Last edited: December 08, 2004

Being a 'faggot' in homophobic Zimbabwe

Electronic Mail & Guardian, June 9, 1998
Johannesburg, South Africa

While the former president of Zimbabwe goes on trial for sodomy, Alex Duval Smith finds out what its like being gay in the world's (officially) most homophobic society.

Ska Ngwenyon is an ''ngochani'' - faggot in Shona. That is what people shout at her in the streets of Harare, capital of the world's officially most homophobic society, Zimbabwe.

An out-of-the-closet lesbian, the irony is not lost on her that the country's former president, Canaan Banana, will this week return to Harare high court to face accusations of indecently assaulting young men in his State House apartments.

''The climate here is tough for lesbians, even though we are not named in the laws which are used against homosexuals,'' said Ms Ngwenyo, aged 21. ''It is always worse when Mugabe has made homophobic comments because people seem to think it gives them a licence to have a go at you,'' she said.

President Robert Mugabe, aged 73, believes homosexuals are ''worse than dogs and pigs'' and ''not compatible with pluralism in Zimbabwe'' since they are a ''colonial invention, unknown in African tradition''. The president repeated his views most recently last week. Gays and lesbians are second only to white farmers on the hitlist of scapegoats he uses to divert attention from the ailing, corrupt state of his country.

Zimbabwe has laws against sodomy and ''female impersonation''. Its immigration bill allows officials turn away ''prostitutes, homosexuals and others living from the trade''. Films and books are regularly banned and gays and lesbians are forced to live an underground existence.

''Every time the president has a go at us, the calls to our helpline increase in number. Blackmail is common and people are forced into marriage to preserve appearances,'' said Keith Goddard, a composer who runs Galz, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe.

With support from Amnesty International, the Alliance Francaise and Hivos, a Dutch humanitarian group, Galz runs an office and meeting place in a suburb of Harare. This low-key bungalow, which looks like all the others in Milton Park, is where young gays and lesbians come and stay when they have been thrown out by their parents.

Ms Ngwenyo, a defender in the Zimbabwe national women's soccer team, recently dropped from the squad because of her sexuality, tells a typical story:

''My parents found out about me last July when they discovered a Galz flyer in my room. I was thrown out of the house and Galz gave me a room for a couple of weeks. Then I stayed with my aunt until my mother called and asked me to return,'' she said.

Ms Ngwenyo, who has a steady girlfriend, faces constant pressure to get married. ''My father is a Roman Catholic priest in Bulawayo so whenever he comes home for weekends, I move out. Most lesbians in Zimbabwe are forced to get married. Last year, my family wanted to take me to the rural areas to find a husband for me but I told them that, if they tried to force me, I would run away.

''It is hardest of all for black lesbians because, being women, they are often economically dependent and need a husband. So many lesbians here are married,'' said Ms Ngwenyo, who played semi-professionally in South Africa last year and dreams of a soccer career in the United States.

Twenty-seven year-old Juan, who did not wish to give him surname, co- ordinates activities for the 200 members of Galz, many of whom join the organisation under assumed names. From a Portuguese background, he did not escape marriage.

''Parents confuse you into doing things for appearances, for the family. So I married a girl three years ago and we lived together for two years until I could not stand it any more. My wife is a modern woman - a law student - and is very understanding. But I did make her terribly sad,'' said Juan, who is not currently in a relationship.

''I told my parents I was gay when I was 21. I left home for two years because my mother would not talk to me. Eventually we made up, through one of my two sisters, and mum is OK now.

''In African culture, it is taboo to discuss sex - gay or straight. A girlfriend and boyfriend would not show each other affection in front of their parents because it would be disrespectful to the elders.

''So talking about sex of any kind is difficult. People attack gays because of the affection thing. They say gays do not exist in African culture. In fact they do, but the whole thing is hushed up.

''We also suffer physical attacks and you have to be very strong to avoid them. You have to say 'so what? Yes, I'm gay' and hit back verbally, or they will beat you to a pulp,'' said Juan, a bookkeeper before he worked for Galz.

Juan, who organises Zimbabwe's small gay pride week every October, and Ms Ngwenyo, are part of a delegation of seven men and women who will be representing Zimbabwe at the Gay Games in Amsterdam at the beginning of August.

''There are not enough of us to send a team,'' said Ms Ngwenyo, ''but we will play soccer and other sports in mixed-nationality teams.''

At the moment, the climate is especially poisonous against gays and lesbians because of the trial of Mr Banana, a 63-year-old Methodist minister who was president from 1980 to 1987. In a case which began last week and is expected to run a month, he faces charges on 11 counts of sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault.

In court last week, a former bodyguard, Jefra Dube, claimed he was subjected to fondling and anal sex in 1983 and for the following three years, after President Banana recruited him to his State House football team, the Tornadoes.

A shocked court - including a Shona translator who eventually had to be replaced because she was so upset - listened as Dube, currently serving seven years' hard labour for murdering a policeman who called him ''Banana's wife'', spared no detail in his description of his first seduction.

Dube told the court: ''I was invited to dinner and told to go to his office for dance lessons. He told me to follow his instructions. He grabbed my waist and put my hand on his shoulder. His penis was erect. I felt his stubble against my face. I then managed to remove myself and said I wanted to go home.''

In the most sensational court case since Zimbabwean independence in 1960, the state prosecutor will call a further 40 witnesses, including bodyguards, air force officers and a cook. Among them will also be Zimbabwe's current vice-president, Simon Muzenda, who will answer charges that the governemnt - and by inference Mr Mugabe - turned a blind eye to the homosexual pursuits of the then president.

Galz is keen to distance itself from the case, since it involves alleged non-consensual sex and possible abuse of power. ''Everyone knew what went on at State House. We used to joke that Mr Banana was perhaps a member of Galz, under a pseudonym,'' said Mr Goddard, aged 38. ''If Banana is cleared, we shall almost certainly issue a statement of condemnation,'' he said.

But there are indications that Banana's defence lawyer, Chris Andersen, intends to turn the issue into a gay rights case if his client loses. Mr Andersen, who was a notoriously rightwing minister in the Rhodesian cabinet of Ian Smith, will argue that the case is a breach of constitutional privacy rights. He will point to South Africa which recently removed sodomy as a common law offence, in line with its gay-friendly constitution.

The irony of gay and lesbian persecution in Zimbabwe and President Mugabe's violent rhetoric is that it appears, to some extent, to create a climate of debate - unmatched in any other African country, possibly including South Africa.

Zimbabwe's status as ultra-repressive against gays and lesbians while also being a place for militancy grew out of an outburst by President Mugabe in 1995 when Galz was invited by human rights groups to take part in Harare's annual book fair. The following August, the group applied for a stand in its own right, prompting more controversy.

This year, Galz not only faces controversy over the book fair but also over the participation of lesbian and gay christians at a World Council of Churches' conference, expected to attract 4,000 delegates to Harare in December. The non-Roman Catholic member churches of the WCC are divided over the issue of sexuality and the Zimbabwean authorities can, in theory, use the country's immigration bill to refuse entry into the country to ''prostitutes, homosexuals and those living from the trade''.

Mr Goddard, who joined Galz in 1992, two years after it was created, said legal battles are foremost among its concerns. ''We work with a human rights lawyer. For instance, we have brought a test case over an application to keep the film, Maurice, in our resource library. We are also trying to raise funds to support two lesbians in a custody case,'' said Mr Goddard.

Galz is currently in dispute with the Sunday Mail pro-government newspaper which last month sent a reporter, who pretended to be from Amnesty International, to a party at the centre. The article which appeared claimed Galz was a front for a rent-boy agency servicing foreign tourists.

But being gay in Zimbabwe can also be fun, according to ''De Jong'', an 18-year-old drag queen. ''I have had a tough time with my family who initially threw me out for three months, but all but one of my friends has been great. They come with me gay-friendly bars and come to the Galz centre for parties.

''Things are changing, even in the older generation. Now my mother wants to meet other parents of gays and I am trying to set up a discussion group,'' said De Jong.

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