Young lesbians face a lot of hardships, right from their homes to a rabidly homophobic world outside. But they can stop being victims by taking their lives into their hands, as this powerful case of Namibia shows
The Women’s Leadership Centre, a feminist NGO based in Namibia led by seasoned lesbian feminist activists, has been working with young lesbian women from across our country over many years to pass on the flame of lesbian feminist activism and leadership to the next generation. During 2013 we focused on strengthening the resilience and resistance of young lesbian women to homophobic stigma and discrimination, violence and the risk of HIV and Aids.
In workshops and outreach activities, we collaboratively developed two booklets: one for young lesbians titled ‘Being ourselves! Being resilient! A guide to well-being for young lesbians in Namibia’; and another for parents called, ‘Loving and supporting our lesbian daughters! A guide for parents, families and friends of young lesbians in Namibia.  We further developed the traveling photography exhibition: Creating ourselves in our own image, which was launched in Windhoek in December 2013 and will be shown in other towns across the country over the coming years in combination with outreach workshops for young lesbians, parents and community members using the two above mentioned booklets.
In the following paragraphs we provide an in-depth collective analysis of our achievements.
1. BUILDING RESILIENCE THROUGH STRENGTHENED FEMINIST CRITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
The project built the resilience and resistance of young lesbians through strengthening our critical consciousness, that is, our capacity to recognise our oppression as young lesbians as well as our power and agency to prevent violence and HIV. Our feminist critical consciousness has been strengthened through learning our human rights, and specifically our sexual rights, as well as a feminist analysis of power, which provide us with lenses through which to gain self-knowledge and insight in our lives as young lesbians.
Making sense of the socio-cultural contexts of our oppression: We recognised that the humiliation, degradation and pain young lesbians experience is not unique to each one of us but part of the system (patriarchy) that makes it possible for heterosexual men to own and control women, including lesbians. Our socio-cultural context is denying us the right to be who we desire to be because society does not recognise our non-conforming gendered and sexual identities. As young lesbians we experience discrimination on the basis of being women (gender), homophobia (an irrational fear and dislike of homosexuals) on the basis of being lesbians (sexual orientation) as well as discrimination on the basis of being young and poor (age and class). Those living with HIV experience yet another layer of discrimination and stigma.
Making sense of the personal contexts of our oppression: When we tell, write and research stories of what happened to us as young lesbians we are making the personal political. This suggests that if more and more of us young lesbians do the same we begin to create a collective knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a young lesbian in Namibia today. We began to reveal, examine and expose the attitudes, beliefs and practices that expose lesbians to violence and HIV and Aids.
We have been called names; we have been targets of hate and hate speech including from our political leaders and communities; we have been disowned by our families, beaten up and chased out of our homes; we have been raped and molested in our homes and on our streets; we have been teased and bullied in our schools; humiliated, judged, condemned and made outcasts in our churches; many of us are unemployed because we look butch, and fired when we come out at our work places. Poverty makes us dependent on others and robs us of our right make choices and lead independent and autonomous lives.
There is a constant pressure on young lesbians to conform to the cultural perceptions of ‘good’ girlhood and womanhood in terms of our bodies, behaviour, dress code, work and leisure activities, and relationships. Some of us have been forced into heterosexual marriage. Some of us have been in relationships with men to hide our lesbian sexual orientation and to please our families. Many of our families still hope that we will marry a man one day. Some of us have been taken to traditional healers, psychologists, sent for ‘rehabilitation’, or even been beaten and raped to ‘cure’ us from being lesbian.
Understanding the barriers to prevention of violence and HIV and Aids: On the basis of our sexual orientation and gender identity, we have been excluded from human rights, sexual rights and from policies and messages that protect Namibians from violence and HIV and Aids. Experiences of discrimination and homophobia have negatively impacted on our resilience and agency - our ability to choose, speak out and act in order to protect ourselves from violence and HIV and Aids.
Experiences of violations of our rights as lesbians create a sense of loss of dignity and a feeling that we are outlaws: Being constructed as not having rights has excluded young lesbians from information on sexuality education, safer sex messages and supportive health facilities, undermining our ability to protect ourselves and our partners from HIV infection.
Experiences of violence can lead to the loss of a sense of safety, security and personhood: Violence breeds violence, including in our lesbian relationships. Experiences of violence and discrimination lead to silencing, anger, anxiety, losing confidence in our own abilities - including our ability to make choices, speak and act to protect ourselves.
Experiences of homophobia create a negative self image and damage our identity: Internalised homophobia happens when we believe the negative messages and stereotypes of others about ourselves as lesbians. Low self-esteem, a loss of self-worth and pride in our lesbian identity is a key theme that ran through our discussions and stories in the workshops. Internalised homophobia can undermine our sense of self, and lead to feelings of shame, dejection, self-doubt and sometimes feelings of guilt, self-blame and inferiority. These can be manifested through self-destructive behaviour such as alcohol and drug abuse, sleeping around and other forms of self-harm.
Building resilience and resistance in the face of oppression: The stories of our oppression are simultaneously also the stories of our resilience and resistance. The project activities encouraged us to recognise our power and agency in all our struggles. In exploring our oppression as young lesbians we became intellectuals and knowledge producers who collectively contemplate our shared values and our experiences of patriarchal oppression through social institutions including culture, and the ways in which poverty impacts on our vulnerability to violence and HIV and Aids.
2. BUILDING RESILIENCE THROUGH STRENGTHENED VOICE AND SELF-ESTEEM
Creation of safe spaces: This project provided spaces in which young lesbians were able to feel safe, experience trust, confidentially and start and renew friendships. In these safe spaces we could be ourselves as young lesbians, learn and safely express ourselves, speak for ourselves and claim our space. For many project participants it was their first time to experience being in such a safe space, and particularly for those from northern Namibia (Owamboland) our workshops are the only safe spaces they can access, as they do not have enough privacy in their communities to create their own.
Increased capacity of self-expression: We had many opportunities to develop our capacity for self-expression through discussions, stories, poems, dance and photography. We knew that our words were taken seriously, that our knowledge mattered and that our story-telling, writings, photos and dance made our lives visible. We used the opportunities offered to us to express ourselves about what needs to be said about our lives. We talked, wrote, photographed and danced ourselves into existence, imagining new ways of being a young lesbian.
Developing problem solving, risk-taking and the ability to exercise choice: Sometimes we doubted our ability to create and became anxious, saying things like: ‘I am not a writer. I have never taken photos in my life.’ Yet, we engaged with the creative process and nothing bad happened! We had to think critically about which creative media we wanted to use to express a particular idea or message and we had to solve problems through our stories and in collaborating to express ourselves in dance. We had to open ourselves up to new ideas, new possibilities, new images of ourselves, imagine new possibilities, new choices and to look at things from different perspectives.
For example, one thing that was most painful for many of us was how our mothers treated us with rejection, criticism and humiliation. Through discussion and reflection we realised that our mothers were also suffering from the effects of patriarchy and homophobia, for not raising an obedient heterosexual daughter and future wife – so our mothers tried to change us through treating us badly! Some of us began writing letters to our mothers, or stories from the perspectives of our mothers, which can help us in building new and different relationship with our mothers. Creativity thus encouraged us to solve problems in new and surprising ways!
3. BUILDING RESILIENCE THROUGH CONNECTEDNESS
Sisterhood: Through coming together in this project some of us have been able to come out of our complete isolation. We have gone beyond our usual socialising activities and connected with each other at deeper, more personal as well as political levels. We have disclosed life experiences that we never expected to share with others, and are building support networks in our various communities.
Healing ourselves through sharing, creativity and spirituality: Our workshops and meetings broke the culture of silence and created opportunities for talking and sharing: for remembering experiences and the feelings they invoked; and releasing painful emotions through healing rituals and meditation, story-telling, dance and creating positive images of ourselves. Our creative processes were filled with emotions: There was much pain and tears, but this time we were not crying alone, there were people who were witness to our experiences of violence, there was compassion and empathy and we held and supported each other.
There was also a lot of joy in completing and sharing a poem or a story, a lot of laughter in experimenting and performing our dances. When we danced we were relaxed and focused, full of energy and joy, and for a while we danced away our troubles. Through our stories we were able to laugh at ourselves and see the humour in our lives, for example, when relating stories of how we got into trouble for holding on to our masculine identities in hospital, prison and church environments.
Building resilience through strengthened identity and pride: All project activities strengthened our sexual orientation and gender identities as a source of pride and celebration. Our identities are shaped by the account of our lives, found in our stories. In other words, we create who we are through the stories we tell about our lives. The following are the protective factors that are strengthening our identities as young lesbians.
Herstory matters - Acquiring a historical perspective of lesbian struggles in Namibia: The sharing by the facilitators of some of the history and struggle of lesbians in Namibia, Southern Africa, the continent and globally fostered a sense of pride and endurance, and strengthened intergenerational relations between older lesbians (the project facilitators) and young lesbian women. This provided greater understanding of what life was like for lesbians in the past, which gave a greater appreciation of advances in lesbian women’s lives in Namibia.
As young lesbians we realised that there was a period of intense repression of our people but that even then there were lesbians who courageously showed themselves and spoke out for our rights. We realised that we have role models who still continue to guide us. Learning about our history also helped us identify where further progress is needed. We thus learnt that before people can change anything they need to understand and contextualise the history of their oppression. Knowing our history made us proud lesbians. When we have pride in our own identity as lesbians we are better able to protect ourselves from anything that is threatening our wellbeing.
We are bearers of human rights and sexual rights: Learning about our human rights made us realise that as young lesbians we have the right to have rights, and that all human beings including lesbians have dignity and are bearers of rights - human rights, women’s rights including sexual rights. We used this knowledge to make connections between our lives and the violations of our human rights. Knowledge of human rights helped us to understand that we are individually and collectively responsible for protecting our rights, and that the Namibian government also has the responsibility to safeguard our right to life, to health and well-being, to education, and to freedom from humiliation, torture and degrading treatment. As young lesbians we have the right to be included in policies that protect people from violence and HIV and Aids.
Naming ourselves: Through our discussions and stories we recalled the negative names others have called us, such as devil, Satan, moffie and man-hater. We said that we need to reject these devaluing names others have created for us and that we have to claim our lesbian identity and the power of naming ourselves. We said that we were lesbians, women who love women, that we were attracted to women. We are the ones who choose pleasure and independence, and who do not need a man to protect us. We said we are womyn, queer, dyke, butch, femme. We said that our identity can be fluid and that we can choose to have labels or not to have labels. We said:
I love being a woman and I love other women. I am free spirited and spread my love.
I have been lesbian since childhood – there is a small boy inside me. I was born in a Christian family.
My sister calls me bisexual.
Inside me there is a hard butch sister.
I called myself a political lesbian before I ever fell in love with a woman.
Some of us are lesbian men.
We are feminists!
Breaking the silence on violence, stigma, discrimination in our lives: When we write and tell our ‘herstories’, our experiences no longer remain isolated incidents shrouded in secrecy and taboos. Instead they become a record of the systems of patriarchy and homophobia which rule in our society. When we recognise them for what they are and know the dangers they pose for our autonomy and dignity we can discharge them from our lives. After we have recognised our oppression as lesbian women, we progressively acquire the power and regain our agency to discharge everything and everyone who does not act in our interest: anyone who denies our human-ness and leaves us vulnerable to violation and HIV and Aids. This knowledge gives us power because it tells us what we need to change within ourselves as well as in our society in order for all of us to live wholesome lives. In breaking silence we are contributing to feminist knowledge in Namibia and Africa, and particularly to women’s narratives on sexuality and sexual rights. Through breaking the silence about our lives and facing the painful experiences and emotions that silenced us we are healing ourselves.
Resisting heteronormativity: As young lesbians we are non-conforming, resisting heteronormativity. We are rebellious and courageous. We give our love to other women.
Knowing our sexual rights and practising safer sex! We shared our knowledge and experiences with safer sex practices as lesbians and formulated strategies that go beyond the prevalent ABC: ‘abstain – be faithful – condomise’ prevention messages. We encouraged each other to take more responsibility for our sexual and reproductive health and well-being, as well as the health and well-being of our partners and peers, while at the same time recognising the many socio-cultural factors that create barriers for lesbian sexual and reproductive health and well-being, and that require resilience and resistance to be overcome. We know poverty forces young lesbians into transactional sex, that homophobia forces us into heterosexual sex, and that we are raped, all of which increase our risk of becoming infected with HIV and Aids. We know now that we have to take our own protection seriously through the use of condoms, dental dams, finger cots and plastic wrap! We shared information on lesbian-friendly health facilities in Windhoek and other towns with lesbian or gay staff. We advised each other on going for health checks and screenings for breast cancer and cervical cancer, despite the discomfort this may cause those of us who identify as masculine or butch.
Creating new ways of being a young lesbian: In revolutionary ways we utilised writing, photography and other forms of creative expression to offer radically different images of ourselves. The safe spaces created by the project positioned young lesbian women as thinkers, researchers, writers, photographers, leaders and advocates. We wrote our stories – we are becoming writers; and we took our photos – we are becoming photographers! We took the lead in our towns and villages to share human rights and ways of protecting ourselves from HIV and aids and we showed our faces in advocating for our collective rights.
ABOUT THE WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP CENTRE
The Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) is a feminist organisation based in Windhoek, Namibia. We envision a society in which all women actively engage in shaping the politics, practices and values of both public and private spaces.
The WLC facilitates the voice, visibility and leadership of Namibian women, in particular women from marginalised groups, through research, education and training, advocacy, writing, photography and the publishing of critical feminist texts which we distribute within our society. www.wlc-namibia.org
* Liz Frank and Elizabeth Khaxas have been lesbian feminist activists, writers, researchers and lovers over the past 25 years, first volunteering and working for Sister Namibia, now working in the Women’s Leadership Centre.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
* BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!