI+ human rights NGO, directing the minister responsible for registering companies to reconsider his initial refusal because, procedurally, it violated the Constitution. While the Swazi Supreme Court’s ruling in the case did not necessarily rely on a clear statement upholding the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Eswatini, this remains a welcome decision. Seven years prior, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) on the grounds that the refusal to register LEGABIBO as an organization was unlawful and a violation of the right to freely associate. 

Still, across Africa, civil society organizations continue to oppose the denial of registration and seek redress for violations of the right to freedom of association of their members. Nyasa Rainbow Alliance (NRA), for instance, is one such organization with a pending decision in their legal quest for registration. NRA’s case is still awaiting hearing and determination by three judges of the Malawian Constitutional Court.   

The right to freedom of association is a fundamental foundation of any democratic society. Exercising this right by forming and legally registering NGOs is essential for enhanced advocacy since it allows organizations to apply for funding, operate bank accounts that hold these funds, employ staff, work with international partners, and access global and regional human rights mechanisms and fora. 

As noted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission) in its Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, the rights to freedom of association and assembly under the African Charter “are inextricably intertwined with other rights”. Further, in the matter mentioned above the Supreme Court of Kenya also emphatically stated, “[g]iven that the right to freedom of association is a human right, vital to the functioning of any democratic society as well as an essential prerequisite [for the] enjoyment of other fundamental rights and freedoms, we hold that this is inherent in everyone irrespective of whether the views they are seeking to promote are popular or not.” 

It goes without saying that human rights NGOs play a critical role in upholding democratic principles and safeguarding human rights by mobilizing collective action, holding governments accountable, offering direct assistance to victims of human rights violations, challenging discriminatory laws and policies and more. The Triangle Project, for example, is a South African NGO that has been instrumental in amplifying awareness of anti-LGTBQI+ hate crimes, influencing policy change and supporting victims. 

NGOs advocating for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, in particular, empower and protect these oft-marginalized individuals by offering awareness-raising platforms, connecting them with key stakeholders, and providing access to resources and services that might otherwise be denied to them. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many LGBTQI+ Africans were abruptly cut off from the NGOs that were their safe havens and sources of social and economic support. Additionally, amid increasing hostility towards LGBTQI+ persons in many African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, NGOs like the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) and LGBT+ Rights Ghana provide crucial protective spaces. 

Having legal status is also a prerequisite for holding observer status and participation in the sessions of bodies like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. However, the withdrawal of the Coalition of African Lesbians’ observer status by the African Commission and recent denials of such status to Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, Human Rights First Rwanda, and Synergía – Initiatives for Human Rights undermine the right to freedom of association and represent missed opportunities to ensure that the human rights of marginalized groups, including LGBTQI+ persons, are placed on the African human rights agenda.

Registration of LGBTQI+ human rights organizations in Africa is more than a matter of legal formality. It can be a significant step towards bolstering advocacy and promoting human rights for all. It is truly unconscionable that, in 2023, LGBTQI+ people continue to endure violence, persecution, discrimination and bigotry amid the reignited backlash against their human rights in multiple African countries. It is essential for governments to protect the right to freedom of association by dismantling barriers to registration and working closely with these groups to realize the human rights of all people. Only through collective efforts can we build an inclusive society that is able to guarantee the right to dignity of all persons and offer protection and non-discrimination to all.

Mulesa Lumina is the Legal and Communications Associate Officer for the International Commission of Jurists’ (ICJ’s) Africa Regional Program, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh is ICJ Africa’s Director and Tanya Lallmon is a former ICJ Africa intern. 

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