‘Totally Unacceptable to Cultural Norms’

Gays in Zimbabwe fight institutionalized homophobia, see slow gains in social acceptance

Fellows Fall 1999

By Kai Wright

June 08, 2009

HARARE, ZIMBABWE - The words slam across the reports’ pages: "Lesbians should be sewn up"; "Homosexuality must be punishable by hanging"; "Homosexuality and lesbianism should be banned and culprits must be severely penalized by death, castration."

These are some of the responses government-appointed commissioners recorded just last summer when they surveyed half a million Zimbabweans about what they want included in the country’s new constitution. In each of their reports, the verdict on whether or not "freedom of sexual orientation" would be a fundamental right is clear.

Peter Joanetti, right, and Fatima, left, do a popular central African dance, considered risque by many, at one of the regular Saturday night parties GALZ hosts.

"Homosexuality and lesbianism were rejected and condemned as they were regarded as totally unacceptable to cultural norms and values of Zimbabwean society," one report sums up. In another report, 98 percent of those surveyed answer no to the question, "Should gays and lesbians be allowed in Zimbabwe?" The invectives go as far as blaming Gays for natural disasters "such as drought, locusts, worms and diseases."From the president to the shop clerks, this is Zimbabwe’s official stance on Gay people.

But there is another posture, not so official, slowly percolating in this country of 11 million people in southern Africa. It is the posture that brought headlines such as "Gay man shocks family" blaring across the front pages of the independent press throughout November. The posture that earned Gay civil rights activists their first appearances on state-run television late last year and generated more than 70 newspaper items related to Gays in the course of one two-week period. The posture that allows a small, tight-knit group of outspoken Gay men to saunter through town, ogling men, and "swinging" in and out of nightclubs without being attacked — at least not as often as they would expect. In a word, it is curiosity.

And while that curiosity may be sordid at times, Gay Zimbabweans are finding that society’s increasing interest in them not only reveals how rhetorical the official hate actually is, it inadvertently presents an opening through which they can pursue both their quest for community and for political and social change.

Following on the heels of Gays in South Africa, they have been among the first Africans to create a visible and active Gay human rights movement. Their activity, in turn, has sparked others in the region. Small, tentative efforts at Gay organizing have sprung up in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, even as far north as Kenya — each explicitly challenging the notion that Gay identity is an exclusively Western construct.

Possessed or poisoned?

Word spread about Peter Joanetti, right, when he was growing up as Gay. Older boys began approaching him, looking to try sex with the town ngochane. Pictured with Joanetti is his friend Fatima.

Peter Joanetti is a 25-year-old native Zambian. In his hometown of Mabvuku, a township about 20 miles outside of Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare, most people considered Joanetti’s behavior feminine. From an early age, that behavior included attraction to other boys. Joanetti’s family was middle class, which afforded him some pocket money as a teenager. With that money, he paid boys from school to be his boyfriends — not for sex, but for companionship and protection.

"Growing up, I was very feminine. It was very difficult because I used to be beaten up by guys. I wasn’t strong enough," Joanetti recalls through his trademark giggles that shake his still-tiny frame.

"I started to push for the guys at school on my level, ‘You should be my girlfriend, if you say yes I’ll buy this for you.’ … And I used to meet quite a lot of guys because of that. A kiss, a hug — those guys used to protect me when they would come to fight me, to beat me up."

Word spread about Joanetti and, soon, older boys began approaching him, looking to try sex with the township ngochane (en-go-CHA-nee) — the word used for a homosexual in Shona, Zimbabwe’s majority native language. Joanetti regularly obliged the boys and was eventually caught in the act in a public park. His mother, a devout Catholic, spent the next two years trying to "cure" her 15-year-old son.

As with many Zimbabweans, Joanetti’s mother’s ardent Christianity did not prevent her, in times of crisis, from consulting an nganga (en-GON-ga), or traditional healer. Her healer said Joanetti was possessed by the spirit of a deceased relative who had never married and who wanted to prevent Joanetti from marrying.

Joanetti believed his mother wanted to help him, but he had no patience for the healer’s attempts to channel the accused ancestor.

"It was drama," recalled Joanetti. "I wasn’t interested in drama, so I walked out."

One of the many trash cans with biblical scriptures that line the downtown streets of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city.

And, he demanded to be taken to a Christian prophet. So Joanetti and his mother went to an apostolic church, where the pastor said that he, too, believed Joanetti was possessed. The remedy, said the pastor, was for the family to join that church.

Disgusted with what she saw as the pastor’s opportunism, Joanetti’s mother, faithful to her Catholicism, declined. Joanetti says he does not know why his mother never took him to her own church to be "cured"; he assumes it was because the priest did not speak in tongues and thus his mother did not believe he had the necessary power.

Frustrated, and seeing Joanetti becoming an adult, his mother gave up her attempts to "cure" him. They struck a deal: He could go on sleeping with men but would be more secretive in the future.

For this concession, Joanetti nearly paid with his life. In the months after his visit to the traditional healer, Joanetti slowly began to believe there was, in fact, evil in his behavior. He drank a bottle of rat poison in an attempt to kill himself. It was the first of three suicide attempts over the next two years, each of which came following a period in which his family shunned him for his attraction to men.

His was not an extraordinary reaction. In the past year, of the 20 or so regular faces at Harare’s Gay community center, 11 have tried to commit suicide. It has become so commonplace that a conversation about someone who "drank tablets" the night before could be easily mistaken for one about someone who had too many beers.

Young Gays from all over Zimbabwe come and go at the GALZ center all day, attending meetings to learn everything from job skills to safer sex techniques. But the center's main role is social.

After Joanetti’s third suicide attempt, he moved to bustling Harare — the New York City of Zimbabwe — to live with an aunt who had traveled around the world. This aunt allowed him to explore his sexuality, and even encouraged him to. In her care, he was able to contact an organization he had heard about through the grapevine — the fledgling Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe.

It was with all of this background, as he gradually moved from being a "man who has sex with men" to a Gay man, that Joanetti tagged along with a handful of GALZ leaders to Zimbabwe’s acclaimed annual International Book Fair on August 1, 1995.

‘Immoral and repulsive’?

"I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals, who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and elsewhere in the world," railed Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. He was speaking to an audience at the International Book Fair in Harare that August afternoon when Joanetti and his new friends arrived.

"If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fiber shall our society ever have to deny organized drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality, the rights they might claim under the rubrics of individual freedom and human rights, including the freedom of the press to write, publish, and publicize their literature on them?!"

Mugabe’s outburst was soon heard around the world and drew the attention and criticism of human rights advocates throughout southern Africa and Europe. Irked by the reaction, Mugabe elaborated on his feelings about Gays two weeks later during an annual celebration of the nation’s independence.

"It degrades human dignity. It’s unnatural," he defiantly concluded, in a now infamous speech, "and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs. If dogs and pigs do not do it, why must human beings? We have our own culture, and we must rededicate ourselves to our traditional values that make us human beings. … What we are being persuaded to accept is sub-animal behavior and we will never allow it here. If you see people parading themselves as Lesbians and Gays, arrest them and hand them over to the police!"

Gay Zimbabweans — indeed Gays worldwide — are still speculating on what inspired Mugabe’s tirade. A Gay community had existed in Zimbabwe since as early as 1986, but it was a quiet one that had not prompted any previous threat from the state.

Juan Victor May-Lopes-Pinto: "There were like a handful - about two or three black people" when GALZ first emerged.

GALZ had existed since 1990, and its members had even met with representatives of the Mugabe government as recently as the year before. That meeting had backfired for GALZ and led to a troubling public announcement from the Home Ministry that police were "anxious" to arrest all Gays. And police did raid the office of a GALZ leader and confiscate some literature. But the state lost interest quickly and nothing else happened.

So why the high-profile, sustained protestation by Mugabe now?

On the surface, it appeared that Mugabe’s tirade was sparked by GALZ’s attempt to distribute counseling literature at the book fair. GALZ had applied to participate in the book fair based on the fair’s theme that year, human rights. Since it was a human rights group, GALZ expected little reaction from the state.

But after first being accepted by the fair’s governing board, the group was quietly tossed out by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Party. When news spread of the expulsion, several prominent Africans, including Nobel Laureate writers Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer, objected. Their protests briefly drew international attention to Mugabe’s government, with most decrying the country’s seminal "human rights" event as a hypocritical farce.

But none of this posed a real threat for Mugabe or the book fair. The book fair would, and did, go on. Mugabe continued his anti-Gay campaign and ratcheted it up day after day, year after year. He spent the next four years defining himself as the world’s reigning homophobe — right up to his New Year’s address this year, in which he warned of homosexuals imposing "a foreign culture" on Zimbabwe. To what end?

One theory holds that Mugabe is courting the favor of an increasingly organized religious bloc. Christianity is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else on the planet, and Zimbabwe is no exception. The streets in Harare’s city center are lined with large trashcans bearing biblical versus alongside Coca-Cola ads. Scholars say that the burgeoning African Christianity — as with most early religious movements — toes a strict literalist scriptural line. With Zimbabwe spiraling through the worst economic crisis in its history, and Mugabe facing the staunchest challenge he has seen in his two-decade reign, bashing Gays may seem like an easy way to distract attention from problems that are hard to solve and to shore up support from organized religion.

Mugabe’s assertion, repeated uniformly by those objecting to Gays not only in Zimbabwe but throughout Africa in recent years, is that there does not exist a true black homosexual person. Those blacks who claim to be Gay, the theory goes, are merely "rentboys" who have sublimated themselves to white predators. After Mugabe’s call to arms, government ministers in both Botswana and Namibia echoed him. One Namibian cabinet minister reacted to the book fair controversy saying, "Homosexuality is an unnatural behavioral disorder which is alien to African culture."

Perhaps to these African leaders’ surprise, it was this assertion that prompted many black Gays, such as Joanetti, to march boldly out of the closet and transform Zimbabwe’s relatively apolitical Gay community into a vibrant social movement that has pledged to turn Mugabe’s version of "Zimbabwean culture" on its head.

"At that time, that’s when black people started saying, ‘No,’" an otherwise soft-spoken Joanetti angrily explained, "‘we must fight also for this!’ Because Mugabe said there are no blacks who are Gay in Zimbabwe during the book fair — that if there are, they should be as pigs and dogs — we need to stand up and show that we are here, that we exist! That’s how we fight."

Backfires and racial tension

Observers are fond of noting ethnic rivalries throughout Africa — Hutu versus Tutsi in East Africa, Hausa versus Yoruba in West Africa. In Zimbabwe, the primary divide is more familiar: black versus white.

White British settlers, led by the famously cantankerous Ian Smith, broke with British colonial rule over the area that was then Rhodesia in 1965. They set up a fully segregated society on par with that seen during South Africa’s apartheid era. The new country immediately plunged into civil war as blacks, led by then-revolutionary hero Robert Mugabe, fought Smith’s minority rule tooth and nail from day one. When the regime finally succumbed in 1979, about 3 percent of the citizens were white. Most of those people have since migrated to Europe or South Africa. But the ones who have remained are still atop both the economic ladder and Mugabe’s list of demons. Since establishing his strongman, one-party state, Mugabe has invoked the specter of Zimbabwe’s racial divide whenever blacks’ discontent with his governance has mounted.

Among those whites who have chosen to stay are Evan Tsouroulis, Bev Clark, and Brenda Burrell. And in 1990, along with a handful of other Gay community organizers, they founded GALZ. They merged a women’s group run by Burrell and Clark, who are partners, with Tsouroulis’s men’s party list and formed what was basically a Harare social club.

"The reason why we had to organize on a social level first," Tsouroulis explains, "was because, if people don’t talk to each other, how are they going to actually talk about [activism]? And, at that time, you had the women [who] won’t talk to the men. We didn’t know black Gay people. We didn’t know they were there, we didn’t know how to find them. So, yes, when the organization started it was mainly a white middle-class organization mostly acting on a social level — but with long-term political aims."

Keith Goddard, current director of GALZ, reached out to black Gays at a time when the organization was mostly white.

When GALZ’s current director, Keith Goddard, got involved a couple of years later, he and a handful of other white leaders started trying to find black Gays to join. But to hear the few black and "colored" (mixed race) people who were around then tell it, the rest of the membership didn’t share a desire for outreach.

"There were like a handful — about two or three black people," remembers Juan Victor May-Lopes-Pinto, a 27-year-old colored man who is now GALZ’s administrator, "but these were very up-market kind of wealthy, well-to-do black people that had jobs. Professional black people. So they could mix along with white people. And maybe that would be only because they were going out with a white person. But I think if they had gone in as a black couple on their own, without knowing any of the white people, they would have felt very uncomfortable. Because I felt very uncomfortable."

So when GALZ entered the book fair in 1995, it was still basically a white organization. And many human rights activists, both inside and outside of the Gay community, believe Mugabe’s fixation with the group was just one more way of demonizing whites at a time when black discontent was building.

"He was looking for scapegoats," Goddard argues. "And the most perfect scapegoat that he could think of was homosexuals, because he was trying to find ways in which to stigmatize and vilify the white community in this country. Trying to paint them as foreign, trying to paint them as colonial destroyers. … And of course it was going to raise feelings of abhorrence in the population."

But many Gays, black and white, also feel it was Mugabe’s greatest contribution to Gay human rights in Africa. By the end of the weeklong 1995 book fair, GALZ was literally overwhelmed with black Gays who wanted to have a voice.

Bulelwa Madekurozwa was one of those people. Then 23 years old and living with her family in Harare, the closest thing she had seen to two women attracted to one another was on an American sitcom re-run in which a Lesbian couple had been "sad and troubled, not something you’d want to identify with." She knew she loved women; she also knew to keep it a secret. She never conceived of the idea that she could live openly as a Lesbian. Then one day in 1995, she picked up the state-run daily newspaper and read an article about the book fair controversy.

"There was a Gay and Lesbian organization forming?" she remembers thinking. "What? Did I just read that?!"

She found a phone number and, each Sunday while her family went to church, she would call the group and talk with one of the female counselors. Eventually, she went to a meeting, met friends, and became active in the community. Literally hundreds of other black Zimbabweans had similar experiences. By the end of 1996, the 250-member organization was almost exclusively black. This new membership transformed the organization from a middle-class white social group to a collection of radical black activists.

Keith Goddard, right, receives a kiss from a member of GALZ. "A lot of the people who come [to GALZ] are quite happy to walk out in the street in drag and demonstrate," Goddard says.

"A lot of the people who come [to the GALZ center today] are quite happy to walk out in the street in drag and demonstrate," Goddard says. "Or appear on television. Or write to the paper and use their real names. Or simply say to friends, ‘I’m tired of this homophobic bullshit, I’m a Gay person.’ And that’s where the group that was around between 1990 and early ’95 was very closeted and very quiet."

But where black Gays have stepped in to fight, GALZ’s former white members have disappeared. Tsouroulis, Clark, and Burrell all broke with the organization in 1996, and Goddard is about the only white face one ever sees at a GALZ event now. Black members say they’re clearly racists, and good riddance to them. But former white members say they were forced out because they tried to insure accountability and careful management of the thousands of dollars in Western funding that poured into the group following the book fair flap. Whatever the reason, the group’s drastic change from a white to black organization illustrates the potential resonance of Mugabe’s efforts to distract from his faults by demonizing whites — through bashing Gays or otherwise. Zimbabweans just do not mix across racial boundaries.

Defying the call to be silent

Today, GALZ challenges the government at every turn. The group won a lawsuit in 1996 that enabled it to enter the book fair. In 1997, it purchased a house just outside Harare’s city center that now serves as a community gathering place. When the World Council of Churches held its high-profile meeting in Zimbabwe in 1998, GALZ pushed, though unsuccessfully, for a Gay discussion tract. That same year, black Gays in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second major city, formed a sister group which is now also trying to purchase a community center.

And, in likely its biggest undertaking thus far, the group launched a campaign last year to have protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation included in a new constitution currently being drafted. While the effort appears like a pipe dream at first, GALZ members say that the real issue is not the clause’s inclusion or lack thereof but the conversation their demand has forced. When the commission charged with drafting the constitution held public, televised hearings, GALZ members showed up to make their own case — some in drag. Whereas once people such as Joanetti and Madekurozwa had to accidentally stumble across notice of GALZ’s existence, today no one, Gay or straight, hasn’t heard of the group.

T his activism has sparked some negative responses — such as those seen in the constitutional commissioners’ outreach reports. And while more and more people, particularly young black men, are living deliberately open lives as Gay people, there are dangers. Most of the people who come to GALZ’s center regularly have been physically attacked at some point, occasionally by state agents. But as the center’s very existence suggests, those attacks are increasingly rare. And while Mugabe’s government has issued strong threats, it has not raided the GALZ center since its early days. As Goddard stresses, this shows that even the state has come to accept Gays’ existence.

This acceptance has allowed GALZ the space to build alliances with democratic and human rights activists. Most observers agree that Mugabe’s days as president are numbered. Recent years have seen unprecedented civil unrest in Zimbabwe as the economy has plunged. People are for the first time openly blaming Mugabe’s government for their problems — pointing to storied corruption and what is increasingly seen as foolhardy military support for besieged Congo leader Laurent Kabila. The alliances GALZ has built will pay off in a new government.

But the real changes have come not in the space that the government has allowed but in the space that individual Gays have forced open. Juan, the GALZ administrator, tells a story of when he and another GALZ member were in a bar "swinging," or behaving in an exaggeratedly feminine manner, and a man started harassing them. They did not run, but instead engaged him in conversation and asked what he disliked about them. The man did not beat them up, but sat down and talked.

"People are now — some people want to be educated on it," Juan explains. "Some people are curious now to know what the hell is going on, why is he making such a fuss over homosexuals."


Activism bursts from townships

Gays have organized politically and socially in sub-Saharan Africa since at least the 1950s. Until the early 1980s, most of the recorded community activity involved white Europeans gathering socially to form exclusive cliques. But anecdotally, historians and Gay human rights activists say black Gay identity has existed in Africa since before colonization, and that identifiable black Gay communities have existed in townships in southern Africa for decades.

Visible black Gay activism and community exploded into the public arena in 1983, when Gay anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli joined South Africa’s national Gay group. As would happen in neighboring Zimbabwe more than 10 years later, his overtly political perspective as a black African clashed with the largely social goals of a middle-class white organization.

Nkoli, unhappy with the cool reception he received from the group, quickly branched out on his own. That same year, he secured an interview for himself with a black newspaper in which he offered his personal address and urged black Gay people to contact him. The response was overwhelming, and he arranged a special meeting.

"What was fascinating," the late Nkoli told South African author Mark Gevisser in his 1994 book on the country’s Gay community, "was how different their language was to the white middle-class members of [the Gay Association of South Africa]. They said things like ‘We have to fight for our rights! We have to mobilize!’ They were ordinary people, mainly in their 20s, and most joined GASA immediately."

A decade later, when South Africa abandoned minority rule and crafted one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, Nkoli’s activism in the anti-apartheid movement paid off for the Gay community. The new constitution, which took effect in 1996, was the world’s first to include protection against bias based on sexual orientation. Observers largely credit the victory to Nkoli’s ties to the African National Congress.

Nkoli succumbed to AIDS in 1998, at the age of 41. But his legacy lives on. Today, South Africa’s National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality is an integrated organization that not only fights local civil rights battles but also encourages and supports fledgling Gay groups throughout the continent.

The most active newcomer has been the embattled Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe. Originally founded in 1990, also as a largely white social group, today the group is almost exclusively black African and explicitly political. Its activism has, in turn, sparked groups in neighboring countries.

In Zambia, on Zimbabwe’s northern border, a young Gay man marched into the newsroom of a local newspaper in July 1998, came out as Gay, and announced the formation of a Gay group. He declared himself inspired by Gay activism in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Today, the government still threatens to arrest anyone who forms such a group, but Zambia’s fledgling Legatra has circumvented authorities by setting itself up as a chapter of a larger human rights organization. Similar attempts at activism have sprung up in Zimbabwe’s western neighbors Botswana and Namibia.

The height of continental attention to Gay issues was 1995, when Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe first began to lash out with a campaign to depict homosexuality as "un-African." African press covered the debate, and black G ays began moving into the public eye throughout Southern Africa. In Botswana, a man contacted a newspaper to tell of his Gay identity. He described his first same-sex relationship.

"For me, it was a step in a familiar direction — a step towards acknowledging that I had a second set of deep emotional longings," the man told the paper, according to a report by the Swiss human rights group Nordic Africa Institute. "From my earliest days I had wanted to be close to boys as well as to girls. However, because a same-sex attraction was so despised by my family and society, the thought that I might be a homosexual always terrified me."

There has certainly been backlash to these spurts of activism. While Mugabe’s tirades have been the most famous, leaders in all of the countries where Gay activism has popped up have responded with vicious vows to wipe it out.

But so far, these reactions have been largely rhetorical. Leaders have frustrated political actions with legal mechanisms but have still respected the rule of law. And while most African Gays tell horrifying stories of suffering personal assaults, they do not face the sort of wanton and gruesome murder many Gays face in Latin America.

Nkoli contributed an essay to Gevisser’s 1994 book in which he discusses coming out among his fellow anti-apartheid activists. He wrote at a time when the fight for Gay human rights in Africa was still contained to his own country.

"It’s difficult for me to tell exactly what the relationship is between my anti-apartheid activism and my gay activism, but there are two things I know for sure. The first is that my baptism in the struggles of the township helped me understand the need for a militant gay rights movement. The second is that this country will never protect the rights of its gay and lesbian citizens unless we stand up and fight — even when it makes us unpopular with our own comrades."

A year later, black Gays throughout Africa, and most intensely in Zimbabwe, took his words to heart as they stood in the face of threats from their national leaders.

- Kai Wright