One thing is for sure. It is still not easy to be gay in Africa. Even against the background of growing acceptance and acknowledgement of human rights across the continent, the topic of homosexuality remains beyond the pale. And when it is discussed, it inevitably gets the political blood pressure boiling.
In southern Africa, the position of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party on the subject is well known. But controversy also continues to rage in countries like Zambia, where there has been a recent surge in anti-gay rhetoric, and Botswana, where the authorities are refusing to register a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) group. And it remains to be seen whether leaders with a more progressive bent, such as Joyce Banda of Malawi, will have the courage to turn things around by striking anti-gay laws from the statue books and promoting the rights of gays and lesbians in their countries.
Meanwhile, the ‘gay’ issue still sparks huge amounts of controversy and conflict in Namibia and in between periods of calm, it doesn’t take much for homophobia to rear its ugly head once again. At times, it also seems to be conveniently used to distract public attention from the government’s lack of accountability and poor performance.
Only recently the issue was again in the political forefront when a former Mr Gay Namibia, Wendelinus Hamutenya, was virtually forced into hiding with the United Nations, and had an alleged price put on his head, after he was said to be the author of a list ‘outing’ prominent gay Namibians.
Hamutenya, in an opinion piece in a local weekly newspaper entitled ‘To be or not to be gay’, said he wanted to encourage public debate on the issue by ‘naming and shaming’ high-ranking officials he said were gay. While the ‘list’ of names he had allegedly given the local newspaper was not published, the rumour mill nevertheless immediately went into overdrive and before long speculation was rife, especially on social media platforms.
Quick to defend his ‘good name and reputation’, a prominent local lawyer held a press conference to deny that he was gay, and to warn about the possible legal repercussions of such allegations – all the time stressing that he was not homophobic. Other officials said to have been named have apparently contacted the police and laid complaints, and the investigation continues. Quite where it will end at this stage is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile Out-Right Namibia (ORN), which lobbies for the human rights of LGBTI Namibians, condemned Hamutenya’s actions, saying that constructive debate wasn’t possible if individuals who chose not to declare their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination were named and shamed. "The reality is that we live in a society where alternative sexual orientations or genders are frowned upon," they noted.
Hamutenya, who has now been stripped of his Mr Gay Namibia title, had only recently reconciled with his own family after years of being an outcast. As an 18-year-old youth who told his father he was gay, he had immediately been packed off to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. He’s also been beaten up and abused for his sexual orientation.
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