Last edited: December 17, 2004

In Homophobic Zimbabwe, Ex-President on Trial for Sodomy

Salt Lake Tribune, June 11, 1998
P. O. Box 867
Salt Lake City, UT 84110
Fax 801-237-2022

Knight-Ridder News Service   

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- The former president of this country is standing trial for sodomy in the most sensational homosexuality case in modern African history. But don't look for the nation's tiny gay community to be anywhere in sight.

Zimbabwe's current president, Robert Mugabe, is vocally homophobic. Gay men often are blackmailed to keep their sexual orientation quiet, for sodomy is illegal and punishable by imprisonment.

So, as former President Canaan Banana, 62, stands trial for 11 counts of sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault during his 1980-1987 tenure as the nation's ceremonial leader, Zimbabwe's gays are keeping a low profile.

In large part, this is because Banana -- married, father of four and a renowned Methodist theologian -- says he is not gay and dismisses the case against him as ``a mortuary of pathological lies.''

Several of Banana's former aides, students and even a soccer player have charged that the then-president forced them to submit to sexual advances at State House, Zimbabwe's equivalent of the White House. But others say Banana's accusers are little more than political opportunists.

"This isn't the case we want to highlight discrimination against gays," says Keith Gadded, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), the only such organization in the country. "We'd prefer a case involving a loving couple together 10 or 15 years. Banana says he's not gay, he's not asked for help, so there's not much we can do."

Those few gays who openly acknowledge their sexual orientation say they can lead quiet, happy lives among friends, but they are concerned that the Banana case could have serious repercussions for gay men and women in Zimbabwe and across Africa.

No other African leader -- or any world leader, for that matter -- has been charged with homosexual offenses, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco.

Simply put, the Banana case is the most publicly discussed gay incident on the African continent.

This is significant, for while homosexuality is outlawed in more than 60 countries around the world, "the legal situation is worst in Africa," according to a worldwide survey by the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association.

Conservative leaders say homosexuality is "un-African," an abnormality imported by white colonialists. Traditional healers across the continent often treat same-sex orientation as a disease that can be cured with elixirs of herbs, sacrifices or even forced sex with a member of the opposite gender.

Customs are so rigid that most countries do not forbid sex between women, because it is assumed women cannot have sex without a man.

"If you don't have children or a boyfriend by the time you're 18 or 19, your parents will take you to a nyanga [traditional healer]," says Audry Chard, who heads Ngoni Chaidzo, a lesbian support group.

Mugabe is the most visible leader of this school of thought. In a speech at Zimbabwe's 1995 Book Fair, he blasted gays as "perverts" who were "lower than dogs and pigs."

  Earlier this year, when the World Council of Churches agreed to let homosexuals attend its December gathering in Harare, Mugabe said, ``Animals in the jungle are better than these people.''

  And at a May 18 news conference at the World Economic Forum in Namibia, when pressed about his repression of dissent, Mugabe replied, ``There is freedom of religion, freedom of political association, all the freedoms you get elsewhere, except that of gays.''

Given such state-sanctioned venom, most gay Zimbabweans are terrified of being exposed, even if the legal situation is not as bad as it might appear.

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