Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

CULTURE-ZIMBABWE: "Dogs and Pigs" No More?

Wilson Johwa

BULAWAYO, May 23 2004 (IPS) - “Worse than dogs and pigs” is how Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe described homosexuals almost a decade ago, when the gay community attempted to highlight widespread homophobia in the Southern African country.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. (Photo: AP) Credit: PictureNET Africa

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. (Photo: AP) Credit: PictureNET Africa

That statement, reported around the world, still reverberates in the country, casting a long shadow over the exercise of sexual freedom. Under Zimbabwean law homosexuality as such is not illegal. But sodomy – narrowly defined as anal sex between men – is.

Yet, in subtle ways, things are also changing. Intolerance, particularly at the official level, seems to have mellowed into indifference. The random and all too frequent arrest of gays appears to have ceased, while the police’s last raid of the Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (GALZ) office was in 1996.

“We have a good relationship with our local station,” says Keith Goddard, who heads the 400-member organisation. “They treat us with great professionalism.”

Furthermore last July, after years of fighting, gays were allowed to set up their own stand at the annual Zimbabwe International Book Fair – no small feat, considering that their presence at the 1995 event caused a fiasco.

“We thought it was a positive development and we can now put that whole campaign to rest,” Goddard told IPS.

Buoyed by a new-found confidence, the gay community is now pushing for greater recognition by society.

“I wouldn’t say there is complete acceptance, but there is growing understanding regarding what being gay, or lesbian, is about,” Goddard observes.

Ironically, the impetus for such transformation was the sensational sodomy trial of Zimbabwe’s first post-independence president, Canaan Banana, in 1998.

Testimonies during the 17-day court proceeding revealed the ex-President as a closet homosexual who abused male subordinates while in State House. Banana was subsequently convicted of sodomy and jailed for a year. In November 2003 he died – a publicly disgraced figure.

Goddard says that although Banana’s trial was more about abuse than the pursuit of sexual freedom, “it went a long way to convince people that being gay is not a white-imported thing.”

Since then Goddard and several other high-profile GALZ members have frequently been invited to address various groups. The organisation itself conducts regular workshops on matters such as sexual identity and the blackmail of gays – something that, happily, has declined sharply.

In its awareness and educational work GALZ focuses on the younger generation, ignoring peers of the 80-year-old president. The belief is that the minds of these individuals are set – and that nothing much can be done to change their views on homosexuality.

In 1999 when the government attempted to write a new constitution, GALZ pushed for the inclusion of a sexual orientation clause. This was resisted and the government’s draft constitution was itself rejected in a referendum, albeit for different reasons.

A GALZ representative who calls himself Chesterfield participated in the process. One of the first homosexuals to be open about his sexual orientation, the 29-year-old says his family was confused and frightened by the president’s harsh statement. Fearing official opprobrium, his father confronted him on the matter for the first time ever, and threatened to report him to the police.

Fortunately the older man has since relaxed his position, and now even manages to enquire about Chesterfield’s partner of 10 years. The rest of the family also appears to have developed greater understanding. “But it was different for my sister,” Chesterfield remarks, “maybe because of the competition that I’d snatch her boyfriends.”

Ironically, one of the most repressive laws to be put on Zimbabwe’s books – the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act of 2002 – protects the sexual orientation of citizens. But in a country where the law is often applied selectively, Goddard wonders if it’s not just meant to shield those higher up in government.

Since the 1990s GALZ’s priority has been preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS amongst the gays – this despite fears that a close association with AIDS awareness efforts would cause the disease to be perceived as a ‘gay plague’.

The group stepped into the fray because it was concerned that information about preventing HIV transmission appeared to be aimed at heterosexuals. “Our issue, the gay and lesbian issue, is completely ignored,” Goddard says.

However, in 2000, the association was pleasantly surprised to receive a small sum of tax payers’ money from the government-run National AIDS Council.

An audit later found that “we were one of the organisations which put the money to good use,” Goddard says.

At present, GALZ is one of the few lobby groups in Zimbabwe that has got a treatment plan up-and-running for people with full-blown AIDS. “We don’t want our members to die of AIDS – they can die of accidents,” says GALZ health manager Martha Tholanah.

Before the end of the year, the association intends to make condom packs available to gays and lesbians – and to put up posters that warn people about the ways in which gays might be vulnerable to AIDS.

Taking its agenda a step further, GALZ has also applied to present a paper at the national AIDS conference scheduled for next month.

Chesterfield says awareness about homosexuality might have increased, but that the subject still makes many Zimbabweans uncomfortable. “People know, but don’t want to be confronted with the ‘in your face visibility’ of gay people,” he told IPS.

 
Republish | | Print |