When Wendelinus Hamutenya told his father that he was gay, the then 18-year-old was packed off to the psychiatric ward of theWindhoek Central Hospital.
Seven years later, he’s the country’s most visible gay man, after winning the inaugural “Mr Gay Namibia” pageant — which will make him the first black African to compete for the title of Mr Gay Worldin neighbouring South Africa in April.
“Winning the Mr Gay Namibia title has brought the topic about gays and the whole (gay) community more into the open and I received congratulations from all sectors, also straight people — it was like a breakthrough,” the shy 25-year-old Hamutenya told AFP.
But the breakthrough came with a backlash. Two weeks after winning the title in November, he was beaten by two men who demanded a slice of his prize money.
Neighbours noticed the commotion and rushed into the street to save him. The two assailants escaped, while Hamutenya was hospitalised with bruised ribs and cuts to his nose and forehead that are still visible.
“I laid a case at the nearest police station. I went there a few days ago to hear what progress was made since two months have passed. Police told me the docket got lost,” he told AFP.
Still, he said the response to his victory and the attack — which sparked an outcry among gay groups and more broadly on Facebook — showed how far Namibia has come.
Namibia still has a 1927 sodomy law dating from South African rule. The law is rarely enforced, but in the first decade after independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990, top Namibian leaders repeatedly railed against gays.
“Homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society,” then president Sam Nujoma said in 1996.
“Police are ordered to arrest you and deport you and imprison you,” he said five years later.
In 2000, cabinet minister Jerry Ekandjo said police must “eliminate” gays “from the face of Namibia” and even kill their dogs.
It was in that environment that Hamutenya’s father had him hospitalised.
“At 16, I noticed my attraction to boys and men, and when 18, while still at school, I told my father, who promptly phoned the police to take me to the psychiatric ward of the Windhoek Central Hospital,” Hamutenya said, his soft brown eyes becoming sad.
“It was very heartbreaking to go through all that.”
After a few days, he ran away from the hospital and stayed with friends. Quite a while later his father sent for him and they reconciled. He said his mother, four siblings and the extended family also accept him now.
For Christmas, he returned to the village where he herded cattle as a boy, and received a celebrity welcome.
“The school kids almost treated me like a pop star. I had to give autographs on school shirts,” he said.
His experience remains the exception.
Linda Baumann, director of gay group Outright Namibia, said many lesbians and gay men still enter straight marriages to bow to conventions, while lesbians face the threat of rape from men seeking to “cure” them.
“If lesbians want to lay a charge with the police, they say ‘you asked for it’ and dockets go missing,” Baumann said.
Hamutenya said he hopes his experiences will make it easier for Namibians to come out.
“There are still so many fellow Namibians hiding their gay or lesbian status from family members, but being like that is not a choice one makes, you are born gay or lesbian,” he said.
“Since I became Mr Gay Namibia I receive a lot of calls from teenage boys and young men who realise they are either gay or bi-sexual, but are confused, troubled and scared to come out,” he said.
“So I would like to visit different parts of Namibia and speak to people about acceptance and tolerance.”