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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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Is Nigeria’s anti-LGBTQ crackdown only meant for the poor?

Wealth and fame can shield one from prosecution in the country

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(Bigstock photo)

The Nigeria Police Force in Delta State a few weeks ago arrested more than 67 suspected gay men for attending an alleged gay wedding. Authorities received a tip, they interrogated those arrested and suspicions were cemented on the basis that some of these young men crossed-dressed. 

“We’re bringing this out to the world to note, especially Nigerians, that we’re in Africa and Nigeria. We cannot copy the Western world,” Deputy Police Supt. Bright Edafe said. “We’re in Nigeria, and I can guarantee that the suspects will be charged to court.” 

Although these young men have since been released, this situation in Nigeria underscores a glaring paradox: A country that boasts a growing number of queer celebrities — many of whom have embraced crossdressing as part of their persona — maintains harsh legal actions against less privileged queer youths who express their identities. This unequal treatment sends a damaging message to the broader queer community; perpetuating a cycle of discrimination, fear and inequality.

In a nation marked by its vibrant culture and diversity, Nigeria’s anti-gay laws stand as a stark contradiction to the principles of tolerance and inclusivity. These laws not only criminalize same-sex relationships, but have also given rise to a troubling disparity in their enforcement. It has disproportionately targeted the poor, transgender individuals and crossdressers, while seemingly ignoring high-profile celebrities who freely express their identities.

Bobrisky, one of Nigeria’s most popular crossdressers who built a large following off of this lifestyle, went on their social media to probe the arrested crossdressers for openly presenting that way. 

“I strongly believe you guys can learn from those A-list,” they wrote. “Firstly, there’s a law passed against you guys that you can’t marry yourselves in this country, why the hell did you call yourselves together to organize a wedding?”

“That is the dumbest news I have ever read this week. You all deserve how you all were treated, sad truth. If you feel you are in love with your partner and you want to be together, why not relocate to where you are welcome,” they continued. 

One would think that they were able to make comments like this because they didn’t crossdress; but when you have enough financial and social privilege to wriggle your way out of situations for which your counterparts would otherwise be prosecuted, you would think that the law doesn’t apply to you. 

Then-President Goodluck Jonathan in February 2014 passed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which legalized the prosecution of anyone who shows sexual relations with the same sex. Nigerian MPs in April 2022 pushed to update the SSMPA with a bill that would essentially criminalize crossdressers and force them to face six months in prison, or pay a fine of $1,200. 

The measure has yet to become law.

This targeting of transgender people and crossdressers by the Nigerian government is a distressing reality. These individuals often find themselves marginalized, not just socially, but also legally. Raids, arrests and harassment are commonplace for them, making it a daily struggle to live authentically. In a nation where gender expression should be celebrated as a testament to its cultural diversity, it is disheartening to witness these citizens ostracized and penalized for embracing their true selves.

On the other hand, the celebrities who have made crossdressing a part of their public image appear to exist in a different realm. They enjoy a level of visibility and fame that grants them an element of protection. Whether it’s due to their financial resources or their connections, they often escape the legal consequences that ordinary queer Nigerians face. This glaring contrast between the treatment of high-profile celebrities and everyday individuals exposes the systemic inequalities that persist in Nigeria’s legal system.

The implications of this disparity are profound. It sends a troubling message that wealth and fame can shield one from persecution, while those without such privileges bear the brunt of discriminatory laws. This perpetuates a culture of fear and silence among the less privileged queer community, preventing them from fully expressing their identities and participating in society without the constant threat of persecution.

Nigeria must engage in a profound societal dialogue surrounding the unequal treatment of its queer citizens to address this issue. It is crucial to question the legitimacy of laws that infringe upon the fundamental human rights of individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. By sparking these meaningful conversations, we can begin to dismantle the harmful stereotypes and prejudices that fuel this disparity in treatment.

Nigeria’s anti-gay laws not only defy the principles of tolerance and inclusivity, but also expose a disconcerting imbalance in their enforcement. The stark contrast between the leniency shown to high-profile celebrities who embrace crossdressing and the harsh legal actions taken against less privileged queer youths sends a damaging message to the broader queer community. It is time for Nigeria to address this injustice, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society where all its citizens can embrace their identities without fear of persecution.

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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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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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