Last edited: February 14, 2005

‘Perversion’ Is a Right

Africa News Service, January 7, 1999

WINDHOEK—There is one right that most southern Africans refuse to accommodate: The right to sexual preference. The norm is a man to a woman. The man to man or woman to woman is ‘perversion’. Those in authority say it is ‘unAfrican’ and evangelists religiously believe it works contrary to God’s intentions and therefore sinful.

Heated debate on homosexuality was kicked up by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He spared no word in his hatred for homosexuals at an International Book Fair in Harare in 1995.

"If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organised drug addicts or even those given to bestiality, the rights they might claim and allege they possess under the rubrics of ‘individual freedom’ and ‘human rights’, including the freedom of the press to write... on them?"

Whether it is in Zambia, Botswana or South Africa, persons claiming the right to sexual preference are treated with contempt, hatred and often come under relentless attack by those in authority and mere persons on the streets. Homophobics believe it is a western concept to allow a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman. Such concept has no place among Africans.

And yet, going back in childhood when herding cattle, young boys who had reached puberty age engaged in what they term in Malawi and Zambia—"matanyula"—a form of sex between boys. Namibia has its own word for homosexual—"eshenge". This word has negative connotations emanating from the hatred of homosexuals amidst their ancient communities dating back to 300 years ago.

But where is this homophobia coming from? And who is to blame? Defenders of this right blame such perception on authorities but more so the media for its negative reporting of sex preference.

When Mugabe made his stand felt to the bones, not even Zimbabwean journalists could stand by their ethics. "Phamberi na Mugabe (forward with Mugabe)," shouted senior journalists who strongly opposed to the recognition of the right to sexual preference. "Never, never in my professional career as a journalist, shall I write anything on gays and lesbians," rattled another.

And across the continent, Baffour Ankomah, one of the London-based New Africa Magazine editors, wrote: "We all love human rights, but gay and lesbianism is one human right Africa doesn’t want! And please let nobody force this typically Western depravity on us. We have enough beautiful women roaming the streets in Africa for us to think about reading gay books..."—referring to the Gays and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe printouts.

In Namibia, then deputy minister of lands and resettlement, Hadino Hishongwa had this for homosexuals: "Homosexuality is like cancer and AIDS and everything should be done to stop its spread in Namibia..." President Sam Nujoma is also on record of saying homosexuality is ‘unAfrican’.

With all these moving statements, ‘perverts’ in Africa—especially in Zimbabwe—are overtly and constantly persecuted, have their homes raided, beaten while police watch idly. Even calls to respect their right to life go unheeded. But is homosexuality a crime? Edwin Sakala of the Zimbabwe Catholic Church replied when asked in 1995 that it was not. "The police are infringing homosexuals’ rights when they invade their homes..." Sakala advised, but in vain.

The onslaught raged on even after the courts in Zimbabwe declared homosexuality a form of expression deserving protection in the same fashion as any other right known to human kind.

When the Zambia’s Lesbians, Gays, Bi-sexuals and Transgender Association (LEGATRA) sought to register as an entity, government ministers took the front row to block its registration. Former president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda and his successor Frederick Chiluba have joined the onslaught.

Liz Frank for ‘Sister Namibia’ magazine holds back no words, and says the media is to blame for most of these attacks. At a media conference recently she outlined the media’s role in creating this perception against gays. Liz’s selected examples of reports demonstrate how the media construct and deconstruct a stereotyped masculinities and femininities.

"Constructing the genders as polar opposites with men supposedly strong, independent, rational and women weak, dependent and emotional creates a justification for the gender hierarchy through which men exercise power and control over women," says Frank.

She further observes that gender boundaries are strictly policed by labeling girls and boys, women and men who do not conform to the expectations of femininity and masculinity as deviant. "For example, soft boys and men are called moffies, tough girls and women are sneered at as bitches or lesbians in a constant effort to bring them into line," she says.

The above example reveals the power of language mostly used by the media to whip up homophobia by labeling someone as a ‘moffie,’ in constructing or giving meaning to genders and sexuality. Besides language, pictures or images also play a powerful role in the social construction of femininities and masculinities. "Both language and images," points out Frank, "are the tools of the media."

But isn’t ‘perversion’ a right? Max Chivasa, a Zimbabwean editor for Technology Today, refuses and vows: "... If human rights are about supporting immorality, then I am inclined not to participate in championing such cause." And yet he admits that homosexuality is "a behaviour known in all societies..." Chivasa said this following Mugabe’s salvo on homosexuals.

Such attacks coming from journalists who are expected to take a middle course line in their reporting, not only endanger the right to free expression they help widen the marginalisation of the minority such as homosexuals and the weak such as women. That is a painful reality, says one observer.

Other observers ask: Why do we have persons claiming this right only now? The general consensus among critics is that homosexuality is cherished because of money and poverty. It is normally the poor being exploited, they say. However, others rightly point out that it has until now not been possible for most who would otherwise come open about their sexual preference largely because of fear of being persecuted.

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