The drag night at the heart of LGBTQ rights in Namibia
It’s Drag Night in Namibia and loft for you, the venue in the country’s central capital Windhoek, is filled with revelers. A diverse crowd that varies widely in age, race, sexual and gender expression greedily seeps through the doors. As soon as they pass the flags of various intersectoral Pride and civil rights groups, they are awed by a group of charismatic performers. Between sultry, shimmering performances exploding with strange joy, activist Omar van Reenen takes the stage.
“What we are doing here today is great,” they say. Behind them hangs a rainbow flag with the word “Peace”. The site is almost full. The crowd, which is the largest to attend Drag Night Namibia since its inception in 2020, is electrified. “Taking a place in birth-free Namibia,” Omar continues. “This is what our liberators fought for. Because their blood waters our freedom too!” The crowd erupts in enthusiastic applause.
Anyone familiar with drag scenes from virtually anywhere in the world would feel Omar’s words. Throughout its history, drag art has been associated with subversive queer politics that challenge heteropatriarchal systems of power and advocate for LGBTQ+ equality through radical and often playful subversion of gender norms. For decades, the drag club has been a natural home for activists.
“At its core, a drag character is a political statement,” says Rodelio Lewis, founder and CEO of Drag Night Namibia, who also hosts events as Ms. Mavis Dash’s drag persona. “It’s very satirical at times, but most of our performers take it very seriously. It’s a political statement every time they go on stage or wear clothes.”
This is especially true in Namibia, where the civil rights struggle of the LGBTQ+ community has intensified significantly over the past few years. For a country with such a small population (only 2.5 million), the number of lawsuits against state-sanctioned homophobia is astounding. In fact, the evening event takes place between two Supreme Court hearings on advancing LGBTQ+ civil rights that have been in the making for years.
On March 3, the court heard a complaint about the state’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other countries, thereby depriving families with foreign-born queer Namibian spouses of the right to claim a place to live and work. A few days later, on March 6, the Supreme Court heard a case about the parental rights of same-sex families. The outcome of these cases will make a huge difference to queer Namibians and their families for generations to come.
A small but determined civil rights movement in the country, led mostly by young people, has rallied not only around these legal issues, but also around spaces like Drag Night that cater to other sides of the queer experience—joy, community, and celebration. . As Rodelio reflects, “This is one piece of the puzzle of this fantastic collaboration between queer organizations and allies in the movement for equality and inclusion.”
For many of those present, especially those involved in activism, this is a meaningful experience. “With all the painful things that are going on in this fight, it’s good to be in a safe place with our people,” says Daniel Digasu, who is a party to the previously mentioned marriage recognition case. “I broke down a few times because it’s so special,” he continues. “I feel like we deserve it, this piece of happiness.”
Despite centuries of heritage, drag continues to provide LGBTQ+ people with an opportunity to experiment and express their gender, and to mobilize them to meet the ongoing need to fight for civil rights in Namibia and around the world.