This online talk was part of the series “Leave no one behind! – Development cooperation and LGBTI perspectives“
Documentation of the online talk on 10 December 2020
Liz Frank, programme manager for the Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC), Windhoek, Namibia, spoke with Martina Backes, editor and staff member at iz3w for the South-North political magazine of the same name.
Martina Backes: Let’s talk about LGBTI activism in Namibia. It’s a country where very many LGBTI people are fighting for recognition of their rights and against the violence that takes both interpersonal and institutional forms. They’re also working to combat speech, images and language that help prevent the advancement or even recognition of their rights.
The LGBTI community in Namibia is very active, as was evident on Twitter over recent weeks. Under the hashtag #Shutitalldown, young feminists organised a protest to demand that the state investigate the murder of a young woman. It’s a very sad case, with the remains of a missing woman found in a shallow grave. Demands to investigate this murder included calls for a state of emergency due to the many femicides and high incidence of gender-based violence. This shows that the state or the government has failed to address the issue or done so only inadequately.
The Women’s Leadership Centre’s varied programme is also an indication of how active the community is.
A look at Namibia’s eventful history reveals a great many activities. The Sister Namibia feminist NGO was founded just prior to independence from South Africa in 1989/1990. Since 1993 it has also been working to advance the rights of lesbians. Today is Women’s Day in Namibia. Exactly 61 years ago, Anna Kakurukaze Mungunda, a member of the Namibian independence movement, lost her life in an uprising against the apartheid regime of the time. By the way, there’s a street in Berlin called Petersallee after Carl Peters, who was very active in the German colonial period and was known as “Hängepeters” because of the many hangings he ordered. One part of it will now be renamed Anna-Mungunda-Straße.
Germany claimed Namibia as a colony until the end of the First World War. Namibia is also the country where Germany committed its first genocide of the 20th century. It’s a very sad story, and the brief but brutal colonial period left a very strong impression on Namibians’ collective memory.
Liz, you’ve lived in Namibia for 30 years with your Namibian life partner. You have years of experience as the editor-in-chief of Sister Namibia magazine published by the organisation of the same name. In 2011 you became the programme manager for the Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC). Your organisation is very active – and especially so over recent weeks. What type of symbolic importance does Namibian Women’s Day have in Namibia?
Liz Frank: Unfortunately the day is not very important at all. We focus more on International Women’s Day on March 8. The Namibian Women’s Day falls on 10th December, which is also International Human Rights Day, which receives much more attention from all political parties and organisations. In fact, nothing is done to mark Namibian Women’s Day aside from a government ad in the paper against gender-based violence. But the Women’s Leadership Centre decided to meet today with the young women who staged our 4th Namibian Lesbian Festival to review the festival. We had held workshops twice a week last month to prepare for it. So we’ll mark Namibian Women’s Day this evening with their songs and poetry.
Martina Backes: We want to talk about what kinds of activism you do, and how Germany, as a country that bears special responsibility, can help promote LGBTI rights. But let’s start with some basics. What is the legal situation right now? What differences are there among different groups of people, like what rights do lesbians and trans people have?
Liz Frank: In 1990 the country adopted a very progressive constitution, which stipulates equal rights for all. Discrimination based on sex is prohibited. But unfortunately the constitution doesn’t prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. In this respect the Namibian constitution differs from that of South Africa, which was adopted in 1996. The struggle for LGBTI rights was a lot further along there. Namibian LGBTI people were not yet organised and missed the chance to get equal rights for themselves explicitly enshrined in the constitution. That would have impacted the legal proceedings about my residence permit in Namibia. A brief digression on my personal situation: I came to Namibia from Bremen through my work with the anti-apartheid movement, in what was the week of independence celebrations in March 1990. During that week I met and fell in love with my partner Elizabeth, and we’ve been together for 30 years. In 1997 I had to apply for a permanent residence permit, which was rejected without grounds. Subsequent applications were also rejected. I ended up going to court with support from the Legal Assistance Centre. We won in the High Court, but the Supreme Court overturned the decision. It didn’t want to set a precedent allowing residence permits for lesbian couples. We lost the case in the Supreme Court on the grounds that there’s nothing in the constitution about sexual orientation.
In 1992 a very progressive labour protection law was passed that specifically prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Parliamentarians had apparently been sleeping on the job when a progressive jurist inserted that clause. But a few years later the law was revised and the clause was removed.
Our very modern law against domestic violence explicitly excludes same-sex relationships. That type of active discrimination has run like a common thread in parliament and the courts since independence. It means that if there’s violence in a same-sex relationship and a lesbian goes to the police for help she’ll just be ridiculed and denigrated. Although lesbians are not criminalised in Namibia, there’s a Combating of Immoral Practices Act from the apartheid period that specifically criminalises sexual relations between two men. It hasn’t been applied since independence, but it still hangs over gay male relationships like the sword of Damocles.
And because gay male sex is still criminalised, former president Sam Nujoma could simply claim that “homosexuality is illegal in Namibia.” That claim covered lesbians too and caused considerable uncertainty in lesbian relationships. The Combating of Immoral Practices Act also criminalises prostitution. This affects trans women in particular, who, in the absence of other ways to support themselves, are on streets and subject to considerable police violence. Last year a number of apartheid-era laws were abolished in one fell swoop, but not this act. It’s still used by conservative parliamentarians to claim they can’t change anything here because homosexuality is illegal. For decades we experienced a lot of hate speech and public discrimination by leading politicians, mainly from the ruling party Swapo . Today, politicians are largely silent about LGBTI issues in public.
Yet there has also been some positive change, especially in the healthcare sector due to funding from the US government to prevent HIV. The Western model is applied here, namely the idea that gay men, trans people and sex workers are the main carriers and transmitters of HIV. From this it follows that although these groups are still criminalised in Namibia, they still have to be included in HIV prevention programmes. In order to avoid using terms like “gay” or “sex worker”, the programmes call them “key populations”. A lot of money comes from the USA and from UN organisations to get “key populations” into HIV prevention and treatment programmes. But that doesn’t include lesbians. There aren’t any studies in Namibia on lesbians and HIV. People just say that lesbians don’t become HIV-positive. That’s why there’s no educational outreach to lesbians on safer sex. But South African studies show that lesbians who experience violence have a high incidence of HIV. It’s very difficult for lesbians, trans people and gay men to get good, non-discriminatory treatment from the health services. Lesbians who look masculine and are pregnant are ridiculed and not treated with dignity and respect. As a consequence, many lesbians don’t go for mammograms or Pap smears. Trans people and sex workers are also treated badly by many health workers. A lot needs to be done in terms of raising awareness.
Another area of positive policy reform is the education sector. Namibia has high teen pregnancy rates, so the government clearly had to introduce comprehensive sexuality education in schools. That included a brief section on same-sex orientation, which conservative politicians object to. Two weeks ago we were dismayed to hear our foreign minister call for eliminating comprehensive sexuality education because it supposedly encourages abortions and homosexuality. Our foreign minister used to be the Minister of Women’s Affairs and Child Welfare and was a leading voice against gay men and lesbians. At the time I thought she was basically Sam Nujoma’s mouthpiece as a minister in his government. But now she’s speaking on her own. The problem is that conservative right-wing churches and pastors from the USA have been trying to criminalise homosexuality in Africa. That was the case a few years ago with the push to impose greater penalties in Uganda. We think those forces are influencing our foreign minister. The same groups also try to prevent the liberalisation of abortion in African countries.
Martina Backes: You mentioned the Combating of Immoral Practices Act. To what extent is widespread homophobia a legacy of apartheid?
Liz Frank: The hate speech and strong public discrimination came to Namibia from Zimbabwe via Robert Mugabe in 1995–96 because of close ties between the two countries. At the International Book Fair in Harare in 1995, Mugabe denounced an exhibition of materials by the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). He shouted that gays and lesbians were worse than pigs and dogs, and overturned their book table. That triggered similar tirades in other parts of southern Africa. It took half a year before they came to Namibia too. That has a lot to do with colonial history. It’s said that Mugabe was raped while in prison (in the 1960s) and that this fuelled his hatred of gays and lesbians. What we had trouble understanding is why our own first president and other politicians at the time adopted the same stance. But that period – a few years after independence – was a time of high expectations on the one hand and widespread poverty and unemployment on the other. Scapegoats were needed for the “nation-building” project, namely outsiders they could use to blame for political failures. That role was often given to the lesbians and gay men in Namibia.
Until that happened we had thought we were part of the new Namibia. We were appearing on public platforms and raising creative voices with poetry, for example. We had celebrated the fifth anniversary of Sister Namibia in 1994 in this way, and regularly used Sister Namibia magazine to reach out to lesbians. But that was already too much for our political leaders. They invariably spoke out against lesbians because we had a political presence. And they always ended up targeting Elizabeth and me. There’d be TV reports on Sam Nujoma when he’d open something like a trade union conference and suddenly start ranting about Liz and Elizabeth. That was an intimidating time, when we didn’t know whether we could stay here and continue fighting for lesbians and gay men in the new Namibia, or whether we’d have to go into exile in another country.
Then the interior minister at the time, Jerry Ekandjo, spoke at a celebration in 2000 and directed young police officers to arrest, deport and eliminate lesbians and gay men. The hate speech only quieted down when Nujoma was no longer president, until our current foreign minister started it up again recently. Hage Geingob, our current president, was the prime minister back then. During that period of incitement he was the only one to say publicly that everyone in Namibia has the same rights. All humans have human rights. But during his first term in office he also made no move to have the Combating of Immorality Act abolished.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia came from Wuppertal. It had already sent missionaries here before colonisation. And what we’re still seeing from the churches is a product of colonialism. Some of the Lutheran churches have changed to a degree in the meantime. But now Pentecostal churches are equating the Christian devil with traditional witchcraft. They preach that it all comes together in lesbians, who should be publicly flogged in the churches to drive out witchcraft and demons.
The legacy of colonialism also includes disempowering women as a way to consolidate control over the country. Colonial rulers reinforced local male authorities whom they negotiated with. Women didn’t have a say anymore. That gained a foothold in the traditions of various groups in Namibian society.
Martina Backes: A question about visibility: In contrast to many countries where activism is associated primarily with men and male-dominated LGBTI organisations, in Namibia women seem to be at the forefront. Have lesbians in fact succeeded in becoming visible?
Liz Frank: Sister Namibia was founded by heterosexual women and lesbians. In the first three years people didn’t mention the L‑word. But then Sam Nujoma said in a newspaper interview that “the lesbians are undermining our democracy”. Elizabeth and I sent a long letter to the editors of various media entitled “Whose democracy is it?” That put us in the public spotlight. We thought we’d shape this public presence with the help of Sister Namibia magazine. When the tirades from the Mugabe-Nujoma camp began, gay men started contacting the Sister Namibia organisation.
We told them we’re a feminist women’s organisation, but suggested founding the Rainbow Project together. That was in 1997. Every time there were outbursts of hate speech we went onto the streets. We were also building ever broader alliances with other civil society organisations. Within a few years we had everyone on our side. There was a humorous demonstration by LGBTI people and white farmers because suddenly everyone was coming under attack from Nujoma. We protested together with a huge banner that read “All human rights for all!”
Martina Backes: What position do the Germans in Namibia take with respect to LGBTI organisations and homophobic statements by the ruling party? What role does skin colour play inside the various LGBTI organisations, and what is your role as a white person in the struggle for equal rights?
Liz Frank: I don’t really have contact with Germans here. They’re very reserved about the government and don’t take public stands. They focus more on business matters and say very little about politics. Divisions between the races also still run very deep. We know a few white lesbians, but there’s still a deep division between white and Black. While whites have wealthy lifestyles and are anxious about security and Black people, most Black people live far removed from whites in the poorer parts of town like Katutura. White women generally know very little about their Black domestic workers and how they live. Social spheres are still very separate. A lot needs to be done to overcome these divisions among women.
As for my role, it always takes time to build trust. At first that was also the case with Elizabeth’s family and friends. Some people wanted our relationship to end. But we stuck together because our relationship was the most important and greatest thing for us. And now everyone would be shocked if we weren’t together anymore. Young lesbians are constantly asking how we’ve managed to keep deepening our relationship for thirty years despite the differences in culture and age. They want to make a film about us. At some point we’ll have to write our story.
Elizabeth is actually the mother of the lesbian movement in Namibia. She has extraordinary courage, strength and creativity. She’s a poet, philosopher and critical feminist activist. She was already building feminist lesbian leadership through Sister Namibia, and integrating it into the programmes. She transferred that to the Women’s Leadership Centre, which she founded in 2004. She contributed to the Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives anthology in 2005 with a piece about lesbian men – about Damara lesbians. We didn’t have a trans movement then, or words like “butch”, so we talked about lesbian men. The book was based on a research project that brought lesbians from southern African together for the first time.
Part of our activism consists of publications like “Being ourselves, being resilient. A guide to wellbeing for young lesbians in Namibia”, and a brochure for parents called “Loving and supporting our lesbian daughters” which we also published in Afrikaans and Oshiwambo. We often work in multiple languages, reflecting the country’s different ethnic groups and regions. But workshops are also very important to get young lesbians out of their isolation. We create safe spaces where we can laugh and cry together, and gain an understanding of our rights as lesbians in Namibia and in the world. We’re finding our voices, becoming stronger and standing together. Instead of just continuing to react by demonstrating against hate speech, we prefer to strengthen lesbians so they find their power and pride. Then they can organise themselves if they decide to go out and protest together.
Martina Backes: How are you connected regionally and internationally?
Liz Frank: Sister Namibia and the Rainbow Project founded the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) in Windhoek in 2004. At that time we knew hardly anything about lesbians in other countries. However, there was a website called “Behind the mask” based in South Africa at the time, which enabled gay men and lesbians from many African countries to slowly start coming together. In 2004 we invited lesbians from thirteen African countries to Windhoek – from Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Tanzania, and southern Africa. CAL now has its office in Johannesburg with a staff of more than twenty. They do advocacy at the United Nations in Geneva and at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and also support lesbian groups in the individual countries.
Martina Backes: Feminists need to employ different strategies in different countries. How much responsibility do you think development cooperation policy and Germany should take in promoting recognition of LGBTI human rights?
Liz Frank: We’re well connected on the international level. For example, the Coalition of African Lesbians facilitated an exchange project in North Rhine-Westphalia and four countries in southern Africa that was initiated by Cornelia Sperling from FLIP (“Frauenliebe im Pott e.V.”) in the Ruhr District. Three lesbians from Namibia were at Christopher Street Day (Pride) in Düsseldorf in 2019. That’s a concrete example of how we’re coming together to work in postcolonial ways and develop new projects. It’s not just Europeans coming to Africa to study or support us. Young lesbians from African countries also have the chance to get to know the lesbian movement in Germany and broaden their vision and experience.
At the same time, Sister Namibia and the Women’s Leadership Centre have received funding from German development cooperation organisations. For two and a half years SODI (Solidaritätsdienst International e.V.) funded a lesbian project run by the WLC, with workshops for young lesbians as well as teachers and social workers in different parts of Namibia. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has also been supporting our work with lesbians for many years, including our last four Namibian Lesbian Festivals. We very much appreciate this level of cooperation with German foundations and NGOs. They don’t come to the country and tell us who we should network with or what we should. We see that type of thing too, for example with donors from Great Britain. But it doesn’t work. Instead what we want to do is develop our own proposals and convey them to donors who trust us and support our work for that reason.
Martina Backes: How much of your work deals with the effects of colonialism, and what are the concrete aims of your work? What changes can you make by looking closely at colonialism?
Liz Frank: In my opinion it’s important for the young women in the lesbian movement to first become familiar with 30 years of LGBTI struggles since independence, and beyond that with the horrific history of apartheid and colonialism. There’s an impromptu movement by young activists against German colonial memorials inspired by #blacklivesmatter in the USA, but it’s not yet focussed.
We haven’t gone way back into German colonial history yet. We’re looking more at how to help young lesbians facing suicide, HIV and violence in their everyday lives. And we’re trying to build an understanding of rights and laws. We’re also working to understand patriarchal structures in different ethnic groups, because their customary laws and traditions are very different. For example, in the Zambezi Region we’re combining the combating of harmful cultural practices with education about human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights so that women can say, “We have the right to question and change our culture and traditional practices like polygamy and violent initiation rites for girls”. In other words we’re concentrating more on today and on where current conditions come from.
Martina Backes: Do some Namibians also say homosexuality is un-African?
Liz Frank: Yes, you could hear that when Nujoma was giving his tirades. Occasionally someone will still try to push that. Generally speaking, however, public opinion about LGBT people has changed over the past thirty years. The media are progressive and support us.
Regarding pre-colonial homosexual practices it’s of note that when the German scholar Kurt Falk travelled through what is now Namibia in the early 20th century to learn about the various languages and cultures, he documented same-sex activities in all eleven ethnic groups.*
But in general there are very few studies on the pre-colonial period. A musicologist discovered an instrument in Ovamboland that was played only by men who wore women’s clothing and performed at weddings, singing a particular song. Everything else still remains to be researched and documented.
* Kurt Falk wrote an essay for the Archiv für Menschenkunde (Jg. 1, H. 5, 1924) / Zeitschrift Geschlecht und Gesellschaft (Jg. 13, 1925) published by the Institute for Sexual Science, Dr. M. Hirschfeld Foundation. An English translation appeared in S. Murray and W. Roscoe (eds.): Boy-wives and female husbands. Studies in African homosexualities. Palgrave, New York 1998
Documentation of this talk: Dr. Rita Schäfer
Dr. Rita Schäfer: Freelance scholar and author of multiple books and studies on gender in southern Africa, such as (together with Eva Range): The Political Use of Homophobia: Human Rights and Persecution of LGBTI Activists in Southern Africa (2014).
This online talk was part of the series “Leave no one behind! ‒ Development cooperation and LSBTI perspectives”.
Supported by ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL
with funding from the BMZ
The LSVD bears sole responsibility for the content. The positions described do not necessarily reflect the views of Engagement Global or the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.