Thato Moletsi pauses for a while, mulling over my question: What ultimately led him, a transgender man, to take the Botswana government to court in a bid to have the gender marker on his ID changed from female to male?
“You know,” the 28-year-old teacher says, eventually, “I have been depressed before. I have tried committing suicide before. I eventually got to a point where I realised that, if I died, I would die in the eyes of the law as a woman. So, I told myself: ‘Either you die a woman or you live and fight for your recognition as a man.’ And there was no way I was going to continue living without fulfilling this dream. No way.”
It wasn’t easy. Moletsi (not his real name) initiated the court action in 2011. “Those seven years … it was a very, very tough road. There were times when I thought, ‘what will I do if this doesn’t swing my way?’ But I didn’t have an answer for that, so the only thing I kept thinking was, ‘this will go my way’.”
His dogged optimism paid off. In September last year, the Botswana High Court ruled in his favour, making him the first transgender person in the country to have a gender marker legally changed.
The judgment, delivered by Judge Nthomiwa Nthomiwa on September 29 last year, said: “Recognition of the applicant’s gender identity lies at the heart of his fundamental right to dignity. [The] state has a duty to respect and uphold the individual right to human dignity despite opposing and different views it might hold with regards to the applicant’s gender identity.”
The court noted with concern the “ongoing distress and discomfort experienced by the applicant when he is required to explain intimate details of his life to strangers whenever he seeks to access routine services”.
This, it found, resulted in “arbitrary interference or embarrassment and the intrusion of privacy faced by the applicant [which] may be avoided or minimised by the state by allowing him to change the gender marker on his identity document”.
A typical boy
“I always had to try and dodge bullets,” Moletsi says.
Fighting for recognition was, however, not always something he had to do.
“I had a happy childhood,” he says, smiling. “I realised I am a man when I was about four or five years old. I think I was in kindergarten. I still remember my childhood crush at the time. I was quite protective of her in the sandbox,” he laughs.
“I was your typical boy, who would be climbing trees and running around shirtless. That was my trademark: every day, after school, take my shirt off, run around with the neighbourhood kids. That was me, you know. People jokingly used to say, ‘This one should probably have been a boy.’ There was never any resistance from my parents.”
It was the advent of puberty “when things went downhill”.
“That was the time I realised my body was betraying me. I remember at school, when they were doing reproductive health talks with us pre-teens, I joined the boys’ line — because that was naturally the puberty I thought I was going to follow. But I was reminded very nicely that I was supposed to be in the girls’ line. And that sort of crushed me, in a way, because I was in a room where they were saying all these things I couldn’t relate to. I could not believe that I was actually going to go through all that stuff. It was not what I wanted or expected, which was male puberty. It devastated me,” he says.
His teen years spent “in a state of disarray and confusion”, Moletsi was eventually diagnosed with severe depression and gender dysphoria, the condition in which a transgender person has a conflict between their biological sex and the gender they identify with.
The day after his 21st birthday, after months of therapy that did not make a difference, Moletsi started his medical transition. It was then that his family —“who have always been supportive” — called a meeting.
“They pretty much wanted to understand what was happening with me — the transition and things — just so that they could be on board.”
His family no longer expects him to take on the roles traditionally executed by women.
“A relative of mine passed away recently. I went to the village where the funeral was to be held and woke up a little late one morning. I had overslept. My aunt came into the room, woke me up, poured some warm water into a bucket and told me to freshen up and catch up with the rest of the men to go and dig the grave. And that is traditionally what men do. She told me I should be there. That I must be there.
“It really was so humbling and endearing to hear that. To have somebody that close to you say that and in that manner was so, so affirming.”
Moletsi’s court challenge and the resultant judgment has already affected the lives of others. At least one other trans person in Botswana has successfully applied to change their official gender marker.
The Southern African Litigation Centre supported Moletsi’s case. The centre’s Tashwill Esterhuizen believes the judgment could have far-reaching consequences for the rights of trans people in Botswana and the region.
“Botswana can be seen as generally conservative so with rulings such as these countries with similar values to Botswana — such as Namibia, Zambia and Malawi — could eventually look to Botswana for direction on issues such as these,” says Esterhuizen.
It also affords activists in Botswana the opportunity to discuss policies with the government.
But Moletsi insists he is not an activist. “But I suppose not all activists have to be up there, in the front. Some can just be in the background, I suppose.”
For now, though, family is what is foremost on Moletsi’s mind. “I have met an amazing woman and we are thinking of getting married. And, yes,” he laughs, “I want a really big family.”
Recalling the day the judgment was handed down, he says: “There were so many postponements to them handing down the judgment. On that day, I couldn’t be in court because I just couldn’t take any more leave days. But they called me from the court and all I could hear them shouting was, ‘We won … We won!’”
The next day, the country celebrated Independence Day.
“I went back to my home village the morning after the ruling, because we had a family gathering planned for that day, to celebrate Independence Day as a family. That day was the first time I celebrated Independence Day, because for the first time in my life I felt like a true citizen of this country. There I was, celebrating independence — my country’s and my own — with my family. There is no greater way of celebrating. No greater way.”
Staring at his ID card, almost incredulously, he adds: “It’s really amazing how them changing one little thing on this could change so many things in my life.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G