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Namibia: Major win for LGTBQ+ community

Jasko Rust
June 21, 2024

A Namibian court has declared two laws banning same-sex acts unconstitutional. But members of the LGTBQ+ community said there is still a long road ahead.

An African woman carries the flag with the rainbow colors with the slogan: Support Namibian LGBTQ Rights.
Members of the public expressed their support for the LGTBQ+ community outside the courtImage: Opas Onucheyo/REUTERS

On a small stage in the garden of a house in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, half a dozen drag queens are rehearsing for their show the next day — Drag Night Namibia.

A small crowd watching the rehearsal frenetically cheers each new pose.

"The hardest working legs in drag," someone shouts as Aedin Mohrmann does a deep squat. Tonight he's wearing gray sweatpants, but tomorrow he will transform into his drag persona: Atlantis.

These drag performances are a safe space for Namibia's LGTBQ+ community, a place where they can feel free to be themselves. 

Singer Lize Ehlers in her house in front of a bookshelf.
Singer Lize Ehlers hosts rehearsals for Drag Night Namibia in her homeImage: Jasko Rust

"People are changing. I believe that visibility opens more minds," said Lize Ehlers, a well-known Namibian singer and the co-director of Drag Night Namibia, who offers her home for rehearsals.

Events such as these are a chance to reach out to people outside of the LGTBQ+ community and engage them in dialogue, said drag queen Aedin Mohrmann. Opening a dialogue is his way of combating queer hostility. Mohrmann, like others in the country's LGTBQ+ community, remains cautious in everyday life. 

"We simply have to be mindful," he told DW. "Even if it's just going to the shopping center. Just do what you have to do and go out." 

LGBTQ+ community under pressure 

Namibia's LGTBQ+ community is celebrating a major success in court. On June 21, Namibia's high court declared two colonial-era laws that criminalized sexual acts between men to be unconstitutional. Still, life for members of Namibia's LGTBQ+ has become increasingly difficult in recent months.

Aedin Mohrmann in a golden short dress and a blonde wig on stage.
Aedin Mohrmann presented his drag identity 'Atlantis'Image: Aedin Mohrmann

In May 2023, Namibia's top court ruled that non-Namibian spouses of same-sex marriages that took place abroad must be given residency rights upon their return to Namibia. A wave of homophobia followed. 

"This backlash did not come from the [general] public," Omar van Reenen, a nonbinary person who advocates for LGTBQ+ rights, told DW. "It came from two actors: The government and religious extremists who fanned the flames of hatred."

High-ranking members of the ruling South West African People's Organisation party criticized the 2023 ruling. In a statement, the party expressed its "grave disappointment" and said it condemned all forms of "immoral and indecent acts." The SWAPO Youth League even referred to the ruling as "foreign cultural imperialism."

Van Reenen sees elements of state-supported homophobia in the actions of the country's politicians, and laments the marginalization of the queer community and the increase in hate crimes. 

The past year has seen a number of shockingly violent homophobic crimes.

At the end of April, a transgender woman was brutally murdered in an informal settlement of Windhoek. The 30-year-old was found with dozens of stab wounds and her mutilated genitals lying on her chest, according to police.

Ugandan could face death penalty under anti-gay law

Namibian politicians united against homosexuality

In response to the Supreme Court's LGTBQ+ friendly ruling in 2023, SWAPO politician Jerry Ekandjo introduced a bill in parliament with an amendment to the 1961 Marriage Act, which defines marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. It would also criminalize being a witness in a same-sex wedding and generally promoting same-sex marriages.

Protesters in Windhoek holding yellow and purple placards with slogans: "#Decolonise-MySexuality."
Laws such as those which were overturned on June 21, 2024, are the legacy of the colonial period in NamibiaImage: Opas Onucheyo/REUTERS

The amendment was approved in both chambers of parliament with little protest and has been awaiting the president's signature for months.

"I think the president has not yet signed the law because he knows that it is undemocratic," said activist van Reenen. 

The upcoming election campaign could also play a role. DW has asked Ekandjo for comment, but has yet to receive a response.

Until the laws were overturned on June 21, sexual acts between two men could be prosecuted. Although convictions were relatively rare, rights campaigners said they have perpetuated discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and caused gay men to live in fear of arrest.

Major win for the LGBTQ+ community

The decriminalization of same-sex acts is undeniably a major win for the LGTBQ+ community. Speaking of the ruling, Namibia's high court acknowledged that sexual practices were being criminalized solely on the basis of gender. The lawsuit was brought on by LGBTQ+ activist Friedel Dausab.

Many have said the victory in court could mark a turning point for securing the rights of LGTBQ+ people in Namibia. "We need a precedent that we can rely on and that forms the basis for the protection of future generations," said van Reenen.

Omar van Reenen wearing a pearl necklace and ear rings,with dark hair and a beard. They are sitting in a cafe, surrounded by a yellow wall and a window
Omar van Reenen founded the organization Equal Namibia, which campaigns for the rights of queer peopleImage: Jasko Rust

Drag queen Aedin Mohrmann is now calling for a referendum on the rights of LQTBQ+ people in Namibia, including their right to marry. He feels the public would vote in favor of the LGTBQ+ community.

 "It would certainly be close, but the majority would vote yes in the end," he said. Mohrmann is counting on the country's youth in particular — they understand that a united Namibia would be stronger.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by Martina Schwikowski.

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