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Trans Woman Wins Landmark Court Case in Zimbabwe

rikki Nathanson

In a landmark ruling, a court in Zimbabwe has awarded damages to transgender woman Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson in her lawsuit against police for unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, and emotional distress, all stemming from her arrest for using a women’s restroom in a bar.

“This is the first case in which the country’s judiciary has recognised that gender does not have to be either male or female,” said a statement issued by OutRight Action International, where Nathanson is a board member.

Nathanson was arrested in January 2014 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, by six riot police officers on charges of criminal nuisance because she was wearing women’s clothing and had used the women’s restroom in the nightclub.

“She was forced to undergo invasive and humiliating medical/physical examination and asked to remove her clothes in front of five male police officers in order to ‘verify her gender,’” according to a Southern Africa Litigation Center press release. “She was forced to spend two nights in police holding cells in the most appalling conditions.”

Eventually, the criminal nuisance charge was dismissed, as a judge pointed out to the case’s prosecutor that the charge usually involves actions that create a disturbance, such as setting off firecrackers in a public place. The prosecutor did not have evidence that Nathanson had created any disturbance, and the judge ruled in 2017 that she did not commit any crime by entering the ladies’ room, so there was no case against her.

Nathanson filed a civil lawsuit against the police, other government officials, and the man who called the police. In a ruling made public Thursday, High Court Justice Francis Bere found in her favor.

“For three days, the plaintiff in this case was not only deprived of her liberty but was subjected to forced anatomical examination in the most crude and naked manner by adventurous members of the police,” Bere wrote, according to Zimbabwean news site iHarare. “As if that was not enough, she was then subjected to further invasive examination by two doctors at two different medical institutions all because of her transgender status, something that she did not invite upon herself.”

“One cannot avoid concluding that the conduct of the police in arresting and detaining the plaintiff was quite outrageous because clearly, they abused their discretion in arresting her,” Bere continued. “The prosecution of the plaintiff was both thoughtless and malicious.”

Nathanson had sought $2.7 million (in U.S. currency) in damages, but Bere awarded her 400,000 Zimbabwean dollars, which comes out to about $1,100 in U.S. currency. “The quantification of damages is not meant to enrich the victim, but to try and salvage some kind of dignity for the pain endured by the victim,” he wrote. He also ordered the defendants to pay court costs.

Nathanson, who founded the activist group Trans Research, Education, Advocacy and Training in Zimbabwe, now lives in Rockville, Md., and is the assistant to the chief of staff at Casa Ruby, a trans organization in Washington, D.C., the Washington Blade reports. She was granted asylum in the U.S. about a year ago because she had been persecuted in Zimbabwe.

“I was really, really, really, really excited and really happy,” Nathanson told the Blade about the ruling, adding, “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.” She said her case was about 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.

iHarare’s report on her case got in a dig at the late Robert Mugabe, the virulently anti-LGBTQ politician who was president of Zimbabwe from 1987 until being overthrown in 2017; he died in September of this year. Its headline began, “Mugabe TURNING in His Grave.”

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