by Max Fuchs, 27/08/2021
Currently, I am busy interviewing different activists of Namibia’s queer community to collect empirical data for my bachelor thesis about the question how Corona affected queer life and activism in the country. If you have not read the article based on my interview with Mama Africa from Rights not Rescue Trust yet you can do it here.
My second interview partner was Deyoncé, the director of the NGO Trans, Intersex and Androgynous Movement of Namibia, short TIAMON. We met in the queer-friendly space of Café Prestige on Thursday, 12th August 2021 and chatted an hour about the challenges trans, intersex and androgynous people face in Namibia, what the vision of TIAMON is and how the situation has changed due to Covid19-pandemic.
Content Note: The following article also includes topics such as trans hostile discrimination and so-called “corrective surgeries” on intersex babies. Make sure you are feeling safe and ready to continue reading, take breaks if necessary and/or get friends to read with them together.
Who is Deyoncé?
Deyoncé is a currently 31 years old trans rights activist and broader also a gender, youth and women’s rights activist living in Windhoek, Namibia. Her activism is community based which means she tries to help out immediately if something is going on in her communities, for instance gender based violence. Since 2015, Deyoncé has been the director of TIAMON, the Transgender, Intersex and Androgynous Movement of Namibia. Besides she is sitting in the Grant Making Panel of the International Trans Fund. She likes to write, e.g. on blogs as part of her activism and is the mother of three.
The legal status of trans people in Namibia
On my question what the legal status of trans people in Namibia is, Deyoncé answers “almost none existent.” The law would be quite silent about trans people. Political leadership claims that trans people are protected by the same laws as everybody and have the same human rights. Therefore, they would see no need for extra protecting laws.
The only law which refers directly to trans people is the Birth, Marriages and Death Registration Act 81 of 19631 which allows to change the gender marker in the birth register (-> Section 7B) but according to Deyoncé only if the person has been “fully transitioned” which would mean medical transition including surgeries in the interpretation of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, Safety and Security.
However, the change of the name would be possible for all Namibians without a special application for trans people, following the procedure given by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The procedure includes an application for alteration of the name to the ministry, a publication in the newspapers as well as in the Gazette about the intention of the name change and all of this on the person’s own costs. There are some people who went through the whole process and so far there were no problems, Deyoncé remembers.
Regarding hormone therapies and surgeries the situation is way more complicated. The state only provides access to the hormones regarding the assigned sex at birth (means persons who were assigned male at birth can only get testosterone and persons who were assigned female at birth can only get oestrogen) and not for hormone replace therapy. Therefore, NGOs like TIAMON had to create access to the private sector. Deyoncé reports how she had to find an own private doctor herself which she had to educate and link to other doctors in South Africa for him to learn. The same would concern her therapists.
Gender affirming surgeries are not possible in the country at all. Trans people who can afford it usually go for surgeries to other countries like South Africa. Most trans people cannot afford this though.
Lacking laws protecting against discrimination affects homosexuals as well. Namibia would have taken even a step back in 2007, when the protection against discrimination at work due to sexual orientation was removed from the Labour Act compared to the Labour Act’s version of 1992.2
The Combating of Domestic Violence Act 4 of 2003 excludes same-sex relationships even directly by defining a domestic relationship consisting of two partners “being different sexes”.3 Deyoncé tells me how she experienced herself wanting to report a case of domestic violence to the police and getting sent from the police to the Gender Based Violence Unit and being sent back to the police station where the case had to be treated as an assault just because of the heteronormative wording of The Combating Domestic Violence Act.
“I almost take shits”
Except from legal obstacles Deyoncé also tells me about the daily challenges trans people have to go through in Namibia. The trans community experiences “the usual rejection from the family”, she explains. Families would be mainly an obstacle for trans people. “A lot” of the trans community members would have found shelter in churches which Deyoncé comments as “funny enough”. Many trans people in Namibia would be faith based and spiritual and especially the traditional churches would have learned to accept trans bodies. Anyway, new age churches and prophetical ones would cause problems in terms of trans hostility.
The own rental places are not safe for trans people, too, especially because of the landlords who were “the biggest violators regarding privacy”. Landlords would feel like they had to show off their transgender tenants, walking by random people like in a show.
Leaving the place and walking down the street is another struggle by experiencing verbal abuse. In some communities people would also throw stones. Asking her how safe she feels walking to places Deyoncé states: “I almost take shits”. But getting a taxi is not easier. While you are waiting for a taxi passers by would insult you and many taxis also reject trans customers claiming: “I do not put bad luck in my taxi.”
In shopping malls or restaurants everyone is turning around and people are starring. Additionally, many venues like restaurants and bars as well as malls would deny access to female toilets for trans women. Not necessarily the management of the places itself but cleaners and security guards who would feel called to deny entrance.
Regarding public services trans people experience denying of services, teasing and how officials make fun of them. Particularly in police stations, Deyoncé adds. If you want to make a case statement officers would look at your ID and say: “It says this, why are you dressed that?” or “Go home and dress properly.”
“Travelling is a nightmare” according to the trans rights activist. Going through the airport would mean trouble, especially the security check. Again the differences between what the passport states and the security staff expects results in uncomfortable situations including questions where the persons are going to and what they are up to. Therefore, trans people would be busy with producing invitation letters permanently. It would have relaxed a bit but also because she did not let her down and “was such a drama queen”.
On the contrary health services would have much improved. In the past a bunch of nurses would have come in just to have a look for something one person can treat alone while nowadays the curiosity faded.
Asking her if medical not necessary operations are done to inter children, Deyoncé affirms. So-called “corrective operations” are done to inter children to push them to a seemingly clear sex and often cause physical, psychological and mental damages. Deyoncé remembers a case of a child which already went through nine operations and the parents who could not agree if the child should be a boy or a girl. In the past, doctors did those operations without the consent of the parents but sometimes the parents also asked for it. Since NGOs like TIAMON started awareness work regarding being inter, doctors have been asking the parents for their consent and nowadays doctors would usually suggest to leave the decision to the child at a later moment if there is no medical need.
TIAMON and its vision
The NGO started as Trans Activist Movement of Namibia in 2010 being a trans desk of the country’s biggest queer NGO Out Right Namibia. When the leadership changed it became the Trans Androgynous Movement of Namibia, still as a part of ORN. When Deyoncé took over in 2015, the human rights organization got its current name Trans, Intersex and Androgynous Movement of Namibia – TIAMON and was institutionalized on its own feet.
TIAMON decided to include the “I” for intersex although there is no intersex voice in the organization so far. The decision was made when the above mentioned case of an inter child who went through multiple so-called “corrective operations” was on the queer community’s mind. It should at least rise awareness for inter rights and the existence of inter children, according to Deyoncé.
She calls the vision of TIAMON simple: “to have an empowered trans diverse community that co-exists within inclusive society”. Thus trans diverse people shall be empowered to become able to claim their rights and their economic emancipation – though this might be “a struggle for another day” – and lead to a community which is tolerant.
Therefore, the activism of TIAMON consists of advocacy and lobbying. They work directly together with the Ministry of Health and Social Services to which Deyoncé refers as “our biggest ally”. The main focus is creating access to SRH (Sexual and Reproductive Health) which includes much work on HIV and its prevention. However, the demand of gender affirming health care increased in 2020/21 resulting in more efforts by TIAMON to advocate for creating access to such services for trans people. Looking how the road to legal gender recognition can look like is the newest part of the NGO’s advocacy. Additionally, Deyoncé hosts an own podcast and you can find TIAMON on Social Media.
“TIAMON is a community based organization. We work mainly in rural areas but now we are starting to branch off more into the periurban and urban constituencies because of the demand.”
At the moment, the NGO is active in Keetmanshop in the South, in Windhoek, in Gobabis in the East, in Otjiwarango in the North and in Walvis Bay at the coast. Programming with a person centred and holistic approach TIAMON started also to supply basic nutritions to its clients who struggle about getting enough food and is providing mental health care via phone, e-mail or on Social Media.
Being able to fullfil all of the clients’ needs TIAMON works together with partners across the continent and globe, for instance to connect the clients with therapists or to direct them to organizations like LifeLine/ChildLine Namibia. Also other queer NGOs like Positive Vibes belong to their network. Since 2019, TIAMON has been the chairperson of the Southern African Trans Forum, a network of 22 trans specific organizations.
Another part of TIAMON’s daily work is sensation work through educating communities on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Both the trans community itself and general society. They go to schools and universities, do a lot together with the Ministry of Health and Social Services and here and then also with the police. “The Ministry of Safety and Security has not been that forthcoming. Correctional services – not been forthcoming”, Deyoncé comments laughing.
Working with minimal resources it is important to the NGO to align with the people that have connections and the money. Deyoncé gives me an example of an organization which works a lot with prisons. TIAMON would then make sure to partner with them to be able to accompany them and sneak their own material into the other organization’s material so that the information gets into the prisons. They would try and find creative ways to come inside those institutions.
Being underfunded the work lays on the shoulders of the only two employees of the NGO – the director Deyoncé who also does the finances, communication as well as PR and the programme’s assistance who is also the IT admin and does all the things in between.
Working from a feminist approach the NGO’s ideology is based on deconstruction and reconstruction. As trans people they would have clearly realized that there is not much infrastructure in Namibia regarding information, literature, laws, curriculum or even a bar. That’s why they have to work with a lot of outside material which becomes a problem because then people start questioning the legitimacy of the NGO asking “Who is behind the agenda: the Namibian trans community or is it an outside funded thing?”
Changes through Corona
Since the Corona pandemic the work of TIAMON has been drastically changing. The biggest loss for an organization which was based on house to house work and community gatherings around a bonfire is the missing personal contact. Now they have to work through computer screens and are supposed to give their gender affirming health care workshops via zoom. The only good effect would be a progress in technology, e.g. the website gets developed currently. Otherwise they cannot reach physical bodies any more. Even if they do then it is not the amount of people they were used to reach.
Besides, Corona would have brought the issues trans people are already facing to the forefront. Human rights violations have increased which were just able to be seen now because people are spending much time in isolation. The loss of income would be hectic. Many people of the trans community would not work in the formal but informal sector. Work which is not deemed as essential services. Thus, many could not continue their work and they lost their small incomes. Therefore, the focus of TIAMON has shifted from getting people ARVs (antiretroviral drugs; HIV medicine) to the urgent need of getting the people food first. Questions like “Are people safe? Do they have an accommodation or mental and psychological support?” raised in the last months. According to Deyoncé many of them would end up in homes where they are not necessarily accepted. Some were just tolerated as long as they could provide to the family’s income. By losing those incomes they become a liability at home. Unless they provide their safety at home is in danger. That’s why TIAMON tries to make sure to get them basic food packages with which they can support their families.
The amount of people reaching out to TIAMON has increased as well as the suicide attempt rate because people spend a lot of time in isolation at home. This leads to more body dysphoria and unprocessed traumas which means TIAMON has to give them as much psychological support as possible with the two staff members the organization has. More people are also searching for hormone replacement therapies and demand gender affirming health care which leads to an increased need of mental health support, too. While the needs have doubled that what TIAMON can provide has decreased. The NGO lost important funding because many donors do Corona respond now. Deyoncé knows about many organisations of the Southern African Trans Forum which lost the major of their workforce, especially the peer-to-peer educators and “foot soldiers” who do the main work. Just the office staff is left which means that the community outreach is strongly affected.
“If I would have a genie and could make a few wishes…not three but a few”
After Deyoncé told me already a lot about the situation of trans people in Namibia, the activism of TIAMON and how it is affected by Corona, I ask her what she would wish to change to improve the situation of trans, intersex and androgynous people in Namibia. Three wishes of a genie would not be enough, she expresses laughing.
The major point would be legal gender recognition of either a third gender or transgender existence. From there it would be possible to work on protective laws. Another approach should be to go to the Ministry of Justice and propose the needed laws that do not exist, e.g. regarding hate speech. Then she could continue to the Ministry of Health and Social Services to make clear that infrastructure in terms of gender affirming health care is needed because for trans people it is a primary health care need and as that part of the sexual and reproductive health rights the state has to provide access to. The Ministry of Home Affairs would need to revise The Birth, Marriages and Death Registration Act in order to allow persons to self identify and not necessarily require medical transition to change their gender marker. Besides, trans people should be able to change their names easier because the current procedure to gazette the name change would be unnecessary as the whole process in general. Degendering toilets is also a point of Deyoncé’s wish list. Actually the complete Home Affair’s system should be degendered by removing gender marker. She admits that it would be a big reform indeed but achievable because “I don’t know why we have to be classified by gender…or ‘sex’.”
There should also be a platform that provides advocacy space for trans voices to stand out and speak out because they would still be seen under the sex binary and if not under the sex binary then under the homosexual umbrella. TIAMON would already invest a lot of work on dividing the two identities and correcting people’s views about being homosexual and being trans as one and the same. While the one is a sexual orientation and the other a gender identity many people would not understand that trans people can also be homosexual but can have any other sexual orientation, too. Even within the trans community there would be discourses about: Who is transitioning? Who is trans enough and who is not? Who is gender non-confirming and what does that mean? Is gender non-confirming a gender identity or a gender expression and where do you speak if you are gender non-confirming in your expression versus people who follow a certain identity politics because their identity might lay with the lesbian or gay community but their expression is gender non-confirming or queer and would fall with that in the trans spectrum.
At last, Deyoncé would like to be able to develop a curriculum that speaks to trans and gender diverse persons within the country and being part of the educational system. Education would be a problem in the country why more should be done for civic education, especially in rural areas and informal settlements.
“My mother is my biggest ally and she was used to be my biggest foe”
Coming to the end of our interview, I am asking Deyoncé how cisgender people can support trans, inter and androgynous people. She laughs saying that this would be the question she always gets in trouble for. The first thing coming to her mind are stakeholders and partners who state they would be the voice of the voiceless. “You are not the voice of the voiceless. Trans people are loud!”, Deyoncé makes clear. She continues saying trans people would have their own voices and demands that cisgender people should give them a platform to speak for themselves. She adds:
“But don’t think you are a hero for trans people just because you have provided space for a trans person to speak or because you had the opportunity to invite a trans person to create visibility. I don’t think the trans community owes you anything because the trans community would not find itself in this space if it was not for your predecessors erasing our existence.”
She also had conversations with gay men who asked her why a gay man needs to give up his seat for a trans person to come to take the seat or why a gay man must share his wealth with a trans person. Deyoncé replied that they would not have to. It would be still their wealth which they accumulated somehow or they came occupying a certain position. Anyway, they should acknowledge the privilege coming with that because, again, their predecessors fought very hard to maintain this seat and the fight maintaining this seat was usually based on the disadvantage of other people and silencing one voice to claim the majority. This voice would have been always the trans community because all their issues were deemed as too complex and complicated for people.
“That’s what happened to us. So now please acknowledge that and perhaps try and correct the wrong doing. Don’t give us all of your wealth, give us ten percent so that we can use this ten percent to be able to [provide for ourselves].”
Deyoncé tells me another anecdote about her group of friends who would be mainly cis women. The last two years would have been quite interesting because she is also a mother and the way Deyoncé and her friends raise their children are completely different from each other. Instead of providing support Deyoncé felt more pressure from her cis sisters to raise her children in the binaries of blue and pink, of men and women. However, she kept saying:
“No, I don’t want to raise my children in that kind of binary. I want to raise them in a gender neutral environment so that they can have the opportunity to choose for themselves. So in situations like that provide rather a supporting role, provide an understanding role, right?”
Another way how cisgender people could support trans diverse people would be to stop looking at people’s physiology and refusing seeing their identities.
“Do not assume. We say: ask. But when you ask, ask to understand, not to feed your curiosity. Cause when you ask to feed your curiosity that’s when you ask the wrong questions you should not being asking”, she explains.
It would also not be the responsibility of trans people to educate cisgender people. They should educate themselves which would have never been that easy like in the digital age when people just need to use their phone to search for certain questions in the Internet.
Deyoncé also went through a lot with her family regarding those discourses and how they wanted to see her. Anyway, people changed and learned which she summarizes as: “My mom is my biggest ally and she used to be my biggest foe.”
“Show up!”, demands the trans rights activist from cisgender people as well when they notice discrimination or when their friends express trans hostility.
Regarding feminist spaces which often divide on the discourse about trans people, especially trans women, Deyoncé remembers a quote from one of her friends who once said: “There is enough oxygen for everybody, nobody is trying to steal yours.” She also experienced how some of her cis women friends told her she would threaten them in their own femininity. Deyoncé calls for unity among women regardless if cis or trans by stating:
“I do not [threat cis women’s femininity]. We can compliment each other as women. We can be friends as women. We can unite and stand together as women. There is no need for us dog barking each other and throw each other under the bus.”
It has been an interesting hour with Deyoncé and I often had the feeling to agree with her thinking about the quite similar discourses of the queer-feminist spaces I am participating back home in Germany. When I told Deyoncé about the similarities I could find she commented closing:
“The movements are the same all over and the issues are the same. It’s just the context which is probably different and how we choose to advocate for us.”
After we had taken a selfie together, we finished our drinks and left the café together to make sure the other one is getting home safely by a taxi.
Next week Friday on Land of the Queers: Princess from Wings to Transcend Namibia.
2 Find the comparison of both versions of the Labour Act on this website under: https://land-of-the-queers.com/conditions-of-queer-life-in-namibia/
3 The Combating of Domestic Violence Act 4 of 2003, Section 3 https://www.lac.org.na/laws/annoSTAT/Combating%20of%20Domestic%20Violence%20Act%204%20of%202003.pdf