Last edited: December 06, 2004

Outed in Africa

The Guardian, April 5, 2002
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By Colin Richardson, The Guardian

As resignations go, Alum Mpofu’s is a corker. The chief executive of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has been brought low after allegations that he was caught in a sex act with a man in a Harare nightclub. It must be embarrassing for him to have details of the alleged incident made public (a bouncer chained him to a fire hydrant). But given his role as chief propagandist for President Robert Mugabe’s campaign against gays, it is humiliating.

This is not the first time an anti-gay campaigner has been accused of being gay, and it is unlikely to be the last. In 1950s America, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man was lawyer Roy Cohn. When it came to red-baiting, queerbashing and Jew-hating, he made his boss look like a softie. But—you’re ahead of me—Cohn was both gay and a Jew. It is possible that Senator McCarthy was not as straight as he seemed. And FBI boss J Edgar Hoover, who introduced Cohn to McCarthy, and conducted covert operations against gay activists, loved to dress in women’s clothing.

That much we know. But what does it mean? Some see in such histories, and will also divine in the sorry tale of Mpofu, vindication of the theory that the more vocally homophobic people are, the more likely they are secretly to be homosexual. A few years ago, US psychologists published the results of a study that suggested 80% of men who expressed anti-gay sentiments were harbouring secret same-sex yearnings.

They reached this conclusion (and I’d advise sensitive readers to look away at this point) by attaching electrical apparatus to the members of the members of the study group. They then showed the wired gentlemen homoerotic pictures and measured their reaction.

But there are problems with the "all homophobes are homosexuals" theory. For one thing, it lets heterosexuals off the hook, implying that they all just love, love, love gays. For another, it reduces homophobia to a matter of personal inadequacy, suggesting that it stems from the closeted homosexuals’ attempt to resolve an inability to accept their sexuality by projecting their self-loathing on to others.

Worse, the theory seems to bring out the fruitcake in people. People like the historian Lothar Machtan who, in his tome The Hidden Hitler, argued that Hitler was gay. He produced some evidence that the young Hitler was close to several men; the evidence was hardly conclusive, but it was kind of interesting. That is, until Prof Machtan got on to the night of the long knives. For me, it all went to pot then. Apparently, Hitler slaughtered thousands of Brownshirts for fear that their leader (Ernst Rohm, who was gay) would bitch about der Führer’s youthful dalliances. That’s the thing about closeted gay men: you look at them funnily and the next thing you know, they’ve gone and invaded Poland.

If Alum Mpofu is gay, then his behaviour as head of the ZBC is, if not commendable, at least explicable: since an ambitious man will have to find some way of accommodating the official ideology, even if it is personally distasteful.

And if he is not gay, then his current predicament is also understandable. Accusations of homosexuality are a handy way of politically destroying someone.

But to say this is not to fall into the trap of saying that Africa is irredeemably homophobic. It is true that Mugabe’s anti-gay tirades have been matched by similar utterances by President Museveni of Uganda and President Nujoma of Namibia; but it is also worth remembering that Zimbabwe’s biggest neighbour, South Africa, was the first country in the world to enshrine in its constitution equal rights for its lesbian and gay citizens.

So what is Mugabe’s real problem? In the 20 years since he came to power, African sexual culture has changed beyond recognition. Aids has devastated the continent. The spread of HIV has claimed millions of African lives, but it has also taken its toll of old traditions. To combat the virus, governments have had to talk to their people in sexually frank terms. At the same time, Aids is itself a marker of how much Africa has changed: the continent’s urbanisation, wars and civil strife have all created the conditions for HIV to spread.

This disruption to traditional ways of living, however, also gives many more people the opportunity to live openly gay lifestyles. Perhaps Robert Mugabe’s hatred of gay people stems not from some secret lust for Will Young, but from panic at the changes in his own society.

  • Colin Richardson is the former editor of Gay Times magazine.

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