By: Madalene Isaacks
I always regarded my realization of my sexuality as both a blessing and a curse at the time that it happened.
A blessing because I realised what it was that always set me apart from the rest of my peers/friends. What is was that made me shy away from the normal ‘boy talks’, from get togethers organised to create opportunities for making out and possible relationships, why I was impatient with the excitement, the giggles, the silliness, the affected mannerisms (I later realised that was some form of flirting) that my girlfriends experienced around and about boys. Of course I experienced those same things with girls, but tried to ignore and dismiss them…until I had no choice and embracing who I was was the only way to get out of the ‘bubble’ that I created for myself. And I embraced it fully.
It was also a curse at the time that it happened (I only fully acknowledged this part of myself when I was 21 years old) because it turned me into this abomination that everyone, especially my God to whom I wanted to dedicate my life to, hated and despised. I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and always wanted to use whatever talents or abilities God gave me in his service. My future was certain. – I would go to one of our churches colleges and then off to do missionary work, that was the dream. That of course, was no more.
I had my fight with God. I cried and I cursed and I blamed him, and at a point I was totally emotionally exhausted and I turned away from him for my own survival at the time, or that’s what I thought. Meanwhile, while this struggle was going on inside myself and outside with my family, the activist in me slowly hatched.
For some reason, even before I could acknowledge my feelings towards other girls/women, the position, the role, the worth, or rather lack thereof, of a girl or woman always frustrated me. And I couldn’t stay quiet. That, coupled with the fact that I always had questions about the way my world was at the time, also contributed to me being seen as the odd one out, the thinker, the bookworm.
Of course I had my friends. Clever girls and women like me, with whom I could share most things and who shared my view of the world. Boys and men, some of who asked why they couldn’t have the same uncomplicated relationship with the women in their lives. I came to realise that part of it was because we related to each other as human beings, not as man and woman.
After university I started a job as a civil servant to work off a government bursary, and it was during this time that I had my first romantic encounter with a woman and I became involved in the only LGBTI organisation in Namibia at the time, as well as the only woman’s organisation that also openly advocated for the rights of lesbian women. I was first invited to serve on their respective Executive Committees and later made the crucial decision to leave my cushy government job and become involved in activism work full time. I accepted a position at the LGBTI organisation in 2001 and it was not long there-after that I met with Judith Kotze during a Sex and Secrecy Conference in Johannesburg.
I remember the meeting so vividly…we were introduced sometime during the conference but really started talking one evening at a reception when both of us were standing around a fireplace contemplating the events of the evening. Significant in that conversation was the fact that we both felt to a large degree out of place in that space. And we realised that what set as apart was us being LGBTI and persons of faith, the aversion we had to the aggressive activism of the day, and most importantly, the total disregard of religion as the biggest shaper of the attitudes and views towards LGBTI people in the context that we lived and worked. We passionately believed that we needed to talk with our churches in a way that brings us together, that focuses on our shared humanity and love for a creator that is merciful and just. Of course IAM at that stage was already busy with exactly this type of activism and for the first time I felt totally and completely certain that this is what I want to immerse myself in. To find my own answers but also because I never felt at ease with the type of activism that was expected of me as a feminist and a human rights activist.
That conversation was the springboard for a partnership between and IAM and The Rainbow Project where I worked, under what we called The Religious Project in 2003. Under this project crucial work was done in Namibia in terms of research, training, skills development as well as materials and resource development, even though at the time few LGBTI organisations saw the need or had the patience to deal with religious leaders and communities. LGBTI Christian support groups were formed, trainings were conducted on the integration of spirituality and sexuality, and importantly, how to reach out to your church community in a way that is constructive and meaningful for both sides.
Several seminars with clergy took place that resulted in dialogue forums where clergy and LGBTI Individuals started to converse for the first time in a way that was meaningful and made it possible to explore the questions and answers together, and through it built relationships that concentrated in what we have in common rather than what set us apart. An important network of open-minded and progressive clergy also developed.
TULINAM, the organisation that I am leading, is a faith-based NGO that was established in 2014 because of the need to sustain important work done so far by Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) and concerned LGBTI individuals in Namibia with faith leaders and communities. Our connection to IAM unquestionably added much credibility to us in the four years of our existence. That connection to IAM, historically but also because of the bonds we formed between us as activists for dialogue working with the dreaded religious fraternity which was not very popular at the time, has been strong and active and will always remain.
I will never be able to forget the moments when, in times when conversations with churches were most difficult and funding was even more challenging, God afforded us the opportunity to sit together and share our anxieties and uncertainties. There was always the certainty that those were just temporary storms, and that God would steer our boats through those waters and we would once again resume the journey, replenished and fired up!
So the journey continues, and everyday I see and experience how our work together keeps on bearing fruit and makes the road that TULINAM is travelling more do-able and lighter. At the moment we are busy with two national projects – one which involves capacitating LGBTI people of faith to engage with religious leaders, and one which focuses on dialogue sessions within congregations. We are ready and confident because of the important groundwork we have done with IAM. We just had an important two-day dialogue with one of the biggest Lutheran Churches in Namibia that will most possibly lead to a new resolution on LGBTI people in their congregations. When the leadership in that room made the decision for a follow-up and partnership with TULINAM, I wished Pieter, Judith and Ingrid could be there and see what their years of commitment and work in Namibia has come to.
And this is what makes our work worthwhile – to see how we all, with commitment and God’s grace, keep the faith in the surety that we will witness the fruit somewhere along the road, as we are doing now. To IAM, God’s speed! We are never alone on this road.
Madelene Isaacks is the Director of IAM regional partner, TULINAM. The organisation is dedicated to celebrating diversity and creating safe spaces for sexual minorities in Namibia. She holds a Bachelors degree from the University of Namibia.