Transgender activist from Zimbabwe receives asylum in US

Ricky "Rikki" Nathanson, a prominent transgender activist from Zimbabwe, has received asylum in the U.S. She now works at Casa Ruby in D.C.

Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson is a transgender activist from Zimbabwe who received asylum in the U.S. in February. She spoke with the Washington Blade at her office at Casa Ruby in Northwest D.C. on May 3, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A prominent transgender activist from Zimbabwe has received asylum in the U.S.

Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson, founder of Trans Research, Education, Advocacy and Training (TREAT), a trans advocacy group in Zimbabwe, applied for asylum on Dec. 27, 2018, after she traveled to D.C. from New York where she had attended OutRight Action International’s annual summit. The U.S. granted Nathanson asylum on Feb. 15.

“I actually am feeling really much at home,” Nathanson told the Washington Blade on May 3 during an interview at her office at Casa Ruby where she is the director of HIV/AIDS prevention and outreach. “I’ve been welcomed by a lot of people.”

Treatment after 2014 arrest was ‘terrible’

Police in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo in January 2014 arrested Nathanson after she used a women’s restroom in a hotel. Nathanson told the Blade she was stripped naked in front of five police officers and was kept in jail for three days.

“It was terrible,” she said.

Nathanson in August 2014 filed a lawsuit against Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs minister, the commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the assistant commissioner of the Bulawayo Central Police Station and the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s Youth League who instigated her arrest.

A hearing on Nathanson’s lawsuit took place in a Bulawayo court for three days in the summer of 2017. The judge who heard the case said he would issue a ruling within a month of the trial, but Nathanson told the Blade “up until today we’ve heard nothing.”

Nathanson told the Blade a car began to follow her in August 2018 and she realized her phone had also been tapped.

She said someone broke into her home last October while she was out with a group of friends. Nathanson told the Blade the police who responded several hours after she discovered the burglary told her to file a report, but “there was no follow-up.”

She said three men who she described as “thugs” broke into her home a week later at around 2 a.m. and attacked her.

“I woke up and I got out of bed,” Nathanson told the Blade, noting a noise in the hallway woke her up. “As I walked into the passage I saw these three men walking towards me. They were in the house. They said, ‘Turn around, don’t look at us. Turn around and hop into bed.’”

Nathanson said the men then beat her with a baton while she was under the sheets.

“It was all frightening,” she told the Blade. “All this time they were saying to me, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know who you’re messing with. You’re messing with the wrong people. Stop what you’re doing. How can you try to force yourself to be a thing that you’re not, a person that you’re not when you are in fact actually a man.’”

Nathanson said her lawsuit likely instigated the attack.

She told the Blade the two ZANU-PF officials who arrested her in 2014 saw her on the street a few days later before she travelled to New York for an OutRight Action International meeting and shouted, “Why are you still walking around? Why haven’t you disappeared?” Nathanson said she walked to her car and drove away.

Nathanson entered the U.S. on Nov. 28, 2018, with a visa that would have allowed her to remain in the country through July.

She said TREAT’s finance officer called her a few days later and told her that a neighbor said “thugs” had once again broken into her home. Nathanson also said they went to TREAT’s offices and said they needed her “urgently” at the Bulawayo offices of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization.

Nathanson was scheduled to return to Zimbabwe on Dec. 13, but she told the Blade state security officials would arrest her once she arrived in the country.

“That is why I decided it wasn’t safe for me to go home,” said Nathanson.

New Zimbabwe president is ‘ruthless man’

The government of former President Robert Mugabe, who resigned in November 2017, frequently targeted LGBTI activists and other groups.

Nathanson noted to the Blade that ZANU-PF invited her and other leading LGBTI activists to a press conference in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, before last July’s presidential elections because “they wanted our vote.”

“We voiced our skepticism at how genuine we thought the government and ZANU-PF was by reaching out to us,” said Nathanson. “As we anticipated, nothing has really changed in Zimbabwe. If anything, it has gotten worse. I don’t think it will get any better.”

“They’re not saying anything outrightly adverse against the LGBT community of Zimbabwe, but they are not making any concession,” she added. “It’s like a simmering pot. There’s something brewing at the bottom. One day they will announce something and it will just happen.”

Nathanson also noted to the Blade that current President Emmerson Mnangagwa oversaw the killing of thousands of Ndebele civilians during the Gukarahundi massacres in the 1980s.

“Mnangagwa is a ruthless, ruthless man,” said Nathanson.

Nathanson finds refuge in US

Nathanson has been living in Rockville, Md., with Steve Brooks and his Zimbabwean partner, Talent Nyathi, and another Zimbabwean asylum seeker, since Dec. 9, 2018.

Nathanson has continued her advocacy from here in the U.S., including speaking at an OutRight Action International fundraiser at the Line Hotel in Adams Morgan. on April 11. OutRight Action International on Tuesday will honor Nathanson at its annual gala in New York.

She acknowledged the growing concerns over the Trump administration’s policies towards LGBTI Americans and asylum seekers. Nathanson also noted to the Blade that Trump “won’t be in power forever.”

“Elections are in 2020,” said Nathanson. “There are checks and balances. He has a very strong opposition in Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.”

Nathanson said she attended an International Rescue Commission meeting the day before she spoke with the Blade and met a young gay man from El Salvador who had been in a detention center for more than seven months before he was granted asylum. Nathanson said listening “to his story and what he went through at the detention center was horrific.”

“It’s horrific,” she told the Blade.

“My experience pales by experience,” added Nathanson.

Nathanson acknowledged violence based on gender identity remains a problem in D.C., but she said she has “no fear of my personal safety or integrity for being the person I am.”

“I feel so much more peace and so much more at ease because I now can live my life as it is meant to be lived without fear of being persecuted by the government or whatever,” said Nathanson.

“Even though Trump is uttering all that he is uttering, I am still much more comfortable in the United States,” she added.

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