It was in university, around second year, that I came across a Sister Namibia magazine, published by an organisation of the same name, that spoke about feminism and lesbians and equality. I had found my Bible. Without the language to articulate the politics of being a woman in a patriarchal
world, I had consistently challenged everything. Challenged and resisted by cutting my hair and refusing to wear dresses, for no reason other than that I hated that I was expected to t the normative mould of what it meant to be a girl or woman in the society that I lived in.
I openly confronted my university classmates, both men and women, who expressed sexist sentiments. There was nothing too sacred or too serious for me to question. I believe that I had been a feminist my whole life – not understanding why boys got away with bad behaviour and why everyone around me expected more from me in every way imaginable. All I knew was that it wasn’t fair that girls and boys were treated differently.
I wrote an email to Sister Namibia and requested an internship. When I told the head of my department at university that my internship was accepted, he sat me down and told me to be careful. He said that it was a lesbian organisation full of lesbians. I nonchalantly said, ‘So?’, and he said, ‘They are strange, these lesbians, worse than men.’ I never imagined that women could ever be worse than men. And so my eternal curiosity sent me there faster than fast. I had to see what these worse-than- men lesbian women looked like.
At Sister Namibia I was welcomed warmly by the staff. I sat in editorial meetings and shared ideas with the other women there. I honestly could not tell what was different about these women and what made them worse than men, apart from the fact that they challenged the status quo that afforded men more opportunities than it did women. I experienced a warmth and sisterhood that I never knew existed. If these were lesbians, then I was sold. As it turned out, some were, others weren’t, but all were erce feminists!
Sister Namibia had a resource centre that had books about everything – everything I ever wanted to know about my body, and about pleasure, and, nally, about lesbians! I found books that forgave me for masturbating in high school, and stories of brave and rebellious girls and women who refused to be told who to be. I was reborn amongst these feminists/lesbians.
I took my learning and the courage to exist as an unapologetic, loud African woman and threw myself at the world. This of course didn’t always go down well. While I interned at Sister Namibia, my classmates would call me Sheena, the Lesbian, to which I would always answer, “Not yet.” I had never denied my attraction to women or hidden my dislike of chauvinism and the negative masculinity it inspired in the men I went to school with, the lecturers who taught me and the young boys and men whom I worked with in the youth programme I volunteered for.
I remember one lecturer telling me, in a very well-meaning way, ‘This feminism thing is all well and good – as long as you leave it at the office where it belongs. Don’t take that stuff home, it will never work out.’ I smiled and said, ‘Thanks, but if my partner cannot accept that I won’t settle for anything less than an equal partnership, it’s just as well that it doesn’t work out.’
I did volunteer work on HIV and Aids awareness with poor young urban girls and boys and found that all the dominant narratives inspired fear; no one wanted to talk about pleasure and about girls making informed and conscious decisions about their sexuality and sexual relationships.
Because of how vocal I was about the work I did and where I did it, it came as no surprise to many people when I told them that my partner was a woman. I never really had a closet to walk out of, and still have no ‘coming out’ story. I openly challenged lecturers who made sexist comments about women in our classes, and tried to start alternative narratives about sexuality, womanhood and patriarchy in class essays and discussions. I had very little support, but I didn’t really expect much. I had a few friends who would help shape arguments during lectures, and whom I’d vent to whenever we encountered sexism on campus. There were some lecturers who did encourage my rebellion. They told me to write and to refuse to shut up.
Through the years I learned that ‘feminist’ was a dirty word to many people. Very few people called me a feminist as a compliment. And a lesbian feminist is in many ways worse, or so people think. I currently work with the Coalition of African Lesbians as the media, information and communication technology advisor. I love my job, the work we do and the people we work with. It’s always a hard question though, when people ask me where I work. To date, over a year later, my parents don’t know exactly where I work. All they know is that I’m doing ‘that human rights work’. I used to get nervous about telling people where I work, and then I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?
Very recently, at the 55th Session of the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights, I crossed paths with the Deputy Attorney General of Uganda, a big burly man with a loud voice and even louder presence. I was speaking with a Ugandan woman, a lawyer, when he came and introduced himself. I told him that I work for the Coalition of African Lesbians, which he had me repeat several times before deciding that I am not a lesbian – lesbians don’t wear their sexuality proudly or express it as openly as I just had. He asked if I oppose the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, and I said that indeed I do. He asked if I have children and I said that I do, which, for him, was further proof that I cannot be a lesbian. He then said to me, after enquiring whether my child is a girl or a boy, that he awaits the day when my child is anally raped by a grown man so that I can re-evaluate these rights that I so passionately advocate for. I stood in shocked silence, then left. And I knew that I cannot, we cannot stop doing this work, this endless, soul-lifting and soul-crushing work that challenges the idea that there is only one way to exist, one way to love, and one way to be.
But there are also the lighter, funnier parts. There’s the person who heard that I work with the ‘College of African Lesbians’, and who thought that it was such an interesting idea for an institution. There are the people who think working for the Coalition of African Lesbians means that I have access to a database of exciting, single, lesbian women that I should share, which is certainly not part of my job description! In more quiet, subtle ways, I receive emails from friends and former schoolmates from as far back as high school who ask whether I support ‘the rights of those people’ or whether I actually love women. It’s nice to think that people can nd a safe space for sharing and asking questions, and there is always the odd friend who tells me when she’s attending a pride event.
Truth is that it’s hard being a radical African lesbian feminist. Many things upset you. Reading the news becomes something that you wish you could go to therapy for. Taxi ranks are scary. Clubs are scarier. These spaces and many more are generally not safe for women, but the difference is that many feminists don’t know when to shut up, or why they should shut up in the first place. We will challenge, loudly, boldly, and we will resist the boxes society keeps trying to push us back into. I’m many things, and proud of many things, but every day I am thankful for the women before me who stood up, resisted and showed that there can be other ways to be.