Tampose Mapotheng has a cold. His lymph nodes are swollen, and it’s a bit uncomfortable for him to talk in the air-conditioned hotel in Washington, D.C., where he is attending a conference. But when I ask him to tell me about himself, Mapotheng’s voice grows strong, with a composure that belies his 28 years.
“I’m from Lesotho,” Mapotheng says assuredly. “I’m a human rights defender. I’m a transsexual man.”
These three facts sum up the life and goals of the slight young man who was born female and who traveled to America for the first time in July. He’s part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which invited community organizers to learn leadership and organization skills at American universities.
While most participants in the program are interested in economic development, Mapotheng’s passion is human rights, specifically for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans/intersex (LGBTI) community.
Ever since he was a child, Mapotheng had nagging doubts about being a girl. It’s only been for four years that Mapotheng has both publicly and personally identified as a man, and he acknowledges he has much to learn about who he really is.
A key reason for this relatively late awakening, he says, is a lack of education: “I didn’t know how to identify myself and also did not want the community to misinterpret me.”
Mapotheng’s coming out was a prolonged process. The catalyst was a 2010 trip to South Africa for an LGBTI conference. It was there he realized that wanting to be male wasn’t strange but rather a sign that he was a transsexual.
“In Lesotho, in previous years, we didn’t know about gender identity,” Mapotheng explains. “We only knew about sexual orientation. I struggled to define myself. It wasn’t easy for me. It was very confusing.
“When you come out, it’s … hard,” Mapotheng continues. “You think, ‘What is this going to say about me? Am I strong enough to protect myself?’ ”
He means protection from both discrimination and physical abuse aimed at those who openly embrace their LGBTI identity. Victims of violence often do not inform the police lest they be ostracized. Nonetheless, Mapotheng believes that more of his LGBTI countrymen and countrywomen are now unafraid to speak out.
Mapotheng’s activism began in his teen years. He didn’t know if he was gay or straight at the time, but he was definitely concerned about the backlash against people who identified as gay. He became involved in Matrix, then the biggest LGBTI advocacy group in Lesotho, hoping to not only find himself but to help the movement gain traction.
Mapotheng’s coming out was isolating. His parents didn’t allow him to stay in their home and, he lost friends he thought he could count on; many in the community were hostile.
“There’s a lot of discrimination, a lot of pressure from religious groups,” says Mapotheng. “It’s not really physical, it’s more emotional. They call you names or talk about you. Health and housing departments tell you they don’t have services for transgender people.”
It’s Mapotheng’s first time in America and he is enjoying his time here, learning about leadership strategies at the University of Delaware. He hopes to use this knowledge to create community organizations for LGBTI youth – and to be a more effective leader.
“Back home, it is difficult to meet [politicians and bureaucrats],” Mapotheng says. He wants to reach out directly to bureaucrats to accomplish his goals, a move he hadn’t thought of before. He also wants to help others who face discrimination, “whether they are disabled or sex workers or female.”
But he’s not that good on the details of his grand plan. When pressed, he laughingly comments, “You ask tough questions!”
Indeed, he best sums up his vision when describing his efforts as an amateur photographer.
“I enjoy being behind the camera,” Mapotheng says. “I love taking beautiful photos of landscapes and people. I just like capturing people when they are happy and whole.”