Last edited: January 01, 2005

Gays Fear Lurid Case Could Harm Them

Ex-president of Zimbabwe, where homosexuality is heavily repressed, is standing trial for sodomy

Akron Beacon Journal, June 14, 1998
44 E. Exchange Street
Akron, OH 44328
Fax 330-996-3520

By Neely Tucker, Knight Ridder Newspapers

HARARE, ZIMBABWE--The former president of Zimbabwe 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 prison.

The atmosphere is so repressive that of the 11 million people in Zimbabwe, the sole organization promoting homosexual rights has only 150 members, and 35 percent of them are white. The other members are mostly young, urban, middle-class blacks or people of mixed race.

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.

Most are afraid to acknowledge their sexuality, publicly or privately, experts say. But they also have not rushed to support the former president because Banana -- married, father of four and a renowned Methodist theologian -- says he is not gay and dismisses the case as "a mortuary of pathological lies."

Several of Banana's former aides, students and a soccer player have charged that he 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," said Keith Gadded, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, or GALZ, the only such organization in the country.

Those 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.

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.

President 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."

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."

Despite the law, consensual sodomy is rarely prosecuted. The last case was in 1991 and the fine was $30. Gay advocates say never mind Mugabe's bluster, that section of the law soon may be struck down.

But since the law makes no technical distinction between consensual and forced gay sex, several cases of nonconsensual sodomy are brought to court each year, no matter the circumstances. Sentences can be up to three years.

Gays in this country worry that harassment could increase if Banana loses.

"If Banana is convicted, it'll leave us more vulnerable to blackmail," said Juan, a 27-year-old living in Harare. "It'll scare everybody that 'This could happen to you,' and the hustlers will know that."

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