Namibia's Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in an African Nation

Namibia's Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in an African Nation

Namibia's Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in an African Nation

Namibia's Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in an African Nation

Synopsis

What are the consequences when international actors step in to protect LGBT people from discrimination with programs that treat their sexualities in isolation from the "facts on the ground"? Robert Lorway tells the story of the unexpected effects of The Rainbow Project (TRP), a LGBT rights program for young Namibians begun in response to President Nujoma's notorious hate speeches against homosexuals. Lorway highlights the unintended consequences of this program, many of which ran counter to the goals of local and international policy makers and organizers. He shows how TRP inadvertently diminished civil opportunities at the same time as it sought to empower youth to claim their place in Namibian culture and society. Tracking the fortunes of TRP over several years, Namibia's Rainbow Project poses questions about its effectiveness in the faces of class distinction and growing inequality. It also speaks to ongoing problems for Western sexual minority rights programs in Africa in the midst of political violence, heated debates over anti-discrimination laws, and government-sanctioned anti-homosexual rhetoric.

Excerpt

In July 2001 I walked into the feminist non-governmental organization (NGO) known as Sister Namibia, located just north of the central business district in Windhoek, capital of the Republic of Namibia, to access its gender resource library for medical anthropological research I was planning to undertake. One of the young staff women, Anne, immediately asked, “Are you gay friendly?” to which I responded, “Well, I have a boyfriend in Canada.” Anne, who was dressed in men’s baggy pants and a long, loose T-shirt, with her hair styled in short dreadlocks, rushed excitedly to the back office and returned with a small, framed picture of her girlfriend. “She’s my lover…. She’s Damara like me,” she said proudly. “I hear it is very gay friendly in Canada. Is it true that gay people there have their own town and even own their own businesses?” She went on to describe Toronto’s gay village in some detail, bringing up a bookmarked web page of Church Street on the office computer. She seemed to know more about it than I did. Then she proceeded to teach me the proper pronunciation for the Damara word !gamas, which, she explained, referred to an animal (usually a goat) possessing both genitalia. I clumsily tried to articulate the click with my tongue when she said, “You hear some of the elders use this word [to refer to us] … but I know I am a lesbian!”

I continued to chat with Anne, explaining my interest in hiv prevention research. As a doctoral student at the time, my supervisor, Richard B. Lee, had invited me to assist with a research capacity–building project for the University of Namibia Faculty of Health Sciences, which involved methodological training on how to examine the social dimensions of the hiv epidemic. As I sat among students and faculty, not a single word about the same-sex transmission of hiv was uttered. This absence appeared striking to me at a time when the word “homosexuality” regularly seized front-page news headlines. Only a few weeks previously, the republic’s president, Sam Nujoma, had publicly condemned the presence of gays and lesbians in Namibia—yet again.

After my explanation, Anne insisted on taking me to the main office and drop-in center of the lgbt (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights ngo known as the Rainbow Project (TRP), assuring me that talking to members would be good for my research. “There are many gay men in the rainbow community that have died of aids,” she told me. Restaurants, shopping centers, luxury hotels, gambling halls, bars, and a few discos surrounded TRP’s center, which . . .

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