Kicking at Namibia's closet doors

2018-07-08 11:52
Mercedez, Namibia’s first openly visible trans woman has built her own career to avoid discrimination in the workplace. PHOTO: Kevin Perestrelo

Mercedez, Namibia’s first openly visible trans woman has built her own career to avoid discrimination in the workplace. PHOTO: Kevin Perestrelo

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It’s not a secret that there are queer people in Namibia, it’s just that a conservative, patriarchal society prefers it to remain a private matter. Now, a new generation is growing tired of the silence, reports Kevin Perestrelo from Windhoek.

We live by stories; they shape our world. And words are powerful things, especially when they’re naming things. I had no idea what it meant to be a moffie until I heard the word used to mock other kids – the ones who didn’t quite fit in; the boys who didn’t measure up to society’s idea of what masculinity should look and act like.

Silence equals ignorance equals violence

Growing up in middle-class Namibia, we generally don’t talk about it at home, even once you’re an adult. Your sexuality is not acknowledged – it’s supposed to be your secret.

Even with the mockery, Namibia, for the most part, is quite a conflict-avoidant society, civilised and passive when it comes to dealing with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. It’s a slowed-down and peaceful place, even in the heart of the capital Windhoek, where I have lived for 15 years.

The government also barely mentions us, despite protests and petitions. And there’s plenty to protest, because we may be legal on paper, but, in the Roman Dutch common law we borrowed from our neighbours South Africa and didn’t update even after independence in 1990, same-sex marriage is not legal and sexual acts between men are a crime.

Even though no one has been prosecuted under this sodomy law, there is also no protection. Discrimination based on sexual orientation
and gender identity is not banned in Namibia, so homophobes can call us “moffies”, and they do.

That civilised and passive attitude doesn’t always prevail, as one of my friends found out a few weeks ago when he was beaten up in a gay-friendly local establishment in a homophobic attack. The establishment did nothing to try to protect him, which earned it an online petition, but little else.

The police won’t help, either. In fact, they reportedly refused to pursue the above case and are often the cause of violence against the LGBTI community. The biggest problem is the silence that breeds the ignorance that breeds the violence.

But a new generation is tired of it and is no longer willing to be erased.

Mercedez: ‘I’m a goddess’

Like anywhere else in the world, it is Namibia’s transgender community that is most vulnerable in a homophobic, patriarchal society. Living trans and proud is a litmus test for intolerance.

One of the most visible faces of the LGBTI community here is transgender icon Mercedez von Cloete (29). She began her transition eight years ago. Although she does not consider herself an activist, she has relentlessly aided LGBTI visibility and awareness by sharing her story publicly.

Dressed in layered, flowing garments, with a confident and gracious strut and larger-than-life personality, Mercedez attracts attention from patrons and staff alike as soon as she enters the restaurant in the CBD where we agree to meet.

Every step of her journey has meant overcoming homophobia. She appeared on the front page of the Namibian newspaper for refusing to shave off her hair when she applied for a new passport at the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012. They insisted that her passport photo look like a man and not the woman she is. Throughout the well-meaning article she is referred to as “he”.

Mercedez has since become a respected and loved entertainer in Windhoek, a live event host, music promoter and voice artist.

She is cautious when she is asked about growing up in a conservative town in the south of the country.

“I have always been effeminate,” she says. “People didn’t understand what it means to be trans and, growing up, there were no visible figures at the time.”

She tells me that she was simply trying to reflect, on the outside, the woman that she always knew herself to be on the inside.

“I was always a princess ... or, rather, a goddess,” she giggles.

On radio, Mercedez is the voice of Namibian women, but most trans people here end up in mundane jobs as they try to raise funds for their gender reassignment surgery. They mostly work in supermarkets and retail stores, and most often have to assume their birth gender to get these jobs. Mercedez was determined to carve her own career and create her own financial freedom.

“The plan was always to create a little space for myself, where I could do the things that I loved and enjoyed doing,” she says about her work.

I last spotted her hosting the launch of Powerpad Girls, an organisation of young women, which raises funds for reusable sanitary towels as well as menstrual education for girls. The launch was at the Warehouse Theatre, a popular queer-friendly and safe space for the community, that has even hosted Windhoek Pride events in the past.

“I am still learning that with visibility comes responsibility. Choosing to share my story publicly, and being open about my transition has been one of the most difficult, yet liberating, choices that I have made,” says Mercedez of her journey to self-acceptance and living her truth.

“I certainly would not want my single story to be representative of the entire trans experience here in Namibia, though,” she says.

Adriano: ‘Coming out is respectful’

Adriano Visagie (27) is a man about town. A banker by day, he arrives for our interview after work dressed in a chic polo neck sweater and muted brown tones.

But the actor and LGBTI activist by night has travelled some distance from working-class Khomasdal, the Windhoek township in which he was raised.

Namibians, you will notice, have a passion for neatness. You see very little litter in the townships or the town, but a colonial shadow still lingers over the city. Many streets are named after famous Germans and there is a growing impetus to rename some after struggle heroes. That said, Adriano points out that it is Germany that today funds the bulk of the city’s arts and culture, a safe space for its queer citizens.

But black life, and especially black queer life, must still fight for equality in the workplace.

Adriano and I meet at a coffee shop adjoining an ice cream shop that is a popular hangout spot for young Namibians.

Adriano is steadily living his freedom. He came out only two years ago.

“Coming out is respectful to your family,” he says.

It’s embracing the truth. Even so, it has been hard for him to disclose his romantic relationship with another man.

“It’s not about keeping your relationship a secret, but about being private,” he says, nervous of how the news would be received by his colleagues, friends and extended family.

Just Tina, a one-man show he performed recently at The Warehouse, was a testing ground for him. In the show, he dressed in drag and became Tina Turner, telling her story of spousal abuse as a way to tackle gender-based violence in Namibian society.

He had to tell his family what was going to happen and he feared his corporate reputation would be dented if the show was written about in a newspaper. In the end, Just Tina was sold out and it did appear in the paper, but nothing bad happened. His colleagues were curious, asking questions and giving him a chance to speak about the issues in the show. It’s booked to come back to the theatre due to popular demand.

Sunyè: ‘Lesbians don’t have it as bad as gays’

“Often, at 21, coming out or asking people to recognise that you’re lesbian, or even bisexual for that matter, is deemed to be just a phase and never really taken seriously,” says Sunya Beukes (27), a professional artist and body painter.

I meet with her close to her office in a rich part of town, where the street names are in German.

The situation can change, of course – if you are successful in your career and can provide for your family, then you’re more likely to be tolerated.

Few people in her family know how she identifies because she hails from the ultra-conservative Katima Mulilo in the north east.

Her mother is in the church and has accepted her daughter, but cautiously. You get the sense she’d prefer Sunyè to keep the issue as quiet as possible.

Life is better in Namibia for lesbians than for other queers, she says – you “pass” more easily and it’s not a crime to have sex. Her gay brother has it worse than her.

Mercedez: ‘The future is intersectional’

“I was always going to transition. I was always going to be the woman I wanted to become,” says a gracious but no-nonsense Mercedez back in the restaurant.

She describes how everyone around her believes that transitioning was just a phase that she was going through and would eventually grow out of. Her transition, she says, has been a gradual process, having started with hormones three years after already living visibly as a woman.

“I got the opportunity to join a scholarship programme in Berlin in 2010. I was top of that class. Seeing people live their lives made me think, if not now, then when?”

She’s doing it through private healthcare because state hospitals are not an option for the trans community as there is almost no understanding of the issues around transgender life.

On hormone treatment, her body began to change, to soften and grow curves. The inner Mercedez slowly but surely became the outer.

“But being transgender is more than sex changes, hormones or even the clothes we choose to put on our bodies. You are responsible for choosing a narrative that best fits your life, one that reflects who you are and how you choose to identify. Don’t be afraid to take up space. The future isn’t female, it’s intersectional ... It is my responsibility to exist as my true self.”

Jay: ‘Everyone can see I’m gay’

Jay Aeron is 22 and an Instagram kid. A fashion stylist, make-up artist, media student and minor celebrity, he has also had to seek his freedom to be himself and reject the closet.

“I grew up in Karasburg, a small town in the south, and Upington, where my mother worked. There was no conversation about my being gay, even though I’d be found outside with dolls and playing with the girls.”

However, there was also no validation.

“And, outside of my nuclear family, I was bullied for being flamboyant,” he says.

It got so bad that he had to arrange with a cleaner at school to get a spare key for a toilet so that he would not be harassed.

Jay is part of the new generation that firmly believes that closets are for clothes.

“Having worked in spaces like press agencies and so forth, I was tolerated for the most part because, let’s be honest, anyone and everyone can see that I am gay.”

He refuses to live a lie.

But, that said, this is Windhoek. His goal is to marry rich and get the hell out of here.

- This series on LGBTI life in Africa is made possible through a partnership with The Other Foundation. To learn more about its work, visit theotherfoundation.org

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