MASERU — He was a hero among the gay community in South Africa.
But he died young, at the age of 41, of an Aids-related illness in 1998.
His name was Simon Nkoli.
Today, 13 years after hisdeath South Africa and the region recognises the key role he played in advancing the rights of gays.
A street in Pretoria has since been named after Nkoli in honour of the work he did.
South African is the only country in Africa that recognises gay rights.
Gays are regarded as part of society and their sexual rights are protected by a constitutional clause.
But for gays in Lesotho life is tough.
They say they are still to enjoy such rights in their own country.
They complain of discrimination by ordinary people, government officials and even family members.
All this because of their different sexual orientation, they say.
Gays in Lesotho say they are often the subject of verbal barbs with people calling them “moffis” and “stabane”, highly offensive terms.
But the gay community in Lesotho is preparing to fight back.
The first step, they say, is by conscientising the government and local communities that they are normal people who just happen to be attracted to people of the same sex.
“Gay rights are human rights. We do not advocate special gay or lesbian rights. We want to be respected for who we are,” says Monaheng Khoele, the programmes manager at Matrix Support Group, an organisation for lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, transgender and inter-gender individuals in Lesotho.
Khoele was speaking to about 200 lesbians and gays who were gathered in Sterkinekor Cinema 4 at Pioneer Mall in Maseru on Tuesday for the screening of a documentary titled Simon and I.
The documentary celebrates the life of gay activist Nkoli.
The screening of the documentary was part of activities organised by Matrix to mark the International Day Against Homophobia.
The day is observed every year on May 17.
Khoele says it was on this day when the World Health Organisation (WHO) removed homosexuality from a list of disabilities.
It is no surprise that most gays in Lesotho and South Africa identify with the character of Simon in the documentary.
But unlike Simon, a free-spirited individual who spoke freely at rallies and in the media, most gays in Lesotho are still living in the closet.
“Sexual orientation is a passion. It comes from the inside.
“Homosexuals are not crazy people. We were born this way and we are proud of who we are,” says Tampose Mothopeng, a gay activist with Matrix.
According to information from Matrix, Lesotho is generally a hostile environment for gays.
For instance most gays have no access to basic health services, even when they are sick.
This is precisely why individuals like Simon succumbed and still die from Aids-related illnesses.
A study of sexual minorities in Lesotho conducted last year shows that homosexuals were at high risk of contracting HIV.
“It is clear that there exist men who have sex with other men and women who have sex with other women in Lesotho who report high-risk HIV practices,” the report says.
The report says sexual minorities were also failing to access HIV prevention programmes.
It is even harder for gays and lesbians in Lesotho to report cases of abuse to the police.
Most suffer in silence, the report says.
“Lesbians are being raped by men who want to prove to them (lesbians) that they are not men,” Khoele told the Lesotho Times.
Most cases of physical abuse of sexual minorities go unreported, he says.
“We live in fear of being attacked by people who do not understand homosexuality.
“It is a taboo in our communities. We suffer discrimination even in our homes,” Khoele says.
He says it is even difficult to walk in the streets without some people passing suggestive and offensive comments about their appearance and sexual orientation.
But the gay community in Lesotho says it now wants to speak out more forcefully against these abuses.
The days of living in the closet are over, they say.
“It’s high time we confront our challenges. We feel we have been left out for too long. That is about to come to an end.
“We are going to make ourselves heard from now on,” said another gay activist.
He however declined to be named in one of the clearest indications of the difficulties and challenges for the gay community.
He was speaking in an interview following the screening of the documentary at Pioneer Mall on Tuesday.
“We are all God’s children. We do things and pray like everybody else,” he said.
He however said the violence targeted at sexual minorities must stop.
He also said the government must provide enough customised condoms for gays to stop the transmission of HIV.
Churches, most of which teach an anti-gay gospel, must also learn to accept that they too are also God’s children, he said
The principal secretary in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights Retšelisitsoe Masenyetse says the government is still trying to understand the whole phenomenon of homosexuality.
“Lesotho is trying to understand what homosexuality is whether it is a choice or a biological condition.
“We have sent a top lawyer to Pretoria who is going to learn more about homosexuality.
“Once we have learned and understood the practice, we can then make informed decisions on how to help or support them,” Masenyetse says.
Masenyetse says the country’s constitution currently protects the rights of everyone regardless of sexual orientation.
“Government depends on the constitution when dealing with every citizen’s rights. It talks about fundamental human rights.
“Every person is entitled to the right to life and we respect that. That is why we don’t arrest them (homosexuals),” he said.