Omar (Namibia Equal Rights Movement)

by Max Fuchs, 17/09/21

Omar van Reenen. Photo: private.

As my previous interview partners already mentioned, there have been several protests in the last few months regarding LGBTQIA+ rights in Namibia although the Corona pandemic hit the queer community hard. Some of those protests were organized by the Namibia Equal Rights Movement whose co-founder Omar van Reenen was my interlocutor in an online interview on Thursday, September 9th 2021. The civil rights and youth LGBTQIA+ activist who currently studies his master in Public Policy and Public Administration at the State University of New York but was born and raised in Walvis Bay told me about the goals of the movement, past and future actions as well as his view on fundamentalist Christians in Namibia who oppose equal rights to queer people.

Content Note: The article also deals with queer hostility in state and society. Continue reading when you feel safe or ask a friend to read together.

Lobbying for queer issues

The Namibia Equal Rights Movement is a youth led and community based organization fighting for constitutional realization of LGBTQIA+ and human rights. It is supported by a coalition of more than 18 civil and non-profit organizations as well as youth activists.

On the second volume of Pride Pop Up at Chicago’s Bar on 20th March 2021, the movement announced their existing and who they are to the queer community for the first time and invited the public to their first protest march one week later.

According to Omar the Namibia Equal Rights Movement focuses on three goals currently. At first on legislative reform. Under this point the movement strives for the abolishing of Namibia’s sodomy law from colonial/apartheid era and that future legislatives do not legislate in favor of patriarchal gender norms. Therefore, the activists are lobbying members of parliament to make sure they decriminalize consensual “sodomy”. Changing The Domestic Violence Act which only concerns domestic violence in opposite sex relationships is part of their agenda, too. The biggest step would be a 4th amendment of the constitution to add sexual orientation and gender identity to section 2 of article 10 though. This article assures Namibians equality and freedom from discrimination. At the moment the article reads as follows;

All persons shall be equal before the law. No persons may be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, race, color, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status.”

The second goal of the movement is to support LGBTQIA+ court cases. Currently, about ten cases dealing with LGBTQIA+ issues would be open ranging from family rights over trans rights and the recognition of same sex marriages made in other countries up to the citizenship for children born to queer parents through surrogacy. All those cases are against the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, Safety and Security. The Namibia Equal Rights Movement rises awareness for those court cases and amplifies their struggles.

Goal three is to be a data sharing and statistics collection on LGBTQIA+ issues. This means the youth-led movement wants to provide for example information where people can get services for LGBTQIA+, how many trans people have been violated and how many queers have access to different services. Not collecting those data only but also sharing them with policy makers and organizations is intended.

The very next step shall be to incorporate LGBTQIA+ rights and issues on every party’s manifesto to make sure they pass the decriminalization of the sodomy law.

Call for action

The first protest of the movement was the „Bring Paula and Maya Home!“ protest in March 2021 after the Ministry of Home Affairs rejected travel documents to the through surrogacy born twin girls and their Namibian father Philip who welcomed them to life in South Africa while his husband Guillermo was waiting together with their first born and two years old son Yona in Windhoek. Read more about this case in the article based on my interview with Philip Lühl.

It was one of the biggest LGBTQIA+ protests in the country and the first one in reaction to a court case in which the government discriminates against queer people, according to Omar. The protest should not only express support for the rainbow family but also show the court that public is on side of equality.

People protesting to bring Paula and Maya home in front of the Independence Museum and Sam Nujoma Statue in Windhoek on 25th March 2021. Photo: Namibia Equal Rights Movement.

Several smaller protests followed, e.g. against the SWAPO Party Youth League secretary who called LGBTQIA+ “satanic” and less value or protests for marriage equality. Besides, the movement called to action to attend court cases, e.g. the case of Mercedes Cloete, a trans woman who was unlawful arrested and experienced police brutality some years ago. Last recently in August 2021, there had been a court case regarding the citizenship for Yona who was born to his fathers through surrogacy in South Africa in 2019 as well.

All those protests and court cases would have been well attended and raised the visibility of queers in the country. But: “We can always do better”, Omar comments ambiously.

The next court appointments are already clear. On 11th October 2021 Guillermo, one of the two gay fathers, expects his verdict regarding his domicile/permanant residency in Supreme Court. It will be the first Supreme Court case on LGBTQIA+ issues since 2001. Omar assures that the queer activists will occupy the court gallery to show the public opinion shifted in this matter. Additionally, the High Court verdict regarding Yona’s citizenship was postponed to 13th October 2021. In November this year, the case of unlawful arresting and police brutality experienced by Mercedes Cloete is expected to come to an end and in January 2022, the High Court has to decide about the recognition of same sex marriages done in other countries. The cases will be supported by the Namibia Equal Rights Movement and big protests are planned in summer. Meanwhile the movement works on a strategy how to meet with members of parliament.

Churches are failing on LGBTQIA+ issues

Although many Namibians would be in support of the LGBTQIA+ community Omar admits that there are also antagonists. Most of them would be Christian fundamentalists.

“We are a country that knows the horrors of discrimination. We are still healing from the scars of racial discrimination 30 years after apartheid. My parents know what it was like as coloureds to be told you cannot love a black person or white person just because of the color of your skin. Now 30 years later, we have the same government who fought for our freedom limiting our freedom, telling us that we don’t have the right to love one another based on our gender identity, based on our sexual orientation. So it’s very much a renaissance of apartheid tactics and it very much shows that the oppressed can become the oppressors. But it’s up to each generation to make sure that their constitution speaks to our issues. Our need to equal rights is not only the civil rights issue of my generation, like racial equality was the civil rights issue of my parent’s generation, but LGBTQ issues are a human rights issue that disproportionately affects the youth. So if parties wanna become serious in being champions on youth issues they will look into how state sanctioned homophobia impacts the youth in a negative manner.” – Omar

According to Omar the churches which fought on forefront in the fight against apartheid and helped Namibians to achieve their independence are failing now by taking up colonial oppressed sentiments against the LGBTQIA+ community and using it to inflame hate, rallying their basis into hate against a marginalized group. The fundamentalists should not use bible phrases out of their context but read better. Besides, although the majority of Namibians are Christians, Namibia is a secular state, the civil rights activist emphasizes. The constitution would celebrate the diversity of Namibians, not only racial diversity or cultural diversity but also sexual and gender diversity. That’s why members of parliament were supposed to protect everybody’s rights and not to enforce their own religious believes on the country.

As much as everybody has the right to believe in and have faith in whatever god they choose everybody else has the right to equality in this country as well.” – Omar

Christian fundamentalists would always be quick in marching against LGBTQIA+ but there are so many reports about pastors sexually assaulting children or recently a pastor killing three people with poison or pastors stealing money from their members and no marches would have taken place against the own clergy. They would accuse queers to dismantle society but actually what really dismantles society would be the silence on what is happening in some churches. Before they step outside against queers in society they should bring the same energy to their own churches, Omar demands.

“Sometimes our community is all we have”

Corona affected the activists’ ability to reach out to their elected representatives, so they could not enter parliament and sit in the gallery. Besides, Omar mentions the limits regarding meetings and protests.

Sometimes our community is all we have and when we cannot gather as a community we lose our support system, our platforms, our sense of belonging. So it affected us but did not hold us back. We are realigning our strategies, we are reorganizing and we are still making sure that we are here and we are queer and that we are visible and don’t only take up space but we create space for queer Namibians to come out and know that is their country, too and that they belong.” – Omar

As most of my interview partners so far Omar also mentions Café Prestige, The Brewer’s Market and Chicago’s Bar as the most queer-friendly places in Namibia. At the same time he expresses the hope that queer-friendly places do not refer to cafés and bars only but that also schools, the job, the own church or the minister’s office can become queer-friendly places. Everywhere you walk should be queer-friendly, he adds. That you can count queer-friendly places in Namibia on one hand would be a problem which the Equal Rights Movement wants to fix in the future.

“We want representation by our elected representatives”

I am also asking Omar about the relationship between the queer community and the Minister of Justice Yvonne Dausab who lives quite openly in a relationship with a woman herself as well as with Namibia’s First Lady Monica Geingos who was praised by my previous interview partners for her support for LGBTQIA+. According to Omar the relationship to the Minister of Justice is ambivalent. On the one side, she is credited for tabling a report which recommends the abolishing of the sodomy law which comes now to the floor of parliament to decide over a decriminalization. [1] Otherwise, it would be very contradictory of Dausab to table the report about the sodomy law and tabling a law in parliament which only concerns violence in heterosexual relationships earlier this year. Omar means amendments to the Combating Domestic Violence Act which were tabled to parliament in February 2021 but did not include same-sex relationships. Many queer activists and the Legal Assistance Centre criticized the amendment. Dausab would be saying that violence is only happening in heterosexual relationships and that the state only protects heterosexuals who experience violence from their partners, Omar explains his outrage. “How can you do that and on the flip side getting a praise for tabling the sodomy report?”, Omar asks uncomprehendingly. A minister of justice would be supposed to bring justice to all the people.

Regarding the First Lady Monica Geingos Omar commends her for her support for queer people and calling out members of her own party for their violence against LGBTQIA+. She would be the first First Lady in Namibia doing so. However, she is not an elected representative and as the wife of the President people could not expect her to do things her husband is opposed to. The President himself is failing as someone who wrote the constitution and stated the constitution would have been written on human rights’ principles at its hearts, Omar claims. Summarized the relationship to the First Lady would be good but since she is not an elected representative queer people would still wait for representation from the members of parliament.

Little surprisingly Omar’s biggest wish to change in Namibia to improve the situation of LGBTQIA+ is a change in the government.

I do not think the government represents Namibians fully. I think the ruling party represents their own personal and political interests. I think the ruling party puts the party before people, the party before country and puts profits before the issues at the heart of every single Namibian, be it queer or be it not queer.” – Omar

Therefore, he hopes that especially young people – queers, allies and all people who are emancipatory – vote for parties which uplift equality and human rights for all Namibians in the parliament election of 2024.

Find Namibia Equal Rights Movement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

Next week: Article based on interview with Philip Lühl.

[1] Find the full report here

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