Last edited: January 03, 2005

African Gays Face Uphill Battle to Acceptance

Reprisals Increase as Gay Community Grows More Vocal

Knight Ridder, December 11, 1998

By Neely Tucker, Knight Ridder Foreign Service

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Marching behind a banner proclaiming "Out and Proud in Zimbabwe," activists in this nation’s gay community made their first public appearance in years last week, demanding an end to the government-sponsored campaign of vilification against them.

Dubbed as "lower than dogs and pigs" by President Robert Mugabe and consistently portrayed in state-run news media as perverts, gays and lesbians fight a difficult battle for acceptance in this southern African nation. The nation’s former head of state, Canaan Banana, fled the country two weeks ago after being convicted on charges that include sodomy and attempted sodomy.

So Thursday afternoon, when a dozen Zimbabwean gay activists joined in a march by international human rights groups to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it represented a new chapter in the country’s relationship with alternative lifestyles.

The march was timed to take advantage of the presence of 4,000 delegates from 332 national churches in more than 100 countries here for the World Council of Churches’ eighth assembly. Thursday was also the day Banana was scheduled to be sentenced in absentia, but that hearing was postponed until Jan. 18.

"I doubt walking down a few city blocks with a banner is really going to change anything," said Keith Goddard, program director of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, or GALZ. "But people are getting braver now. They don’t mind being labeled as gay."

Many southern African societies are archly conservative, particularly on gender and sexuality issues, and political, social and religious leaders often feel deluged by imported Western cultures and values. The most foreign of these is seen as openly gay lifestyles, which church leaders and many politicians contend did not exist before white settlers moved into the region.

"My parents had me raped to prove I could have sex with a man," said Tina Machidera, director of Ngoni Chaidzo, a support group for lesbians. "Then they took me to a nyanga (traditional healer), a doctor and a psychiatrist. This isn’t a society that’s going to accept change easily."

But Densen Mafinyane, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, says African cultures must protect themselves and their morality.

"Historically, culturally, religiously, gay life doesn’t work," said Mafinyane. "I can’t see how it contributes to a positive way of living."

The march and the anticipated sentencing of Banana, a renowned Methodist theologian, imparted a charged atmosphere to the WCC assembly at the University of Zimbabwe.

"In almost every major U.S. denomination, there’s now some small group that is open to gays," says Mark Carlson, a psychologist and member of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. "So it would appear we’re making some small progress in acceptance."

But many WCC delegates, especially those from African, Asian and Eastern Orthodox churches, were adamant that biblical Scripture doesn’t condone homosexuality.

"Churches in Asia aren’t discussing this," said Hermen Shastri, a Methodist minister in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "There are no gay and lesbian voices in the church; it’s a non-issue. No one should be discriminated against, but I don’t think my church or many others are ready to admit gays."

The march was the first public appearance since 1996 for GALZ, which has drawn international attention for its battles with Mugabe. Its last public appearance – an exhibit at a book fair – ended when government-sponsored youths smashed the stall to bits.

"Homosexuals are nasty," said Morgan Rumano, a curio hawker who watched the GALZ group march past. "It’s a very bad thing. Even the Bible says it must not happen."

Police withdrew their escort and marching band when they learned gays would participate, but the march was peaceful. Human rights advocates took pains to point out that Zimbabwe was not the world’s most homophobic society, only a developing nation with a vocal gay community.

"The worrisome thing is that the more GALZ advocates for human rights, the more President Mugabe appears to crack down," said Casey Kelso, Amnesty International’s southern Africa specialist. "Years ago, the punishment for sodomy was a fine. But the courts have listened to Mugabe, and now the punishment is a jail term."

Kelso was referring to the sensational prosecution of former Zimbabwean President Banana, who fled without his passport after being convicted on 11 counts of sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault.

The 64-year-old Banana, whose post as head of state Mugabe added to his own portfolio as chief of government in 1987, met with South African President Nelson Mandela last week, apparently to seek asylum. His whereabouts since aren’t publicly known.

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