Less than a month after Namibia’s highest court ruled that same-sex marriages should be recognised in the African nation, VICE News has learned that LGBTQ people in the country are facing more homophobia and discrimination than ever before.
In response to the ruling, leading Namibian politicians and church leaders are now publicly speaking out against same-sex relationships, with many encouraging their followers and supporters to fight against the Supreme Court’s landmark decision.
In what is being seen as a major blow to LGBTQ rights, this week, Namibia’s Prime Minister, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila announced a plan to bring an “anti same-sex marriage bill” to the nation, which would effectively ignore the court’s ruling.
During the court’s hearing, VICE News filmed with the gay couple at the centre of the case, Namibian citizen Johann Potgieter and his South African husband, Daniel Digashu. At the time, the family said they were worried about potential backlash from state officials if the verdict did go their way.
“It’s been really heavy,” Digashu told VICE News in April, “the state compared us to animals.” He continued, “I’ve had to seek therapy because I had a few panic attacks, and one of them happened while I was driving.”
Campaigners are now warning people in Namibia to stop using gay hookup apps because of threats of outing, blackmail and violence coming from homophobes catfishing on the platforms. This comes as drag shows and other LGBTQ events have been cancelled for the first time in years because organisers are worried about targeted attacks.
One of the country’s leading queer activists told VICE News that they are scared for their safety, for the first time in their life. Omar van Reenen, founder of LGBTQ rights group Equal Namibia, said this is the biggest threat they’ve seen against the community since they became an equal rights campaigner in their home nation.
“There has been such a big backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling,” van Reenen – who uses they/them pronouns – said, adding. “For the first time in my life, I am terrified.”
“This should be a time of celebration, but instead we’re scared,” they added. “Our politicians and church leaders are really showing their true colours, and they’re at the forefront of oppressing an already marginalised and vulnerable group in Namibia, and in the name of God – a God that’s supposed to promote love and uplift us.”
While Namibia is ultimately seen as a peaceful and tolerant African nation, traditional religious values are still the norm, and approximately 97 percent of the population identifies as Christian.
Namibia’s Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago directed the nation’s government to recognise same-sex marriages that have taken place outside of the country, where one of the partners is born outside of Namibia.
It means that a gay couple in which one is a Namibian and the partner is foreign-born, could technically get married in South Africa, which is next to Namibia and has legalised gay marriage, and then travel back to Namibia to be recognised in law.
As the Supreme Court judgement was announced and LGBTQ groups celebrated, a series of WhatsApp groups were created to fight the ruling – thousands of people joined the groups, openly voicing their hatred towards the LGBTQ community.
VICE News has seen screenshots from several groups, and many of them have hundreds of members, including leading names in Namibian politics and religion.
One group called “Anti-Same Sex/Gay Marriage Campaign 2023”, has a description which says: “We are aware of the advancement of an evil agenda to instigate the interest of sexual immortality – gay marriage – in Namibia, which is against our Christian values as a nation.”
The description ends by saying that “the use of vulgar language and personal attacks (should) be avoided at all costs.” However, VICE News has seen hundreds of violent and hateful messages being sent within the group.
In one message, members are encouraged to wear armbands with a swastika “to identify the non gays.” Someone else adds: “Gays should be burned”.
While exposing the details of an in-person LGBTQ community gathering, a member of the group wrote: “Let’s have an eradication of these citizens, and bring back the two genders that we were also meant to identify as.” Another poster responded “eradicate, behead, torture.”
“There will be no lesbians and no gay marriage in Namibia!” one person said. “Let us fight against same-sex marriage rights in Namibia”, they add, “Let’s stand up for our beautiful country and stop this.”
Alongside a screenshot of Grindr’s download page, one person wrote “I’m busy downloading this app…”
Grindr confirmed to LGBTQ campaigners in Namibia that they had seen a “spike in new profiles” since the verdict. In response, Van Reenen tweeted to their audience: “Please stay off the app in Namibia”.
At Drag Night Namibia, a late night drag show platforming Namibian queer talent, during the Supreme Court’s hearing into same-sex marriage in March, people were trying to stay upbeat.
At the time, the drag performers and audience members were confident that they were safe to celebrate love and pride in the venue without fear, even though Namibia didn’t have legal gay rights. Just a few weeks later, and future events – including their Pride Month special – have been cancelled by the organisers because of threats made against them.
Van Reenen, who was performing at the event, told us that “safety has to come first.”
They added: “Unfortunately we live in a country where we can’t trust our elected representatives to protect our fundamental rights and freedoms, so we can't trust them to protect our safety, especially while they promote violent acts against us. We don’t want anyone put at risk.
“The rest of the world needs to pay attention to what’s happening in Namibia – now more than ever. So many queer people are suffering because our government isn’t being held to account.”
Despite the threats, Van Reenen said they are not giving up.
“I’m now more driven and determined than ever to make sure that our fundamental rights as LGBTQ Namibians don’t get shattered. We have come too far to climb back into the closet.”