Lesbians Admonished with ‘Sew Them Up’

Organizing challenges for Zimbabwean women come from outside, within Gay community

Fellows Fall 1999

By Kai Wright

June 08, 2009

HARARE, ZIMBABWE - "Ska" remembers wanting to go back for her other shoe. She remembers a security guard, with his orange and green uniform, standing idle and watching the beating. And she remembers thinking, at first, there was only one attacker but then realizing, after someone grabbed her from behind and locked her arms, that there were at least two.

Ska is an athlete, and she can hold her own in a scrape, but two against one was unfair odds.

She remembers seeing the taxi driver and hearing him call out to ask what was going on. And, she remembers breaking free somehow, to run and get in his cab. The man was nice enough to take her back later to get the shoe she lost while fleeing.

Ska Ngwenya, 23, may be the most identifiable Lesbian in Zimbabwe. She testified on television during hearings on a new constitution, demanding inclusion of anti-bias measures.

Ska does not remember the slaps and the punches of the beating as well as she does the slurs about her being an ngochane — a derogatory word for homosexual.

Sikhanyisiwe "Ska" Ngwenya, a 23-year-old Ndebele woman, has learned too much about life for her young age. Her build is strong, more compact than short, with solid legs that hint at having spent years sprinting up and down a soccer field, and a head that sports a mop of dreadlocks. At 15, she was the youngest member of Zimbabwe’s national women’s soccer team. Nothing about Ska matches the cliché of the shy African woman who tills the fields of a white landowner’s commercial farm with a baby perched on her back in a makeshift sling. The women of those myths are not Lesbians, and Ska is the most visible Lesbian in Zimbabwe.

Currently, Ska is homeless. Her parents kicked her out of the house after they caught her sneaking off to the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam to play soccer. Her father then outed her to the national team’s coach, and she was banished from that family, too. Sometimes, she stays with friends; sometimes, she stays at the Gay community center — which is where she spent Christmas this year.

"I don’t have anywhere to go," she explains. "My parents, my relatives don’t want to see me … they don’t even talk to me because of my sexuality. I tried to look for a job, but it’s very hard because people saw me on the television and in the newspapers. To tell you the truth, I’ve no money. I don’t eat. Every night, I go to bed hungry. I’ve no money to buy even a loaf of bread."

Ska faces all of these problems because she is an unrepentant Gay activist. She and a handful of other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe attended a hearing in Harare last fall to register their comments about the writing of Zimbabwe’s new constitution. The hearings were held in an effort to defuse public discontent and to collect information from the average citizen on what should be included in the document. Last May, GALZ launched an effort to have protection against bias based on sexual orientation included in the constitution’s bill of rights. Ska took the opportunity at the hearing, broadcast on national television, to tell the country she exists and that she is not going away. It was an act that shoved her into the public spotlight and that her two attackers reminded her of that night they beat her in November.

‘I’m not the only one’

Keith Goddard, director of Zimbabwe's predominantly male national Gay organization, says the group has tried without success to attract more women as members.

GALZ director Keith Goddard paints the day of the hearing, particularly Ska’s words, in historic proportions.

"We spoke uncensored," he gushes. "We had our points of view put across. There was a black Lesbian who stood up and said, ‘I’m a black Lesbian. I’ve been Lesbian since the age of 12, and ’m proud of who I am. You say that I don’t exist, but here I am and I’m not the only one.’"

They were brave words, but to the casual eye, they appear to have no concrete evidence behind them. Ska is, in fact, just about the only open black Lesbian in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is a place where no Gay person exists officially, and GALZ is determined to change that. For men, especially young black men, the group is making strides. GALZ owns a house in the suburbs of Harare. It serves as a safe place for people to gather, to come together and create a community. Every Saturday night, there are well-attended, very public parties. People come from literally across the country to revel in newfound freedom. Police do not condone it, but neither do they aggressively interfere.

Yet perhaps the most striking part about these and other GALZ events is not who comes, but who does not. Ska is not there. In fact, almost no women are.

"You start to wonder, is it true that we don’t exist?" sighs Bulelwa Madekurozwa, who goes to the GALZ events infrequently. She says she knows of maybe eight black Lesbians in Zimbabwe, open or otherwise.

"There’s a lot of women who pitch up at the center and get scared off and never come back," she explains, adding, "I don’t really feel that it has anything for me. I mean, it’s nice that it’s there, but it’s become very male."

As Zimbabwe’s Gay community slowly takes shape, women are being left behind.

‘No law against lesbianism’

Bev Clark and Brenda Burrell formed a women's group after breaking away from GALZ. They say the group wants to reach out to black Lesbians, but concede that it's still mainly a white organization.

An Aug. 28 item in the state-run daily newspaper The Herald last year reported this: "Two suspected lesbians who were allegedly caught in an indecent position in Harare’s Highfield suburb were lucky to escape with their lives after an angry mob beat them up on Wednesday afternoon. The ‘lovebirds’ were allegedly parked at an open space on the suburb’s fringes when boys passing spotted them. … Several people who called The Herald described the women’s actions as inhuman. Police spokesman Superintendent Wayne Bvudzijena said although what the pair is alleged to have done was improper, the force’s hands were tied as there was no law against lesbianism."

The news item reveals much about the world navigated by Lesbians in Zimbabwe. As the story notes, the laws criminalizing homosexuality do not address relationships between women. Zimbabwe’s penal code is based on that of its former colonizer, Britain, which also addressed only male relations when drafting its anti-Gay laws. But while Lesbians do not face a legal threat, they seem to bear the brunt of the most horrifyingly violent anti-Gay sentiments. Recently published government reports on the constitution hearings were filled with disturbing rejections of homosexuality in general, but the most graphic language was directed at Lesbians: The only recommendation explicitly addressing Lesbians was a suggestion that such women should have their vaginas "sewn up."

Perhaps the more troubling part about the Herald news item is that GALZ has never heard from or of the women in it. One of the organization’s goals is to serve as a place where Gay people can come for help with problems. Young men having trouble regularly approach the organization. But Goddard says the group has been unable to attract women. Of 319 official members today, only 31, or roughly 10 percent, are women. Of 181 membership applications last year, 3 were women. Moreover, women are actually leaving the group — there are 13 fewer female members today than there were a year ago.

These are the official numbers, but in real terms the situation is even worse: Of the 20 or so regular and active participants in GALZ events, Ska is the only female. In larger society, Lesbian invisibility becomes even more profound. While Gay men have nudged a handful of cafes, bars, and clubs into begrudgingly accepting them as regular patrons, there is no public space whatsoever for Lesbians.

"It’s just very, very invisible," Madekurozwa says of the Lesbian community. She recalls her coming out process, four years ago, with frustration. Unlike men coming out in Zimbabwe — who at least know male relationships exist, though they may be considered revolting — Madekurozwa’s coming out was complicated by an inability to even conceive of a Lesbian relationship.

"I mean, the only time I had ever seen two women together on TV, or if it was ever talked about, was again that white straight male fantasy of two women together. And it’s not a real thing. It’s not got emotions in it. It’s just purely there to have people watch and have fun watching. So it didn’t really occur to me," she says of trying to find other Lesbians. "Yeah, I could feel that way about somebody, but my gosh, they could feel that way about me, too?"

Madekurozwa suggests the problem is larger than Lesbians. Gay women are invisible because women in general are dehumanized and certainly not allowed to develop an individual sexuality.

"We’re not supposed to have any sexuality of our own. [It’s] the usual thing of we’re owned. There’s a bride price, which also buys your sexuality. Everybody kind of assumes you’re into men, there’s not even a question asked [such as] ‘Are there any Lesbians?’ And if there are, it’s not even taken seriously."

Zimbabwe’s women’s movement has struggled since independence to both secure civil rights for women and to recast society’s mores to allow greater female individuality. One focus of the women’s movement has been to counter aspects of customary law that disadvantage women both socially and legally. Progress has sputtered. Last spring, in a ruling that outraged Zimbabwe’s women’s movement, the High Court declared that women who marry officially leave behind their former families and forfeit all inheritance rights. But then in November a separate ruling finally acknowledged that rape of a wife by her husband is rape just the same — previously "marital rape" was exempt from rape statutes.

An early victory was a still-much-debated 1982 law, the Legal Age of Majority Act, which rescued women from permanent minor status by setting the age of legal adulthood for both men and women at 18. It continues to be the focal point for male backlash to the women’s movement. That backlash is couched in a defense of the customs of traditional culture, in particular the "bride price" that Madekurozwa mentions, known as the lobola (low-BOH-lah). Women’s groups argue that the lobola, which a groom pays to the family of his bride, encourages poor families to literally sell off their daughters. And AIDS activists say it fosters unequal sexual relations in which women do not have enough power to negotiate for safer sex. But the same reports that recommended Lesbians be "sewn up" also showed that citizens, men and women, still strongly support the lobola. In the report from one province, 99 percent of respondents said the bride price is an important underpinning of marriage.

"Women have little control over their sexuality and little social freedom generally," Goddard offers. "Most black Lesbians are fearful to identify themselves openly. Women are forced into marriage because there is no alternative, either economic or social. To be discovered associating with GALZ would be social suicide for many women."

But, as Goddard will be first to acknowledge, GALZ has also failed to reach women because of the often aggressively misogynist environment at its Gay community center. GALZ is dominated by a cadre of young Gay men, most exploring their own sexual identity by playing with varying gender identities as well. Too often, they are openly hostile toward women in general and Lesbians in particular. Offensive terms such as "bitch" and "cunt" ring through most conversations, and it is not uncommon for a room full of young men laughing and chattering away to literally fall silent and stare when a woman walks into the center. This reality is further complicated by the fact that most women, black or white, who have the personal freedom to associate with GALZ are also most likely to be from a socioeconomic class that has nothing in common with that of these young men from townships around Harare who form the group’s core membership.

One woman, a university student who asked not to be identified, says she has friends from GALZ whom she sees individually but that she could never associate with the group as a whole. Their offensive behavior aside, she explains, as she peeks out of her kitchen window to make sure no one is snooping on this rare conversation about Gay issues, she has more in common with an American journalist than she does with those unemployed young men.

There have been efforts to create space for Lesbians. One effort, led by a former GALZ member, was an attempt to form a group explicitly for black Lesbians. But it went awry when Goddard and other female members developed personal conflicts with the leader. Ska is now trying to bring life back to the group, known as Ngoni Chaidzo, or "Sisters of Mercy."

The Women’s Cultural Club is another effort and has been relatively successful — for white women. Bev Clark and Brenda Burrell, who are partners, founded the group after leaving GALZ in 1996. They were among GALZ’s founding members back in 1990 (and among the last whites to flee the organization when it became a majority-black group following President Robert Mugabe’s infamous homophobic campaign of 1995). Back then, GALZ membership was one-third female. But, Burrell says, as more blacks from the townships joined, "that slowly started to change the middle-class vibe, and the women jumped out very quickly."

Clark and Burrell say they ultimately left GALZ because they could not bear being labeled racists whenever they tried to insist on fiscal responsibility and because they felt compelled to step out of the way to allow black leadership to develop. But they also acknowledge sentiments similar to those of the black university student — they just don’t have anything in common with the people who participate in GALZ anymore.

So they formed their own group, for women. Unfortunately, black Lesbians such as Madekurozwa and Ska and even the university student say they don’t have anything in common with the white women in Clark and Burrell’s group either.

"It’s very middle-class and it’s very white," a disappointed Clark says of her group. She was among the few white GALZ members who insisted the group needed to reach out to black Gays in the early days. "Find the black Lesbians and we’ll all be delighted. There seems to be too much to lose for middle-class black women. Too much family pressure, not enough economic power, to actually come out and say, ‘Stuff you. I can live my life without your interferences.’ It’s just not done here."

But Madekurozwa says it is more than that. She feels she is not wanted in Clark and Burrell’s group any more than she is at GALZ.

"They’re more open to black women, but I think there’s still that kind of suspicion [of each other]. … A lot of black women don’t want to go there."

Goddard perhaps summed things best in saying, "Simply because we are a group of Lesbians and Gay men does not mean that we automatically drop heterosexist attitudes. We remain very much a reflection of broader society where men are dominant and have access to public space and where women are largely excluded."

Gasping for a voice

Bulelwa Madekurozwa says she knows few other open black Lesbians. Through her art, shown here, she expresses her feelings of invisibility in society.

Madekurozwa has internalized the resulting vacuum. She is a 27-year-old artist, a painter, who has traveled and studied art all over the world — from Virginia to Europe to South Africa. But while she has won awards for her work depicting men, she says she finds it impossible to paint women, let alone Lesbians.

"I wanted to do Gay themes, but I somehow found it easier to do men. I still find it easier to do men. To this day, I’m still trying to do a Gay woman."

While studying in Harare, she found most artists were men who churned out portrait after portrait of the mythical shy but proud African woman, tilling the field and toting the baby. She was determined to challenge that notion at least in the art world. She found, however, that, whatever she did, it mattered little, as most did not take her seriously one way or the other.

"The first things I was doing was women, because I thought, ‘I’m gonna show you what women really are.’ So it was mostly strong women, mostly portraits," Madekurozwa recalls. "I just mostly wanted to show strong black women — not tilling the fields, not looking shy. They always have to be looking very direct, very challenging kind of gaze. I suppose a lot of people didn’t really like that. But like I said, they didn’t really take it seriously. They thought, ‘Well, she’ll disappear. She’ll get pregnant and start a family. Never mind, we’ll just let her do her thing and she’ll go away."

She did not go away; she began confronting Gay themes. She developed abstract portraits in which the subject’s gender and race blur, always hinting at a black woman struggling to break out of a melee of male and white figures. In one painting, a black woman peels away her skin to reveal the nude body of an androgynous white angel.

"Even an angel, all the angels you hear of — Gabriel — they’re all male," Madekurozwa explains. "Again, you don’t find any black women, even in religion."

In another painting, two figures with white faces embrace. One figure is clothed and androgynous, the other has the nude body of a black woman. In still another, an androgynous black version of the Angel Gabriel has a face painted white. These sorts of images are the closest she can come, says Madekurozwa, to expressing her thoughts as an African Lesbian.