Sunday, March 4, 2012

The queer side of town

Despite the fact that tolerance of LGBTI rights in Namibia still has a long way to go (case in point: apparently the police dockets recording Mr. Gay Namibia’s assault have vanished), there still is a thriving LGBTI social scene in Namibia, even if it’s not quite as overt as, say, The Village in Toronto. Namibia’s first beauty pageant for gay men, one of my most fun nights in Namibia, was a great reminder of that.

I’m always surprised at how much there is going on here in Windhoek, given the generally not-so-friendly political attitudes of mainstream Namibian society towards homosexuality. Besides gay beauty pageants, there are numerous activist organizations such as LGBT Network Namibia, Out-Right Namibia, and the pro-lesbian feminist Sister Namibia. There’s even an LGBTI travel agency catering to international travelers. I’ve had the chance to meet all sorts of folks from Namibia’s LGBTI community, young, older, Afrikaner, black, coloured, foreigner, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – it’s quite the rainbow. I’ve also had the chance to check out some of the unofficial LGBTI hang out spots.

One of these places was Sulie’s, a bar deep in the heart of the Katutura township where the black and coloured LGBTI folks like to frequent. It’s nothing like the North American or European gay clubs– no flamboyant flash, disco dazzle or even rainbows. Instead, it’s just a tin-walled place on a residential street, looking almost like any random shebeen in Katutura, with kwaito hiphop music and men sitting on wooden benches, talking to women – until you realize some of the high-heeled women in the bar are actually drag queens.

note: W, not a drag queen.

I met up with W, Micheal, and Solomon at Sulie’s. This was perhaps ironically after I'd spoken to a class of grade seven kids at an after school program about the dangers of young people drinking alcohol. Micheal was a bit nervous about taking me there. Like most places in Katutura, any white person there tended to stick out like a sore thumb, and an Asian woman even more so. There still is quite the divide between the black and white gay communities in Namibia. This was a regular hangout spot for locals (albeit LGBTI locals), not a tourist destination, so to attract too much attention to yourself always ran the risk of being robbed. Luckily, nobody paid much attention to me once we got in the bar, and we sat down on a wooden bench in the hallway with our Windhoek Lager. It was a pretty neat sight, but I felt like it would be a bad idea to take out my camera and start playing tourist.

barbed wires everywhere, as usual

Micheal introduced me to a beautiful but shy drag queen, who ran away soon after telling me her name.

W told me I had to check out the bathrooms. They were like the toilets you’d find at a lot of the bars here – no lights, no lock, no toilet paper, and definitely no desire to do anything but squat over it – but the nature of the graffiti on the bathroom walls were just a little bit different.

view from the loo

it seems like Namibia's LGBTI scene has its own peculiarities - the segregation of communities by race, for example, I guess as a leftover from the apartheid area. Although there are plenty of interracial couples and international hookups, it seems like as communities, the blacks and whites are seperate and hang out in seperate spaces. On the other hand, some things seem to be universal, such as complaints about your ex, and dramatic complications arising from one's friends all dating each other.

Another place I checked out was “Gay Night” at King’s Jazz, located closer to my end of town in Ausspannplatz. King’s is not a gay bar. It’s a sports and gambling bar, which to me strikes me as a pretty heterosexual male kind of thing. But I recently found out through the community that Wednesday nights were the new gay night.

“I’m not going to go to Gay Night,” I declared. “I’m tired and it’s Wednesday.”

“But they have five dollar shooters,” W told me.*

“Okay, fine, I’ll go.”

*Five Namibian dollars is less than one Canadian dollar.

It was an odd setting. There were a few coloured lesbians smoking near the patio, a few young gay couples dancing, and a number of regulars gambling on the slot machines and watching the rugby game on the big screen TV. You gotta love the random juxtapositions that you find in this city sometimes.

W and me, being fabulous, as a dude watches sports behind us

micheal says I'm going to pretend I'm not grossed out by Gloria invading my personal space

The music was definitely a lot more of what I’d expect from a gay club like Stonewall’s – Tina Tiner, Whitney Houston, even a sprinkling of Village People. It was mostly just us on the dance floor though. Maybe because North American flamboyancy isn’t the same as African flamboyancy. Maybe because folks still aren’t comfortable coming out in a generally straight space. Or maybe because it was a Wednesday.