Broken Promised Land

A place where homosexuality is legal but still unsafe and scorned.

Like human rights more generally, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people subsist on rocky ground in much of Africa. In Namibia’s Rainbow Project: Gay Rights in an African Nation, anthropologist Robert Lorway examines the issue of gay rights in one African country, Namibia.

Perhaps the first thing to say about LGBT rights in Africa is that the challenges Lorway describes in Namibia are, sadly, far from unique. In the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a small handful of other countries, same-sex sexual activity is legal, although it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is not illegal and exists in a shadow world that is subject to frequent violence and constant danger. South Africa is the only country on the continent that recognizes same-sex relationships and marriage, and it is the only one that has enacted LGBT anti-­discrimination legislation. True, in some African countries, such as Namibia, laws against homosexual activity are not rigorously enforced, but in others, fines, corporal punishment and prison terms abound. In a few—Sudan, Mauritania and Nigeria—the death penalty remains on the books and debates about its possible introduction in Uganda have galvanized pro- and anti-LGBT rights camps for the past two years.

Non-enforcement in Namibia has not translated into anything like safety or “rights” or even much happiness for that country’s LGBT community. Lorway’s book centres on an LGBT rights non-governmental organization, the Rainbow Project, and the seven years he spent in Namibia working with TRP and more than 200 of its “Rainbow Youth.”

The problems Lorway describes are manifold: first, a refrain from government, most notably in the person of Namibia’s first president, Sam Nujoma, that homosexuality was unknown in Namibia until it was imported by westerners, hell-bent on wrecking the country’s traditional society and values. Nujoma’s xenophobic vilification of homosexuality, which culminated in threats to jail or even deport gay Namibians (to where?) created a convenient bogeyman that could be blamed for the scourge of HIV/AIDS and for the government’s failure to deal with it.

Lorway takes considerable pains to debunk the idea that homosexuality is “unAfrican,” documenting its long historical trajectory in Namibia. But he also shows that by creating a “safe space” for LGBT youth and by giving them a sense of purpose and pride in their sexuality, the Rainbow Project turned the face of these young people toward a new, bigger world. Unfortunately, it was a world they could not hope to join, except fleetingly through exploitive gay sex tourism and a western sexual economy that commodifies black bodies. While it may have given young men confidence in their sexuality, their “liberation” did little to improve their economic situation. With Namibian youth unemployment rates rising from 58 percent in 1997 to 75 percent in 2008, undereducated young men wearing lipstick and mascara and looking “like they were auditioning to be the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” would be more than a little disadvantaged in any job queue.

Christianity—a genuine western import (never assailed by President Nujoma)—presented problems for the Rainbow Youth in its censure of homosexuality. Often very religious, young people struggled with the question, “How can I be gay and a Christian?” Religious condemnation, however, seems not to have been overly strident in Namibia; at least the hate-filled, anti-gay North American evangelicals so common to the Ugandan narrative make no appearance in Namibia’s Rainbow Project.

Unfortunately, our understanding of homosexuality in Namibia is constrained by the book’s limitation to a fairly narrow circle of people and institutions within the ambit of the Rainbow Project. Most of the youth we meet are uneducated and come from very poor families. They are almost exclusively “feminine males” and lesbian women who dress as men.

The women—many of them still girls, really—are constantly subject to unwelcome male attention and sexual violence, and often wind up with unwanted or at least unplanned children of their own to care for. And the males, frequently in thrall to what Lorway calls a “foreigner fetish,” too often find themselves used and abandoned by the white men they meet. An alternative for them is dangerous rough sex from “straight” Namibian men. But we are told almost nothing about these shadowy straight-acting Namibian men who mistreat the Rainbow Youth, and so we never actually get beyond TRP, its feminine males and its masculine lesbians. If there is a wider homosexual culture in Namibia—less camp and less poor than the Rainbow Youth—we are told little about it.

Apart from this lacuna, three things bothered me about this book. The first is the author’s repeated charge that TRP—a drop-in centre that concentrated on building self-esteem and providing information about safe sex—did nothing to solve the economic plight of its clientele. Had that been a TRP objective, however, it is hard to know how it might have been achieved amid the country’s deep-seated poverty. The second is the author’s repeated assertion that attempts—by the government of Namibia and others—to “[harness] desire as an ethical substance” are part of a wider interaction between liberal democracy and global capitalism that reproduces and intensifies “a constellation of social inequalities.” Beyond the sex trade inspired by Namibia’s tourist industry and the absence of jobs for young people, evidence that liberal democracy and global capitalism have anything special to do with the plight of the Rainbow Youth is scanty.

The third thing I struggled with is the author’s style. Case studies of Hanna, Winston, Travis and others are well done: these people are remarkable, poignant and sometimes even a bit funny as they struggle and worry and debate the issues they face. But too often the narrative hits a brick wall like this: “These flourishing identity politics form the ground from which the Rainbow Youth cultivated their practices of freedom. They also display the effects of neoliberal logics that give primacy to the resources of self-determination over the everyday materialities that constitute their oppression.”

I am not an anthropologist. Maybe this is the way anthropologists write. I have read that sentence and the pages around it ten times. I think Ry Cooder said it better in his song, “Across the Borderline”: dreams rarely come true in a broken promised land; the cost of getting there is high, and when you arrive, you discover that “you’re still just across the borderline.” Having struggled to reach a kind of sexual self-awareness, the Rainbow Youth were often, once they arrived, no more than a step away from where they began. It might be a metaphor for African independence.

If the message of the book is that human rights are not enough, there is another one: self-­awareness and human rights are not the same thing. And neither of them necessarily correlates with jobs. The truth is that LGBT rights in Namibia are limited, fragile and regularly transgressed by homophobic thugs holding high office and by violent men stalking the shebeens and beer parlours of Windhoek. One of the oddest things about the painfully slow evolution of human and political rights in Southern Africa is that the governments of countries such as Namibia, which for decades suffered the absence of human rights more keenly than most, have become so oppressive themselves toward the minorities under their protection.