/ 22 September 1995

Zimbabwe’s gays live in fear of the future

Bart Luirink visited Zimbabwe in the aftermath of Robert Mugabe’s anti-gay outburst and found the country’s gay community in a state of fear

IT’S clean-up time in Harare. Irritatingly enthusiastic policemen chase the last hawkers and beggars from the pavements. Harare is preparing itself for the All Africa Games and poverty gets deported to the outskirts of the town.

Thousands of visiting sports officials walk past in the blissful belief that Zimbabwe is doing well. The country is more or less bankrupt, but no outsider would

I am looking for Michael, whom I met last year in one of Johannesburg’s gay bars. We became friends and tasted “pink Jo’burg” together. He was 21 years old, black and he had a sense of humour. He returned to Harare in April last year to finish his training as a dress designer.

We kept up telephonic contact until June this year, but, since then, he hasn’t answered the phone. After President Robert Mugabe’s call for an anti-gay witchhunt, I started to worry.

Mugabe’s attack caused sharp reactions from famous authors, like Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka, Archbishop Tutu and the gay organisations in South Africa, but in Zimbabwe he enjoyed warm and fairly general support. Those ministers present at the notorious Harare Book Fair’s opening almost wet themselves laughing listening to Mugabe attacking gays as an “association of perverts and sodomists”.

The Anglican Women’s League, whom Mugabe addressed days later, also twittered with joy. At a rushed session of parliament, one MP after another parroted the president. Only one member expressed some caution by saying: “How do we explain this hours-long debate on homosexuality to our constituency?”

At the office of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) in Harare, I am told that the organisations’ archives have been transferred to a “safe house”. What’s left is a postbox number. Shirley, who runs a nearby curio shop, admits to stopping her active membership. She tells me to contact “Evelyn”.

“As lesbians, we were a bit shocked to hear the president accuse us of sodomy,” says Evelyn grinning. When asked about Galz’s demise, which followed the resignation of two-thirds of its executive, she sighs deeply. She finds it increasingly difficult to “associate” with her fellow white, gay compatriots.

“They saw Galz as a picnic-party club. They are scared to death of politics, they don’t want to get involved. But what risk would we actually be taking?”

During the book fair, one of the remaining Galz members spotted a police car in front of her house. “But after being offered some coffee, they quietly moved away,” she says. “Of course black gays are also scared and they have all the reasons in the world. But a few black members were a lot more combative after Mugabe’s speech than the whites were. Maybe because they are part of a tradition of resistance against the former regime? Maybe because they don’t have as much to lose?”

Until July this year, gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe lived relatively undisturbed lives, even though the number of gay bars in Harare was limited eventually to one. And to use the term “homosexuality” in the media was not done. Maybe the gay movement’s “coming out” by applying for a stall at the book fair, and its first publications appearing in Shona and English, were going just a step too far. Maybe it was seen as a provocation by those in power. Maybe the economic misery and the approaching presidential elections next year created a need for a new scapegoat. Maybe the South African winds of change shook nerves in Harare’s presidential

But Evelyn’s explanation is more psychological. She suspects that Mugabe himself, when he underwent a 12- year prison sentence under Ian Smith, may have been sexually abused. “It happens all the time in our prisons. Moreover, his white adversaries once smeared him as a ‘moffie’.”

It is because of the absence of any dialogue on the issue, Evelyn believes, that many Zimbabweans associate homosexuality with sexual abuse. “The most typical thing in black culture is the taboo on sexuality — any sexuality. Aids and HIVcounsellors tell me a lot about this. There are no Shona words for genitals or orgasm. There is, however, a Shona word meaning gay — ngochane. That proves that our sexual preferences are not ‘alien’ to black culture.”

A few days before my arrival in Harare, Galz-member Paul’s mother received a phone call from a police officer. Paul, a real “queen”, is known in the townships as “Yvonne Chaka Chaka”. The policewoman ordered Paul’s mother to send her son to the police station for interrogation. He also had to bring Z$1 000 with him, she said. Taking Evelyn’s advice, he approached a lawyer, didn’t take the money, and asked for the policewoman’s ID-number. She refused, but also, suddenly appeared to have no time for “interrogation” anymore. Paul would be “contacted” later.

According to Evelyn, the incident shows the danger of blackmail unleashed by Mugabe’s speech. A complaint has been lodged with the authorities, after which an investigation was promised. “I am not too afraid of the police, who still have to adhere to certain rules. Homosexuality is in itself not against the law here. You are not allowed to ‘practice’ it and to be prosecuted you have to be caught ‘in the act’.” She is more terrified of the ruling party’s Youth Movement. “If they get mobilised for this campaign, it will really be a witchhunt.”