Last edited: February 14, 2005

Gay Broadcast Sparks Heated Debate In Zimbabwe

Johannesburg Daily Mail & Guardian, November 5, 1999
Braamfontein 2017, Johannesburg, South Africa
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The broadcast of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe’s submission to the Constitutional Commission has provoked debate on the rights of homosexuals in the notoriously homophobic country.

By Lewis Machipisa

The recent broadcast of a submission by local gays and lesbians demanding their rights to be included in a new constitution has sparked a heated debate in Zimbabwe.

It all started when Ruth Chinamano, a legislator, challenged a lesbian for openly declaring her sexuality. Many in this country of 13-million people still perceive homosexuality as "unAfrican".

In her address to the Constitutional Commission, which is gathering views on the new constitution, Sikanyiswe Ngwenya, 23, a lesbian, said Zimbabweans must accept that people like her exist and that they are proud of what they are.

Chinamano wanted to know how lesbians become intimate with each other. "Are you a virgin?" the legislator shouted. Ngwenya retorted that although she has never been intimate with a man she is no longer a virgin, upon which Chinamano shot back: "If you have not slept with a man then you are a virgin."

Chesterfield Samba, 24, said he has been in love with another man for seven years. "What I want to say is that it is possible to be black, gay and Zimbabwean," he said. "People should stop equating us with satanists as I heard some of you shouting."

Since October 24, the day the gay delegation made its submission, Zimbabweans have been discussing the issue in bars, buses and conference halls.

For five years, gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe have not had their voice on radio and television. But on October 24 they made their case heard all over the country.

Keith Goddard, programmes manager of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, has called for a sexual orientation clause to be included in the new constitution, "not to make us a special group, but as acknowledgment."

The clause would allow for consensual sodomy while forced sexual encounters would be equated to rape. Zimbabwe is largely a homophobic country and, according to Goddard, homosexuals always live in fear, under stress.

Goddard says his submission does not amount to a "slippery slope towards the acceptance of bestiality, sexual abuse of children, sex in the streets, sex with dead bodies and other forms of sexual violence".

"A sexual orientation clause does not mean the social acceptance of abusive behaviour. Violence is wrong," he says. "A sexual orientation clause does not confer special rights and privileges on lesbians and gay men; it will simply guarantee us the same rights and privileges that are afforded heterosexuals."

After submitting their views, lesbians and homosexuals say they hope they will be taken seriously this time. "We have been calling for these changes before but nothing has happened. This time around we are just sitting in the air hoping that something might just happen," said one person at the Galz office in Harare.

"People have heard our message, but if its going to be a majority vote, then we don’t stand a chance. But you can’t simply vote away minority rights," said Goddard.

He said this was the first time in five years that his group had had access to the television and radio to state its views.

"Judging by the reception when we made the submission, we certainly have a few sympathetic ears," Goddard said. "Although we gave a very informative submission, not enough time was given for education on this issue to explain ourselves."

During Galz’s submissions presented by Goddard, there were interjections by some constitutional commissioners opposed to homosexuality.

The difficult circumstance gays and lesbians live under came to light when Galz chairman, Phangi Nyathi, reportedly committed suicide on October 10 at his Eastlea home in Harare.

"What we can say is that, along with all other lesbians and gays in this country, Phangi was forced to endure the numerous stresses and strains brought on by homophobia," saids Goddard.

"Society shuns us and equates us with gangsters and perverts and relationships are criminalised. We get no rest from [our] persecutors and we see no chances for alleviation or escape, or any possibility of momentary respite or peace," he said.

Churches have also denounced homosexuality, saying it should be declared unlawful in the new constitution, currently being drafted. And gays and lesbians around the world are not charmed.

While Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was on a private shopping trip in London on October 30, gays and lesbians from OutRage, a British gay activist group, tried to effect a citizen’s arrest on Mugabe on account of his homophobia and human rights abuses.

Galz said on Thursday that it had no prior information about that demonstration, nor was it involved. Mugabe has persistently dismissed lesbians and gays as sexual perverts and beasts who are "worse than dogs and pigs", prompting harassment of homosexuals in the country.

Presidents Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya and Namibia’s Sam Nujoma have also denounced homosexuality as "unAfrican", and against the teachings of the Bible, calling for the arrest of gay people.

Four years ago, the government banned Galz from exhibiting at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.

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