When it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, I sometimes feel Namibia (in common with Sub-Saharan Africa generally) has come a long way. At other times it seems we haven’t made any progress at all.
I read an article in a local newspaper recently, in which queer activists said that LGBT people are still oppressed in various ways. These claims were put to spokespeople of leading Namibian political parties, and the upshot is, few if any of them took the activists’ concerns even the slightest bit seriously.
A spokesman of the Congress of Democrats (COD) was quoted as saying that gay couples’ demands to have the same rights to civil marriage as heterosexuals were ‘unnatural’. The Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) reportedly expressed similar views. What happened to these supposedly social-democratic, progressive parties that Namibian patriots sacrificed so much to build in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Meanwhile, none other than President Geingob was quoted in the article implying that LGBT people are not oppressed at all and have nothing to worry about. Despite actual queer people saying something entirely different.
As someone who has lived in Namibia and South Africa my whole adult life, this national conversation saddened me, but didn’t surprise me.
When I was an undergraduate at Rhodes University in the late 1990s, this kind of talk was all too common. Phrases like ‘perversion’ and ‘sickness’ were used very casually by many of my fellow students around the dining table at the hostel.
At least in my first year, I’m ashamed to say that I often kept quiet, or even felt they might have a point. It took my second, third and fourth years, and actually having bisexual and gay young men as neighbors and housemates, for me to question my homophobia - to read more, to listen more, to question cultural norms.
All this in a supposedly ‘liberal’ South African university, which at the time was claimed to be more ‘welcoming’ to LGBT people than the more conservative campuses such as Stellenbosch and Pretoria.
At first glance, President Geingob may seem to have a point. Namibia has had few of the horrific gang rapes and murders of lesbian women, which are a regular occurrence in South African townships. As a journalist in the early 2000s, I once reported on young men in central Windhoek literally being locked up for wearing earrings - something that, as far as I know, would be unheard of today.
But it’s not for Geingob, or me, cisgender people in heterosexual relationships, to make that call.
In truth, we have no idea what it is to grow up living in fear of your most intimate feelings being exposed. We’ve no idea what it’s like to be a devout Christian and go to a church where the pastor considers you an ‘abomination’. We’ve no idea what it might be like to be a homosexual survivor of domestic violence, and be unable to make a case because you know the cops will chase you out of the police station.
Many of us may be tempted to see transgender people as a kind of joke, a European Christmas pantomime where men play women’s roles for laughs. Yet again, we’ve no idea of the unchosen hell that is having a gender or sexual identity that doesn’t match the one you were assigned at birth.
If you read books like Ifi Amadiume’s ‘Male Daughters, Female Husbands’ or Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s ‘The Invention of Tradition’, you start to wonder how many patriarchal ‘African traditions’ are actually more from Victorian England or Napoleonic France or the Kaiser’s Germany. Even if they are 100 per cent ours, tradition and culture are not static; they should move with the times.
Many straight Namibians seem to feel that the LGBT ‘agenda’ is about queering our whole society - and making us all gay. In fact, it is about querying our whole society - asking the questions most of us would rather not ask.
It’s only by asking difficult questions, after all, and dealing with the unpleasant answers, that we will grow as a people, and thereby become more generous, tolerant, prosperous, and understanding.
Hugh Ellis is a poet and a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. All views expressed here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com