Botswanan trans-lesbian Prisca Mogapi knew he needed to come out to her family, but couldn’t find the right words. That all changed when a local newspaper outed him, thus jump starting his career as the African nation’s leading queer activist. Now Mogapi – who prefers to be called Skipper – works underground to fight Botswana’s queer repressions.
While we would have loved to sit down with Skipper, we had to settle for a brief, yet informative, email exchange in which Mogapi gabs about growing up in Botswana, how homophobic laws leave a lot of guess work and why the grass isn’t necessarily greener in gay-inclusive South Africa.
Read all about it, after the jump…
Can you first give us some background on your childhood in Botswana?
I was born in a small village called Gabane, which is about 35 kilometers from the capital city of Botswana. I am the third child of four: I have two elder brothers and one younger sister. I was born and raised by my single mother, but I spent more time with my grandmother.
Everyone in my family treated me as a girl child and they had a reason to rejoice to have a baby girl in the family. I grew up as a tomboy and my mother used to yell at me for playing with cars and playing football. When I was to start school, it was a problem because I was expected to wear a dress and I hated the dress. I hated it so much that I would rush home to change into shorts!
Can you describe your coming out? You said your family wanted you to be the “baby girl,” so it must have been a trying experience.
Coming out of the closet is not piece of fat cake. Everyone in school labeled me as lesbian even though I was not out. This really did not bother me – I took it as stepping stone. I did not know how to explain to my family how different I am to any other girls in the family. My family looks at me as a tomboy. My mother never thought there would be gay person in our family, although she knew about gays and lesbians. I never dreamed of telling anyone close to me, but the media disclosed me as they crashed the party that I threw with my partner.
The article was titled, “Homosexual party in Mmopane,” as well as my and my partner’s names in bold letters with our mobile numbers. When my family – especially mother – saw this newspaper, they didn’t want to hear anything from me for a long time. It was not easy. I was even scared to go to the shops thinking that people would notice that I am the person in the newspaper. Since then, I’ve started speaking out about LGBTI issues. I felt that there was a need for a voice, otherwise media will continue to mislead and continue to write articles that re-enforce stereotypes.
When did you first become aware of gay folk? What were you told as a child, if anything?
Well, I never knew the word used to describe gays and lesbians until I was 16 years old. I was at junior secondary school by then: most of the students used to make fun of me and discriminate me all the time. I was not aware of the words, but some students started calling me names like “faggot” and “gay.” I had to ask others what these words meant, so that’s when I learned. One thing that I do remember is that “gay” to the students was someone with both sex organs.
That’s a somewhat perfect segue for the next question: what challenges have you faced being trans in Botswana?
There are so many challenges I face as trans person in Botswana, like having to be stared at all the time and asked to identify yourself everywhere you go example using the public toilets, getting into a night club. At school I had problem with dress: I identified as a man and was expected to wear a dress all the time. It’s also hard to get a job. Although my papers show that am female, my physical appearance shows that am a man.
Do you consider yourself a religious person? If so, how do you reconcile your faith with a potentially exclusive religion?
I consider myself a religious person, yes. I was born and raised in a Catholic church, was baptized and did my first communion. My sexual orientation does not stop me from communication with God.