Is ALL Love Equal in Namibia?

FRIDA Grantee Florence Khaxas (Young Feminists Movement Namibia) was recently featured in one of Namibia’s national newspapers. Here she shares her thoughts on love, life and the rights of young LBTIQ women in Namibia. 

Founder of Y-Fem Florence Khaxas

When Harry meets Sally it’s simple. He tells her he likes her and they go to the movies, or on a date where they can stare lovingly into each others eyes and hold hands. Even a certain amountof PDA (Public Displays of Affection) is allowed, and people tend to ignore them or envy them. But when Harry meets Harry, or Sally meets Sally, especially in Namibia-it’s whole other story, and it’s not as straightforward as it would be for Harry and Sally.

For years, if not decades unions and relationships in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) communities have always come under attack and presented as unnatural and weird. Everything from culture to religion is used to justify acts of hate and violence that are often carried out against women and men that identify themselves outside the male/female dichotomy. Last year, the first ever newly crowned  Mr Gay Namibia Wendelinus Hamutenya was assaulted and injured in a homophobic attack. Numerous other such incidences go unreported because many women and men are living in fear of their alternate sexual identities being discovered.  Many of Namibia’s leaders in the past have come out and spoken against same sex unions, with Elijah Ngurare recently comparing it to Satanism at a public platform. Not many people understand or can empathise with what it is like to be young, gay and Namibian, but maybe that’s what needs to be done to get more people to understand why the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender Namibians are important.

A different world
“When you are a lesbian in Namibia and your girlfriend beats you up or assaults you, you keep quiet. It’s hard for you to go to the police because they might laugh at you. The same happens when lesbian women are victims of corrective rapes-you can’t report it to the authorities. Whatever it is that’s already hard for women in Namibia is doubly difficult for lesbian women.”  Says Florence /Khaxas, director of the Young Feminists Movement of Namibia, or Y-Fem.  Corrective rapes in Namibia happen when men, either as individuals or in groups attack and rape lesbian women with the aim of ‘correcting’ them, or setting them ‘straight’. In many passing conversations, men have been heard saying that all lesbians need is a ‘good man’ to bring them back to their senses. Florence will be the first to tell you that no man, no matter how good, can ‘set her straight’. “My being a lesbian has nothing to do with men-but has everything to do with me being Florence. I adore men, I have wonderful cousins and friends that are men, but I love women. People tend to think that being a Lesbian only revolves around sex-but it’s bigger and more than that. And my identity as a lesbian feminist makes my lesbianism a political statement. “ You then find that there is a high incidence of alcohol abuse amongst the LGBTI community in Namibia, because you find people decide to drown their frustrations in alcohol. It’s hard being a lesbian in Namibia.”

In the book Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives, lesbian and former director of the rainbow project Madeline Isaacs writes; ‘Sexual contact between males is criminalized in Namibia under the common law offences of ‘sodomy’ and ‘unnatural sexual offences’.  Historically, sodomy was used to describe acts such as mutual masturbation, oral and anal sex between people and sex with animals, now only refers to anal sex between men. Unnatural offences however refer to mutual masturbation and sexual satisfaction between the legs of another person to name a few. This also only applies to men. These sexual acts are legal between a man and a woman and even between two women.’

President Barack Obama recently became the first US president ever to back the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. This announcement made headlines and obviously had the support of the LGBTI community all over the world, and in Namibia. But Obama’s statement does very little to change the situation of lesbian, trans and gay people in Namibia. The constitution of Namibia itself protects the rights of ALL Namibians in Article 10, where it says ‘No persons may be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status.’ But in the same breath transgender men and women have a hard time getting jobs they like because employers might have certain prejudices towards people with LGBTI identities. “

What’s changed
So what’s changed? Very little really. Fifty, maybe more years ago, relationships between black and white people in apartheid era South West Africa were criminalized. Racial differences between people were given centre stage and it was decided that any unions between people from different races was seen as unnatural and inappropriate. This is still the case today for LGBTI people in Namibia-their relationships are still not seen as legitimate, and the idea of a man falling in love with another man is still seen, by and large-as unnatural. As much as there is still much that needs fixing, Florence says that Social Networks have helped a lot, and that life for lesbians in big towns and cities such as Windhoek is not as bad is it is for women and girls in rural parts of Namibia.

“It’s easier to be ‘out’ in Windhoek, than it is in the rural areas because there are people to speak to and a community to belong to here. In the city no one really cares if you’re gay or not, but in rural settings women are victims of abuse and often have no recourse.  This makes rural lesbian women even more vulnerable to all kinds of maltreatment which is in turn justified by culture or religion.”

“From 2000 things changed in the LGBTI community, and have become less closeted. I came out in about 2006 and still then people were very closeted. But through FB people came out and more connections are made online. People have realized that we can’t sit in frustrated silence, and we have tools such as Facebook at our disposal now. More people are coming out and making connections now.”

What now?
It’s been twenty plus years and while South Africa has made big strides on the continent to recognize the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex people in their country. Marriage between same sex people in South Africa is legal, as it is in many other countries in Europe and some states in America despite these legal and constitutional protections, LGBTI people still experience a lot of abuse and discrimination. Will Namibia ever get to the space and place where lesbians and gay people can attain their full citizenship? “Maybe one day, but not anytime soon. Culture controls too much, and so does religion. There are many barriers to break through before we get there-but it happened in other countries and it can happen in Namibia too.