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Mercedez: ‘I’m a goddess’

Like any­where else in the world, it is Namibia’s transgender com­mu­nity that is most vul­ner­a­ble in a ho­mo­pho­bic, pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. Liv­ing trans and proud is a lit­mus test for in­tol­er­ance.

One of the most vis­i­ble faces of the LGBTI com­mu­nity here is transgender icon Mercedez von Cloete (29). She be­gan her tran­si­tion eight years ago. Although she does not con­sider her­self an ac­tivist, she has re­lent­lessly aided LGBTI vis­i­bil­ity and aware­ness by shar­ing her story pub­licly.

Dressed in lay­ered, flow­ing gar­ments, with a con­fi­dent and gra­cious strut and larger-than-life per­son­al­ity, Mercedez at­tracts at­ten­tion from pa­trons and staff alike as soon as she en­ters the res­tau­rant in the CBD where we agree to meet.

Ev­ery step of her jour­ney has meant over­com­ing ho­mo­pho­bia. She ap­peared on the front page of the Namib­ian news­pa­per for re­fus­ing to shave off her hair when she ap­plied for a new pass­port at the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs in 2012. They in­sisted that her pass­port photo look like a man and not the woman she is. Through­out the well-mean­ing ar­ti­cle she is re­ferred to as “he”.

Mercedez has since be­come a re­spected and loved en­ter­tainer in Windhoek, a live event host, mu­sic pro­moter and voice artist.

She is cau­tious when she is asked about grow­ing up in a con­ser­va­tive town in the south of the coun­try.

“I have al­ways been ef­fem­i­nate,” she says. “Peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand what it means to be trans and, grow­ing up, there were no vis­i­ble fig­ures at the time.”

She tells me that she was sim­ply try­ing to re­flect, on the out­side, the woman that she al­ways knew her­self to be on the in­side.

“I was al­ways a princess ... or, rather, a goddess,” she gig­gles. On ra­dio, Mercedez is the voice of Namib­ian women, but most trans peo­ple here end up in mun­dane jobs as they try to raise funds for their gen­der re­as­sign­ment surgery. They mostly work in su­per­mar­kets and re­tail stores, and most of­ten have to as­sume their birth gen­der to get th­ese jobs. Mercedez was de­ter­mined to carve her own ca­reer and cre­ate her own fi­nan­cial free­dom.

“The plan was al­ways to cre­ate a lit­tle space for my­self, where I could do the things that I loved and en­joyed do­ing,” she says about her work.

I last spot­ted her host­ing the launch of Pow­er­pad Girls, an or­gan­i­sa­tion of young women, which raises funds for re­us­able san­i­tary tow­els as well as men­strual ed­u­ca­tion for girls. The launch was at the Ware­house Theatre, a pop­u­lar queer-friendly and safe space for the com­mu­nity, that has even hosted Windhoek Pride events in the past.

“I am still learn­ing that with vis­i­bil­ity comes re­spon­si­bil­ity. Choos­ing to share my story pub­licly, and be­ing open about my tran­si­tion has been one of the most dif­fi­cult, yet lib­er­at­ing, choices that I have made,” says Mercedez of her jour­ney to self-ac­cep­tance and liv­ing her truth.

“I cer­tainly would not want my sin­gle story to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the en­tire trans ex­pe­ri­ence here in Namibia, though,” she says.

Adri­ano: ‘Com­ing out is re­spect­ful’

Adri­ano Vis­agie (27) is a man about town. A banker by day, he ar­rives for our in­ter­view af­ter work dressed in a chic polo neck sweater and muted brown tones.

But the ac­tor and LGBTI ac­tivist by night has trav­elled some dis­tance from work­ing-class Khomas­dal, the Windhoek town­ship in which he was raised.

Namib­ians, you will no­tice, have a pas­sion for neat­ness. You see very lit­tle lit­ter in the town­ships or the town, but a colo­nial shadow still lingers over the city. Many streets are named af­ter fa­mous Ger­mans and there is a grow­ing im­pe­tus to re­name some af­ter strug­gle he­roes. That said, Adri­ano points out that it is Germany that to­day funds the bulk of the city’s arts and cul­ture, a safe space for its queer ci­ti­zens.

But black life, and es­pe­cially black queer life, must still fight for equal­ity in the work­place.

Adri­ano and I meet at a cof­fee shop ad­join­ing an ice cream shop that is a pop­u­lar hang­out spot for young Namib­ians.

Adri­ano is steadily liv­ing his free­dom. He came out only two years ago.

“Com­ing out is re­spect­ful to your fam­ily,” he says.

It’s em­brac­ing the truth. Even so, it has been hard for him to dis­close his ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with an­other man.

“It’s not about keep­ing your re­la­tion­ship a se­cret, but about be­ing pri­vate,” he says, ner­vous of how the news would be re­ceived by his col­leagues, friends and ex­tended fam­ily.

Just Tina, a one-man show he per­formed re­cently at The Ware­house, was a test­ing ground for him. In the show, he dressed in drag and be­came Tina Turner, telling her story of spousal abuse as a way to tackle gen­der-based vi­o­lence in Namib­ian so­ci­ety.

He had to tell his fam­ily what was go­ing to hap­pen and he feared his cor­po­rate rep­u­ta­tion would be dented if the show was writ­ten about in a news­pa­per. In the end, Just Tina was sold out and it did ap­pear in the pa­per, but noth­ing bad hap­pened. His col­leagues were cu­ri­ous, ask­ing ques­tions and giv­ing him a chance to speak about the is­sues in the show. It’s booked to come back to the theatre due to pop­u­lar de­mand.

Sunyè: ‘Les­bians don’t have it as bad as gays’

“Of­ten, at 21, com­ing out or ask­ing peo­ple to recog­nise that you’re les­bian, or even bi­sex­ual for that mat­ter, is deemed to be just a phase and never re­ally taken se­ri­ously,” says Sunya Beukes (27), a pro­fes­sional artist and body painter.

I meet with her close to her of­fice in a rich part of town, where the street names are in Ger­man.

The sit­u­a­tion can change, of course – if you are suc­cess­ful in your ca­reer and can pro­vide for your fam­ily, then you’re more likely to be tol­er­ated.

Few peo­ple in her fam­ily know how she iden­ti­fies be­cause she hails from the ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive Ka­tima Mulilo in the north east.

Her mother is in the church and has ac­cepted her daugh­ter, but cau­tiously. You get the sense she’d pre­fer Sunyè to keep the is­sue as quiet as pos­si­ble.

Life is bet­ter in Namibia for les­bians than for other queers, she says – you “pass” more eas­ily and it’s not a crime to have sex. Her gay brother has it worse than her.

Mercedez: ‘The fu­ture is in­ter­sec­tional’

“I was al­ways go­ing to tran­si­tion. I was al­ways go­ing to be the woman I wanted to be­come,” says a gra­cious but no-non­sense Mercedez back in the res­tau­rant.

She de­scribes how ev­ery­one around her be­lieves that tran­si­tion­ing was just a phase that she was go­ing through and would even­tu­ally grow out of. Her tran­si­tion, she says, has been a grad­ual process, hav­ing started with hor­mones three years af­ter al­ready liv­ing vis­i­bly as a woman.

“I got the op­por­tu­nity to join a schol­ar­ship pro­gramme in Ber­lin in 2010. I was top of that class. See­ing peo­ple live their lives made me think, if not now, then when?”

She’s do­ing it through pri­vate health­care be­cause state hospi­tals are not an op­tion for the trans com­mu­nity as there is al­most no un­der­stand­ing of the is­sues around transgender life.

On hor­mone treat­ment, her body be­gan to change, to soften and grow curves. The in­ner Mercedez slowly but surely be­came the outer.

“But be­ing transgender is more than sex changes, hor­mones or even the clothes we choose to put on our bod­ies. You are re­spon­si­ble for choos­ing a nar­ra­tive that best fits your life, one that re­flects who you are and how you choose to iden­tify. Don’t be afraid to take up space. The fu­ture isn’t fe­male, it’s in­ter­sec­tional ... It is my re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­ist as my true self.”

Jay: ‘Ev­ery­one can see I’m gay’

Jay Aeron is 22 and an In­sta­gram kid. A fash­ion stylist, make-up artist, me­dia stu­dent and mi­nor celebrity, he has also had to seek his free­dom to be him­self and re­ject the closet.

“I grew up in Karas­burg, a small town in the south, and Uping­ton, where my mother worked. There was no con­ver­sa­tion about my be­ing gay, even though I’d be found out­side with dolls and play­ing with the girls.”

How­ever, there was also no val­i­da­tion.

“And, out­side of my nu­clear fam­ily, I was bul­lied for be­ing flam­boy­ant,” he says.

It got so bad that he had to ar­range with a cleaner at school to get a spare key for a toi­let so that he would not be ha­rassed. Jay is part of the new gen­er­a­tion that firmly be­lieves that clos­ets are for clothes.

“Hav­ing worked in spa­ces like press agen­cies and so forth, I was tol­er­ated for the most part be­cause, let’s be hon­est, any­one and ev­ery­one can see that I am gay.”

He re­fuses to live a lie.

But, that said, this is Windhoek. His goal is to marry rich and get the hell out of here.

● This se­ries on LGBTI life in Africa is made pos­si­ble through a part­ner­ship with The Other Foun­da­tion. To learn more about its work, visit theother­foun­da­tion.org Would you rather your chil­dren stay in the closet than em­bar­rass the fam­ily?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word CLOSET and tell us what you think. In­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

ADRI­ANO Banker by day, ac­tor by night, Adri­ano (left) has had to con­front his fears of re­jec­tion SUNYÈ Your fam­ily will ac­cept you more if you bring home money, says this artist (right)

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