Tough times for LGBTI in Namibia too

By Gwen Lister | May 04th, 2013
Anti-LGBTI rhetoric often claims that it is unAfrican and comes from the West
Anti-LGBTI rhetoric often claims that it is unAfrican and comes from the West

One thing is for sure. It is still not easy to be gay in Africa. Even against the background of growing acceptance and acknowledgement of human rights across the continent, the topic of homosexuality remains beyond the pale. And when it is discussed, it inevitably gets the political blood pressure boiling.

In southern Africa, the position of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party on the subject is well known. But controversy also continues to rage in countries like Zambia, where there has been a recent surge in anti-gay rhetoric, and Botswana, where the authorities are refusing to register a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) group. And it remains to be seen whether leaders with a more progressive bent, such as Joyce Banda of Malawi, will have the courage to turn things around by striking anti-gay laws from the statue books and promoting the rights of gays and lesbians in their countries.

Meanwhile, the 'gay' issue still sparks huge amounts of controversy and conflict in Namibia and in between periods of calm, it doesn't take much for homophobia to rear its ugly head once again. At times, it also seems to be conveniently used to distract public attention from the government’s lack of accountability and poor performance.

Only recently the issue was again in the political forefront when a former Mr Gay Namibia, Wendelinus Hamutenya, was virtually forced into hiding with the United Nations, and had an alleged price put on his head, after he was said to be the author of a list 'outing' prominent gay Namibians. Hamutenya, in an opinion piece in a local weekly newspaper entitled 'To be or not to be gay', said he wanted to encourage public debate on the issue by 'naming and shaming' high-ranking officials he said were gay. While the 'list' of names he had allegedly given the local newspaper was not published, the rumour mill nevertheless immediately went into overdrive and before long speculation was rife, especially on social media platforms.

Quick to defend his 'good name and reputation', a prominent local lawyer held a press conference to deny that he was gay, and to warn about the possible legal repercussions of such allegations – all the time stressing that he was not homophobic. Other officials said to have been named have apparently contacted the police and laid complaints, and the investigation continues. Quite where it will end at this stage is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile Out-Right Namibia (ORN), which lobbies for the human rights of LGBTI Namibians, condemned Hamutenya's actions, saying that constructive debate wasn't possible if individuals who chose not to declare their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination were named and shamed. "The reality is that we live in a society where alternative sexual orientations or genders are frowned upon," they noted.

Hamutenya, who has now been stripped of his Mr Gay Namibia title, had only recently reconciled with his own family after years of being an outcast. As an 18-year-old youth who told his father he was gay, he had immediately been packed off to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. He's also been beaten up and abused for his sexual orientation.

Sadly his story is very far from unique as homosexuality continues to be perceived as 'unAfrican' and an unwelcome European import to the continent.

Many politicians have fanned the flames of anti-homosexual sentiment over the years – as politicians in Zambia are currently doing – and former Namibian President Sam Nujoma was one of the most outspoken. At various times, he called for the 'rejection' and 'condemnation' of homosexuality by Namibian society, while also saying that police had been ordered to 'arrest, imprison and deport' gays. Another prominent Cabinet Minister, Jerry Ekandjo, took hate speech to another level when he went to the extent of calling for gays to be 'eliminated'.

Most recently, as news spread of a gay couple who had married in South Africa and returned to Namibia, the Secretary of the Youth League of the ruling SWAPO party, Elijah Ngurare, posted a tweet saying that “The socalled first gay marriage in Namibia is an abomination and illegal. It is moral decay at its worst, the police must arrest them.”

Although Namibia has a Constitution with an inalienable Bill of Rights, it also still has a shocking sodomy law in place, which was enacted under South African rule way back in 1927. There appears to be no immediate move to rescind it on the part of politicians, and so it will probably be up to the Legal Assistance Centre or another NGO to mount a court challenge in the future to finally get this law repealed.

Meanwhile, as Linda Baumann of Out-Right Namibia confirms, many gay men will continue to enter 'straight' marriages to bow to convention, while lesbians will continue to face the very real threat of rape from men seeking to 'cure' them. And unsurprisingly – given the prevalent prejudice and the often hostile and violent public reactions to the 'gay' issue whenever it surfaces – most gay Namibians will continue to be hesitant and afraid of openly acknowledging their sexuality.

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