Zimbabwe Gays: ‘Dogs and Pigs’ No More?
Mail & Guardian, 24 May 2004
Braamfontein 2017, Johannesburg, South Africa
Fax: +27 11 727 7110
By Wilson Johwa
“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
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
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,” said Goddard.
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
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
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 said.
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