Outed in Africa
April 5, 2002
119 Farringdon Rd., London EC1 3ER England
By Colin Richardson, The Guardian
As resignations go, Alum Mpofu’s is a corker. The chief executive of the
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has been brought low after allegations
that he was caught in a sex act with a man in a Harare nightclub. It must be
embarrassing for him to have details of the alleged incident made public (a
bouncer chained him to a fire hydrant). But given his role as chief
propagandist for President Robert Mugabe’s campaign against gays, it is
This is not the first time an anti-gay campaigner has been accused of being
gay, and it is unlikely to be the last. In 1950s America, Senator Joseph
McCarthy’s right-hand man was lawyer Roy Cohn. When it came to red-baiting,
queerbashing and Jew-hating, he made his boss look like a softie. But—you’re
ahead of me—Cohn was both gay and a Jew. It is possible that Senator
McCarthy was not as straight as he seemed. And FBI boss J Edgar Hoover, who
introduced Cohn to McCarthy, and conducted covert operations against gay
activists, loved to dress in women’s clothing.
That much we know. But what does it mean? Some see in such histories, and
will also divine in the sorry tale of Mpofu, vindication of the theory that
the more vocally homophobic people are, the more likely they are secretly to
be homosexual. A few years ago, US psychologists published the results of a
study that suggested 80% of men who expressed anti-gay sentiments were
harbouring secret same-sex yearnings.
They reached this conclusion (and I’d advise sensitive readers to look
away at this point) by attaching electrical apparatus to the members of the
members of the study group. They then showed the wired gentlemen homoerotic
pictures and measured their reaction.
But there are problems with the "all homophobes are homosexuals"
theory. For one thing, it lets heterosexuals off the hook, implying that they
all just love, love, love gays. For another, it reduces homophobia to a matter
of personal inadequacy, suggesting that it stems from the closeted homosexuals’
attempt to resolve an inability to accept their sexuality by projecting their
self-loathing on to others.
Worse, the theory seems to bring out the fruitcake in people. People like
the historian Lothar Machtan who, in his tome The Hidden Hitler, argued that
Hitler was gay. He produced some evidence that the young Hitler was close to
several men; the evidence was hardly conclusive, but it was kind of
interesting. That is, until Prof Machtan got on to the night of the long
knives. For me, it all went to pot then. Apparently, Hitler slaughtered
thousands of Brownshirts for fear that their leader (Ernst Rohm, who was gay)
would bitch about der Führer’s youthful dalliances. That’s the thing
about closeted gay men: you look at them funnily and the next thing you know,
they’ve gone and invaded Poland.
If Alum Mpofu is gay, then his behaviour as head of the ZBC is, if not
commendable, at least explicable: since an ambitious man will have to find
some way of accommodating the official ideology, even if it is personally
And if he is not gay, then his current predicament is also understandable.
Accusations of homosexuality are a handy way of politically destroying
But to say this is not to fall into the trap of saying that Africa is
irredeemably homophobic. It is true that Mugabe’s anti-gay tirades have been
matched by similar utterances by President Museveni of Uganda and President
Nujoma of Namibia; but it is also worth remembering that Zimbabwe’s biggest
neighbour, South Africa, was the first country in the world to enshrine in its
constitution equal rights for its lesbian and gay citizens.
So what is Mugabe’s real problem? In the 20 years since he came to power,
African sexual culture has changed beyond recognition. Aids has devastated the
continent. The spread of HIV has claimed millions of African lives, but it has
also taken its toll of old traditions. To combat the virus, governments have
had to talk to their people in sexually frank terms. At the same time, Aids is
itself a marker of how much Africa has changed: the continent’s urbanisation,
wars and civil strife have all created the conditions for HIV to spread.
This disruption to traditional ways of living, however, also gives many
more people the opportunity to live openly gay lifestyles. Perhaps Robert
Mugabe’s hatred of gay people stems not from some secret lust for Will
Young, but from panic at the changes in his own society.
- Colin Richardson is the former editor of Gay Times magazine. CDRedit@aol.com
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