By Leila Hall
A bold new set of billboards has appeared on the streets of Maseru, Lesotho. Against the multi-coloured backdrop of the LGBTI rainbow flag, the faces of five young Basotho stare down defiantly at passers by. A different face represents each of the identities in the LGBTI spectrum – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex. The images are amplified by strong, unflinching messages:
‘No country can grow leaving behind part of its society.’
‘Start now, invest in the LGBTI movement.’
‘Recognise my humanity before judging my sexuality.’
The billboards have been put up by The People’s Matrix Association, with funding from the AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA). The People’s Matrix is the only LGBTI rights organisation in Lesotho. Since its inception in 2008, it has fearlessly led the country’s emerging LGBTI rights movement with a variety of programs and activities, including media awareness campaigns, film screenings and discussions, dialogues with cultural and spiritual leaders and human rights trainings.
Tampose Mothopeng, Director of The People’s Matrix, says that the primary motivation behind the billboards is to encourage LGBTI individuals in the country to be visible and open about their sexuality.
“For us to have our faces on billboards was a way of saying: we are not hiding anymore, we are here as members of the LGBTI community and we don’t care what people are saying,” explains Mothopeng. “One of the people on the billboards is a radio presenter. It’s important to have a person with that kind of position in the media declare that “I’m gay” on a billboard. It sends a powerful message to people who are still in the closet and still struggling with their sexuality. We want to say to those people: don’t stay in that dark place. You don’t have to put your face on a billboard, but you can live openly as a member of the community.”
The billboards are also a courageous move in the midst of a political and legislative environment that remains far from conducive to LGBTI rights. Lesotho still prohibits male same-sex sodomy as a common law offence, and has no legislation that protects individuals against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We wanted to challenge people’s views towards the LGBTI community, and that includes challenging the government. By putting up the billboards we are saying ‘this is happening in Lesotho, not just within our organisation, but out there, in the country as a whole, this is happening.’ We also wanted to draw attention to the importance of investing in the LGBTI community. We are young, we have good ideas, and those need to be implemented to help the country grow. If the government of Lesotho is looking to invest in new ideas they also need to invest in the LGBTI movement.”
Mothopeng says that so far, there have been no negative reactions to the billboards. The People’s Matrix is currently preparing to host its fourth annual public march, to be held on Saturday 21 May in commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT). The march has steadily grown over the past few years, and this year Mothopeng is confident that at least 300 people will come out to show their support.
“We need to encourage people to speak out and be visible,” says Mothopeng. “We need people who are out there to speak out, to be brave enough to stand up and be who they are. It’s not about sitting in this office or being a member of an organisation. It’s about you, as a person, doing something wherever you are.”