By Tsitsi Matope
MASERU — There is no turning back when it comes to defining himself as a man in a woman’s body.
The 32-year-old Matrix Support Group’s Dialogue and Advocacy Coordinator, Sheriff Mothopeng was named Lineo by his mother, who thought she had given birth to a female child. A few years later, Mothopeng rediscovered the “he” in her and insisted on defining his sexuality as transgendered.
His passion is educating the largely heterosexual society he lives in to understand and accept gender diversity.
It’s a battle he is willing to continue waging no matter the costs.
Matrix is a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Intersex support group (LGBTI) established in 2008 to address challenges faced by the community in Lesotho.
Its work over the years has stimulated debate on the rights of LGBTIs community.
However, despite efforts to fight stigma and discrimination, Lesotho has largely maintained its position to remain conservative, legally silent and “less supportive” of other sexual practices viewed as not defining Basotho.
In an interview this week, Mothopeng said the dangerous culture of silence has perpetuated secrecy and a cunningly hostile environment that does not accommodate sexual orientations that are different from heterosexual.
“It’s either you are male or female and nothing else,” Mothopeng said, adding “But then what happens when you are neither male nor female?”
Mothopeng also highlighted the support group’s current efforts aimed at tackling discrimination against LGBTIs and poor access to health services.
LT: What is your current focus following the support you have just started receiving from various developmental partners?
SM: Our major focus is on health rights and this is because our health needs are still not being responded to by most public health centres.
Our current initiatives are therefore advocacy for the creation of an environment that understands us and is broad-minded. This would make it easy for us to open up about our sexual orientation without fear of being discriminated against. We would like certain services that respond to our needs provided.
LT: What has been the experience of your members to warrant this advocacy?
SM: Well, the situation is generally bad. Some of our members who disclosed their sexual orientation in order for them to get appropriate services and have lived to regret doing so.
This is because, in most cases when we reveal who we are, the attitude of some caregivers changes. They begin to focus on personal issues, which we do not need to respond to.
It is a fact that some caregivers lack the capacity to deal with LGBTIs — maybe because they did not learn about our existence and how they should treat us. We are not asking for special treatment but would like to be treated with respect just like every other person. Some even laugh at us and end up robbing us of our patient-health provider confidentiality.
LT: Is this occurring even at privately-owned health centres and also those run by non-governmental organisations?
SM: We have not heard of such incidents at such facilities. The challenge when it comes to private-owned facilities is that not many of our members can afford such services.
However, we are partners with some NGO-run clinics such as the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) and the Population Service International (PSI) where both environments are friendly.
For example, LPPA has a male clinic in Maseru which tremendously responds to the needs of men having sex with other men (MSMs) while PSI distributes condoms and lubricants.
LT: Which other services do you need but are unavailable in the country?
SM: Well, lubricants for MSMs are not available at most public health centres especially in rural areas — except in few places in Maseru. Because of the biological make-up of some of our members, they need to undergo some medical hormonal procedures.
These medical procedures can be done in countries like South Africa. For some people, this can be viewed as a waste of resources but for people like me, who is growing beard and feels like a man but also have all female features, it is a big deal.
Some of our members would also want to be assisted to access reproductive technology services to have children and in Lesotho we do not have sperm banks or clinics where those who do not prefer natural insemination can undergo artificial insemination.
LT: What do you make of the difficulties you go through, that some societies do not accept that you are different?
SM: Some people think we are cursed but I don’t believe that,
SM: Who could have cursed us when we were created by God?
Just because I am a man in a woman’s body and don’t want to be with another man to fall pregnant does not mean I am cursed. What about people who are infertile, are they also cursed? What about all the contraceptives women take to stop having children, does it mean those babies are cursed too? What does God say? Well, I think people should come up with arguments stronger than that curse theory.
LT: Let’s talk about the difficulties you experience to access health services, some of which can mean life or death, What has been the impact on your members?
SM: It has been difficult for our members to consistently use protection because lubricants and dental-dams or rubber-dam, common among women who have sex with other women, are not readily available throughout the country (dental-dams are rectangular sheet of latex also used in dentistry, to reduce contamination. They are also used as a safe sex technique during other sexual activities.)
There is also generally fear to test for HIV and receive treatment even for other sexually transmitted diseases. This complicates our monitoring efforts and also weakens the battle against HIV and Aids in Lesotho.
This is because when systems do not acknowledge sexual diversity, they become ineffective.
LT: What efforts are you undertaking to have hard evidence that could help you convince stakeholders to provide the services you need?
SM: We have just completed a two months’ needs assessment whose findings we are going to share with various stakeholders including the ministry of health. We hope this is going to help them re-engineer their disease prevention strategies and other plans of action.
LT: Did the assessment show whether LGBTIs are on the increase?
SM: Yes the numbers are increasing in the different categories. Although many hide their sexual orientation, they come to us for support.
However, we are seeing increased confidence among people who for many years kept their sexual orientation a secret and are now opening-up. The funding we got this year is also helping to support such people.
Through alliances with partners such as the Sesotho Media and Development, we are also currently helping communities to understand who we are and also encourage those in hiding to disclose their sexuality.
LT: In what areas are you collaborating with the Sesotho Media and Development?
SM: Sesotho Media and Development is producing short documentaries on LGBTIs and other health-related issues to help build awareness, particularly in rural communities.
Some of our members are present during the screening of the short films to provide testimonials and help communities understand that people highlighted in the documentaries really exist. The aim is to help communities know where to go for support.
LT: What is the response?
SM: This campaign is mainly in the rural areas where information is hard to get. We are slowly seeing communities in areas we have screened the documentaries beginning to talk about LGBTIs and asking questions, which is a good sign. Communities have shown that they know that LGBTIs have always existed since time immemorial but many opt not to talk about it because of cultural traditions and religious beliefs.
LT: Do you feel not belonging to this society?
SM: Not at all. We have always existed and therefore we have always been part of this society’s way of life. Circumstances of life keep changing and so should the society’s approach towards LGBTIs.
LT: So where is the problem?
SM: We are a society that largely wants to appear conservative. Much of it is just for public appearances because we know there are some people who do the most disgusting acts in the name of culture. LGBTIs are not a danger to society but it is the society and its systems that hurt us in many ways.
LT: How are you hurt by the systems?
SM: Well for starters, my passport says my gender is female and when I am travelling, some immigration officers get curious when they look at me and argue about my gender.
I was searched to verify my gender once. Another thing is that, people like me cannot use male toilets and each time I enter a female toilet, which I can only use because of my biological design, there are some problems. Why can’t we have unisex toilets?
LT: So there is also some form of hostility towards LGBTIs in the urban areas?
SM: Yes, because the majority of people have not accepted us — and the way many people look at us just says it all. There are also mixed sentiments over our sexual identity — and these are mostly discriminatory.
LT: Let’s talk about the current government. What are the chances of them collaborating with you?
SM: The experience we have had with the previous government is that they listened to us and even facilitated discussions through various ministries but it ended there.
We suspect the discussions were not out of a genuine cause to help us. We need the current government to prove to us that they care by pronouncing their position in this matter.
LT: Do you think the attitude by the previous government could have been caused by limited resources or that LGBTIs issues were not a priority?
SM: Yes, we analysed the trends and realised that we were not a priority. What we know is that where there is donor-funding governments are likely to even make laws in a few months.
The previous government did it with the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, which was enacted without understanding how it was going to be operationalised. We have seen that, the previous government acted faster where there was financial support.
However, the danger in moving fast in a poorly prepared environment or society is the sustainability of programmes or mindsets. We want society to accept and understand us.
LT: Do you think the transformation is near?
SM: I am not seeing positive change coming anytime soon. It all has to start from the head, which is the government. If the government can’t accept or act in a manner that shows we are part of this society, this would generally shape people’s thinking and attitudes towards us.
Sadly, the thinking of this largely heterosexual society when it comes to LGBTIs is very negative.