African Gays Face Uphill Battle to Acceptance
Reprisals Increase as Gay Community Grows More Vocal
Knight Ridder, December 11, 1998
By Neely Tucker, Knight Ridder Foreign Service
HARARE, ZIMBABWE Marching behind a banner proclaiming "Out
and Proud in Zimbabwe," activists in this nations gay community made their
first public appearance in years last week, demanding an end to the government-sponsored
campaign of vilification against them.
Dubbed as "lower than dogs and pigs" by President Robert Mugabe and
consistently portrayed in state-run news media as perverts, gays and lesbians fight a
difficult battle for acceptance in this southern African nation. The nations former
head of state, Canaan Banana, fled the country two weeks ago after being convicted on
charges that include sodomy and attempted sodomy.
So Thursday afternoon, when a dozen Zimbabwean gay activists joined in a march by
international human rights groups to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, it represented a new chapter in the countrys
relationship with alternative lifestyles.
The march was timed to take advantage of the presence of 4,000 delegates from 332
national churches in more than 100 countries here for the World Council of Churches
eighth assembly. Thursday was also the day Banana was scheduled to be sentenced in
absentia, but that hearing was postponed until Jan. 18.
"I doubt walking down a few city blocks with a banner is really going to change
anything," said Keith Goddard, program director of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe,
or GALZ. "But people are getting braver now. They dont mind being labeled as
Many southern African societies are archly conservative, particularly on gender and
sexuality issues, and political, social and religious leaders often feel deluged by
imported Western cultures and values. The most foreign of these is seen as openly gay
lifestyles, which church leaders and many politicians contend did not exist before white
settlers moved into the region.
"My parents had me raped to prove I could have sex with a man," said Tina
Machidera, director of Ngoni Chaidzo, a support group for lesbians. "Then they took
me to a nyanga (traditional healer), a doctor and a psychiatrist. This isnt a
society thats going to accept change easily."
But Densen Mafinyane, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, says
African cultures must protect themselves and their morality.
"Historically, culturally, religiously, gay life doesnt work," said
Mafinyane. "I cant see how it contributes to a positive way of living."
The march and the anticipated sentencing of Banana, a renowned Methodist theologian,
imparted a charged atmosphere to the WCC assembly at the University of Zimbabwe.
"In almost every major U.S. denomination, theres now some small group that
is open to gays," says Mark Carlson, a psychologist and member of Spirit of the Lakes
United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. "So it would appear were making some
small progress in acceptance."
But many WCC delegates, especially those from African, Asian and Eastern Orthodox
churches, were adamant that biblical Scripture doesnt condone homosexuality.
"Churches in Asia arent discussing this," said Hermen Shastri, a
Methodist minister in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "There are no gay and lesbian voices in
the church; its a non-issue. No one should be discriminated against, but I
dont think my church or many others are ready to admit gays."
The march was the first public appearance since 1996 for GALZ, which has drawn
international attention for its battles with Mugabe. Its last public appearance an
exhibit at a book fair ended when government-sponsored youths smashed the stall to
"Homosexuals are nasty," said Morgan Rumano, a curio hawker who watched the
GALZ group march past. "Its a very bad thing. Even the Bible says it must not
Police withdrew their escort and marching band when they learned gays would
participate, but the march was peaceful. Human rights advocates took pains to point out
that Zimbabwe was not the worlds most homophobic society, only a developing nation
with a vocal gay community.
"The worrisome thing is that the more GALZ advocates for human rights, the more
President Mugabe appears to crack down," said Casey Kelso, Amnesty
Internationals southern Africa specialist. "Years ago, the punishment for
sodomy was a fine. But the courts have listened to Mugabe, and now the punishment is a
Kelso was referring to the sensational prosecution of former Zimbabwean President
Banana, who fled without his passport after being convicted on 11 counts of sodomy,
attempted sodomy and indecent assault.
The 64-year-old Banana, whose post as head of state Mugabe added to his own portfolio
as chief of government in 1987, met with South African President Nelson Mandela last week,
apparently to seek asylum. His whereabouts since arent publicly known.
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