Last edited: December 08, 2004

Homosexual and Hated

BBC Online News, May 10, 2000

Politicians call them the "festering finger" endangering the body of the nation: churchmen say God wants them dead: and the courts send them to jail. Zimbabwe has declared that it will not tolerate homosexuality – and the country’s tiny community of gays and lesbians says that means they are now the target of a state-sanctioned hate campaign.

"We live in an extremely homophobic society" says Keith Goddard, a founder member of GALZ, the association of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, "and the harassment of us is definitely increasing." The association traces the persecution to the very top – to the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe to independence 18 years ago.

The upsurge in anti-homosexual activity started four years ago, when GALZ applied to take part in Zimbabwe’s prestigious international bookfair, bringing this previously unnoticed organisation to the attention of the government. President Mugabe was provoked enough to make a speech describing homosexuals as "worse than pigs and dogs" and "a scourge planted by the white man on a pure continent." When the association took part in the next book fair, a year later, they were attacked by a group of young men, mostly university students, who destroyed the GALZ stand.

Since then, the association says it has been the victim of increasing persecution, with police regularly arresting members on trumped-up charges. Members say they are jeered at in the streets, and come under pressure both at work and at home to renounce their sexual orientation. Some say they have been victims of physical violence and one lesbian member says she was raped by a family friend in an effort to "cure" her.

Most Zimbabwean politicians – virtually all of whom belong to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party – enthusiastically support the president’s campaign. Border Gezi, the governor of Mashonaland Central Province, says gays and lesbians have "something wrong in their heads" and that homosexuality is completely alien to Zimbabwean culture. "They have no right to practice homosexuality in our country," he says. "If they don’t like it, they can leave."

The government has encouraged the media to spread the message, with President Mugabe calling on Zimbabwean journalists to report negatively about homosexuality. The leading newspaper, The Herald, has run stories accusing GALZ headquarters of being a "pick-up point by local and foreign homosexuals looking for sex partners," offering teenage boys for hire to foreign tourists. Keith Goddard of GALZ says the stories are complete fabrications.

However, Bornwell Chakaodza, the editor of the newspaper – which is government-owned – stands by his coverage. He says the media should attack homosexuality in order to help protect Zimbabwean culture and family values.

The Herald has also run adverts placed by Dr. Michael Mawema, a prominent churchman, calling for a "crusade" against homosexuals, as "God commands the death of sexual perverts." The mainstream Anglican church does not go to this extreme, although the former Bishop of Zimbabwe, Peter Hatendi, states unequivocally that homosexuality is a sin and practising homosexuals cannot be accepted into the church.

Religious leaders expect fierce debate when the World Council of Churches holds one of its seven-yearly assemblies in Harare in December. Liberal clerics, especially in America, are pressing for the WCC meeting to condemn Zimbabwe’s persecution of homosexuals. Bishop Hatendi says he will fight any attempt to discuss the issue at the meeting, arguing that the WCC should "respect local culture."

GALZ says the attacks by politicians, the media and the church have created a culture of intolerance, leading to the revival of colonial-era laws forbidding sodomy and "unnatural offences." These laws effectively outlaw any sexual contact between men, whether consensual or not, and carry jail terms of up to eight years. Lesbianism is not illegal. The sodomy laws were, until recently, rarely used, but GALZ says the number of casess is rapidly increasing.

The highest-profile prosecution has been of the country’s former president, the Reverend Canaan Banana, who is awaiting a verdict on 11 charges of sodomy and indecent assault. Banana denies both the charges and that he is a homosexual.

But the association’s legal advisor, Derek Maty, says the main effect of the sodomy laws is to help blackmailers. Rings of extortionists are, he believes, targeting closet homosexuals, and threatening exposure unless they are paid off. Keith Goddard himself has fallen victim after receiving a series of letters from an extortionist. When he took them to the authorities, the police charged the letter-writer with blackmail and charged Goddard with sodomy. Both cases are now in the courts.

Goddard’s case has won support from international organisations like Stonewall and Amnesty International. The president’s response to criticism from overseas is that "the world can go to hell." Opinions vary as to Mugabe’s motives. Some say he is targetting homosexuals as scapegoats in a political campaign designed to unify the nation and help define Zimbabwean identity. Other observers believe the president is acting for purely personal reasons and that he has – for whatever reason – a sincere and visceral hatred for homosexuals.

However, for political analyst John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe, the campaign of homophobia illustrates much of what is wrong with his country. He sees the nation as still in transition, after rapidly going from colonialism to socialism to free-market economics in less than two decades. Zimbabwe, he says, pays lip service to liberalisation, modernisation and human rights, but finds it difficult to cope with what these mean in practice. Most of all, Makumbe argues, the issue shows that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the president and that in Zimbabwe, there is almost no political space for anyone to oppose him.

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