LGBTI Namibians speak out.
I am what I am
During the week, several events were held at different venues to raise awareness on issues impacting the lives of LGBTI people. The week began with the launch of a photo exhibition by Gina Tibinyane, a trp volunteer who has travelled the country and immortalised images of Namibians who live their lives out and proud. The pensive and smiling faces engage, and a pair of old sneakers, abandoned on a rubbish dump in a small northern town, led Gina to write a poem called I am what I am which states that regardless of the challenges people place in her path, she just grows stronger and more proud.
Guest speakers at the launch were renowned local photographer Tony Figueira, and Jo Rogge, Director of Big Issue Namibia, who shared her personal journey of being an out and proud lesbian woman. trp board member Reverend George du Toit offered a Bible scripture and prayers, keeping to trp's tradition of launching and closing the week with Christian rituals, cognisant of the high number of LGBTI Christians.
Unlike at past events of this kind, this year's awareness week was attended by many LGBTI people from other regions of Namibia, mostly from small towns. This was in line with this year's objective to introduce the rainbow project to the rest of the country's LGBTI community. A workshop was held on Thursday, with discussions on the role of trp and local activists including the planning of regional activities and events, which ended with the painting of posters for the Out and Proud march held on the Friday morning.
Is this equality and justice?
On Thursday evening, a panel discussion focussed on the topic of "LGBTI people in the workplace, where do we stand now?" with UNAM academic and lawyer Dr. Nico Horn, LAC Director Norman Tjombe, NSHR's Chief Administrative Officer Dorkas Nangolo and a member of Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights, Otto Saki, leading the discussion. It emerged that the only legal instrument in Namibia that recognised and protected sexual minorities, namely the Labour Act of 2000, is undergoing yet another redrafting, with many believing that the changes are for the worse. For sexual minorities this is certainly the case, since the clause prohibiting discrimination at the workplace no longer refers explicitly to sexual orientation as a protected status.
All panelists agreed that this is lamentable; they however emphasised that Namibia's Constitution, as well as international legal instruments, protocols and conventions Namibia has signed, provide ample grounds for a challenge when such discrimination does occur. The Frank case was also discussed, which involved the Supreme Court rejection of the right of Sister Namibia Director Liz Frank to permanent residence based on her longstanding relationship with her lesbian partner. Tjombe and Horn agreed that the outcome of this case was an injustice and that it did not consider constitutional provisions and the human rights of sexual minorities.
There were also questions and discussions on sexual orientation being a choice versus a status; the right to marriage; tolerance; the constitutional right to equality and the need for the judicial system to reexamine itself; and for officers of the court to receive training or refresher courses on issues of human and socio-economic rights and constitutional law.
But compared to Zimbabwe ...
Comparatively, Namibia is probably better off than Zimbabwe when it comes to sexual minorities and the effectiveness of the judicial system. This was evident when Saki shared his trials as a human rights lawyer in the land of Robert Mugabe and his cronies, where people tell you "I obey political orders and not court orders." The question of what makes a human rights activist also came up when he shared the impact of the eviction of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) from a meeting between government and civil society on a proposed Human Rights Commission. GALZ had been a main role player in this process from the beginning, but no other NGO partner left the meeting in solidarity or disagreement. One then wonders whether, for some activists, the protection of human rights applies only when it refers to their own.
At around midday on the Friday, Windhoek's busy CBD was teeming with people whose preoccupations were interrupted by a loud group of people singing, shouting and dancing their way along Independence Avenue, waving Namibian and rainbow flags and provocative slogans on posters. Afterwards the group gathered in Zoo Park and participants shared thoughts on the current struggle and how far trp has come, as well as messages of hope, as park loungers and passersby paid an attentive ear.
The birth of liberation
Friday evening was an entertainment highlight with the theme 'Celebrating Our Voice', when trp activists and local artists gave poetry, music and storytelling performances. Hosted by trp Information Officer Linda Baumann and Corry du Plessis from Katutura Community Radio at the Nedbank Theatre School, the evening also saw the local premier of trp's 13-minute documentary, The Birth of Liberation. The faces and voices on the video were greeted with eardrum shattering and soul shaking roars from the audience, manifesting their overwhelming sense of pride, identity and kinship in trp, and giving this reporter goosebumps. The rainbow project's website: www.trp.org.na was also officially launched during the event.
Saturday evening was just another excuse to party at the Warehouse Theatre, under the theme Connecting you to the World, with stunningly-gowned drag artists performing and strutting their stuff. Despite partying till late, many participants joined the official closing of the Awareness Week on Sunday afternoon with a Spiritual Celebratory Service led by Reverend Lynita Conradie of the Methodist church.
Reaching out to intersex Namibians
A very tired Ian Swartz, Director of trp, told Sister Namibia at the end of the week that the organisation had recently decided to add the capital I, standing for intersex people, in their slogan. While the organisation was aware that it had not yet provided much attention to the needs of transgender people, trp felt that it was also important to start reaching out to intersex people - people born with both female and male sexual organs and/or other biological characteristics.
Ian was particularly encouraged by the large number of empowered LGBTI youth participating in the events, and the fact that more heterosexual people were feeling comfortable to attend. "This is important because we want to create more awareness and ensure that our issues are properly understood. It is also great seeing our members connecting with friends and feeling good abut who they are," he said.
Big plans for the future
trp will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year, and a bigger and better Awareness Week is planned. Its theme will be "Straight Talk with Straight Friends", with LGBTI Days planned for Oshakati, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, Keetmanshoop and smaller towns such as Aranos.
A glossy publication featuring 1000 images of out and proud LGBTI people accompanied by their own writings in their own languages is also planned.
One of the most exciting upcoming events is the opening of a satellite office in Oshakati, in partnership with Ibis-Yelula. The office will focus on awareness raising, public education, and leadership development among LGBTI northerners. Residents of Gobabis, Walvis Bay and Keetmanshoop can also look forward to similar developments in their towns soon.
trp has come a long way from an organisation that in past years was run in fear of attacks on and arrests of its members. The fact that they can today speak out and proudly present themselves without fear is a major feat in itself, and reflects the successful impact of past Awareness Weeks.