November 18, 2019 at 12:13 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Zimbabwe judge issues landmark transgender rights ruling
Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A judge in Zimbabwe on Nov. 14 issued a landmark ruling in favor of a transgender woman who filed a lawsuit over the abuse she suffered after her arrest for using a women’s restroom.

Police in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo in January 2014 arrested Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson after she used a women’s restroom in a hotel.

Nathanson — who is the founder of Trans Research, Education, Advocacy and Training (TREAT), a trans advocacy group in Zimbabwe — told the Washington Blade earlier this year she was kept in jail for three days. The Southern Africa Litigation Center, a South Africa-based group that supported Nathanson during her case, in a press release said she “was forced to undergo invasive and humiliating medical/physical examination (sic) and asked to remove her clothes in front of five male police officers in order to ‘verify her gender'” while in custody.

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 ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s Youth League who instigated her arrest.

A three-day hearing in Nathanson’s lawsuit took place in the Bulawayo High Court in 2017. The judge who ruled in Nathanson’s favor awarded her $400,000 in damages for what the Southern Africa Litigation Center, described as “unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution and emotional distress.”

A Zimbabwean law firm represented Nathanson in court.

OutRight Action International, a global LGBTQ advocacy group, in a press release notes Nathanson’s case is the first time Zimbabwe’s “judiciary has recognized that gender does not have to be either male or female.”

“I was really, really, really, really excited and really happy,” Nathanson on Saturday told the Blade during an interview at the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s annual International LGBTQ Leaders Conference that took place at the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown D.C. “I was elated.”

Nathanson granted asylum in US, works at Casa Ruby

The judge ruled in Nathanson’s favor less than a year after the U.S. granted her asylum because of persecution she suffered in Zimbabwe.

Nathanson, who now lives in Rockville, Md., is the assistant to the chief of staff at Casa Ruby. OutRight Action International in September announced Nathanson had been named to its board of directors.

“There is hope,” said Nathanson when the Blade asked her about the impact of her case. “If you’re resilient and you stand up for what is right and you don’t give up and you are like a pit bull with your teeth stuck in something and you don’t ever let go, something gives and at the end you win.”

Nathanson added her case is “about the judgment and the principle” and not the financial settlement.

“I now know that I’ve changed the lives of millions and millions of other people by taking this one step,” she said.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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