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Namibia Chips Away at African Taboos on Homosexuality

From left, Harold Uchman, 30, and his partner, Helmuth Oxurub, 35, at a cafe in the city of Swakopmund with their friend Victor Honeb, 34. They said being gay in some Namibian cities has begun to acquire an image of urban hipness.
From left, Harold Uchman, 30, and his partner, Helmuth Oxurub, 35, at a cafe in the city of Swakopmund with their friend Victor Honeb, 34. They said being gay in some Namibian cities has begun to acquire an image of urban hipness. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

"The only answer is education," said Linda Baumann, 21, who grew up in a tribal community and was expelled from it when she revealed she was a lesbian. She now lives in Windhoek and hosts a radio program about gay issues. "We have to have courage and stick up for ourselves."

The Rainbow Project has joined forces with other interest groups, including the women's movement, people with AIDS and progressive political parties, which have been lobbying for equal rights for all Africans. Unlike in many Western countries, gays have never been blamed for the AIDS pandemic in Africa, where the disease is largely transmitted through heterosexual sex and blood transfusions.

The continent's gay population, which is mostly youthful and active in cities, has also benefited from Africa's rapid urbanization. These days, TV programs such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" are beamed via satellite from the West, and a smorgasbord of gay-oriented Web sites can be accessed at Internet cafes.

One Web site based in South Africa, "Behind the Mask," receives hundreds of hits each day, along with e-mail messages from gay men and lesbians across the continent asking about how they should reveal their sexual orientation to their parents or how to meet the right partner.

Even so, the Rainbow Project must use extreme discretion when trying to conduct research outside Namibia -- let alone urging other gays across Africa to demand their rights. In Somalia, for example, armed militiamen frequently stone gays. In Egypt, Baumann said, "you will just get killed."

Ian Swartz, the Rainbow Project director, said that even when he was in Nairobi, the cosmopolitan capital of Kenya, he had difficulty meeting gay men until he arranged a late-night meeting with a stranger. He arrived at a club after midnight, "and there it was -- an underground gay community in Kenya." The men he met told him "harrowing" stories, he said. "I felt really sad afterward, but I learned a lot."

Treatment of gays, group members said, ranges from social ostracism to physical attacks. In rural Namibia, they found, about 80 percent of gay men and lesbians were forced to marry and have children. In many countries, gay people were often depressed and reported having covert same-sex relations outside heterosexual marriages.

Gay students may drop out of school or face beatings for being "funny," Baumann said. Some are put through violent "cures." In Tanzania and Botswana, there were more than a dozen reports of lesbians being raped in an effort to persuade them to marry men.

But Swartz said the Rainbow Project also found a long history of ethnic groups giving tribal labels to those who are gay -- some negative, but others neutral.

"That proves that it wasn't a European import," Swartz said. "It's as African as being straight, and it was always here."

Throughout African history, gays have been accepted in some tribes. Lesbians were sometimes seen as having mystical powers, and in South Africa they acted as traditional healers. In times of conflict or drought, however, gays were used as scapegoats and blamed for not producing babies to repopulate their regions, according to researchers of same-sex practices in Africa.

European missionaries further demonized homosexuality, and church pulpits remain bastions of anti-gay rhetoric in Nigeria and several other countries. Politicians also have found gay-bashing a useful way to deflect criticism from unpopular policies.


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