Perils of being out in Africa

Zimbabwean gay rights activist Keith Goddard has been arrested five times, beaten up by police and warned to stop his “deviant” life. But he says he never wants to leave his African home.

“I made sure that I followed all the regulations to get rid of my British nationality so that the government would never come up with an excuse to throw me out,” says Goddard (46).

In 2001, the former British colony tightened a law against dual citizenship, forcing some white Zimbabweans like Goddard to either renounce their British passports or leave. Thousands left, but Goddard stayed.

“Zimbabwe is where I belong,” said Goddard, on the sidelines of a recent workshop at the University of Humanist Studies in The Netherlands.
“I was born and brought up there and I believe gays are also part of the society.”

Not many in Southern Africa would agree. But there are some signs of change.

“Although the number of people willing to stand publicly for lesbian and gay rights in Africa remains small, there is a growing number of us who are willing to be outspoken,” said Goddard.

Goddard is a rare campaigner for gay rights in a region where hostility to homosexuality is embedded in law and where few gays dare to go public.

Many of the 500 members of Goddard’s Gay and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe have been routinely arrested and intimidated, he says.

In Zimbabwe, sex between men is outlawed as an “aggravated indecent assault”, mandating a one-year prison sentence for offenders. President Robert Mugabe once called homosexuals “lower than dogs and pigs”.

Zimbabwe’s first ceremonial president, Canaan Banana, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 1998 on charges of sodomy, though he was released after six months on medical grounds.

Homosexuality is banned in most African countries. In Cameroon, it is punishable by up to five years in jail. Nigerian law has a 14-year prison sentence for homosexuals, but in Muslim northern Nigeria, where Islamic sharia law is in force, it is punishable by death.

South Africa, Mali and Burkina Faso are considered gay-friendly countries.

Anti-gay laws in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Kenya and Mozambique don’t proscribe same-sex acts between women. “Women are not thought of as possessing a sexuality,” especially in rural Africa, said Goddard, and most are forced into marriage regardless of their inclinations.

Except in South Africa, which has openly gay bars, meeting places for gays in several African countries are kept secret, and gay society is concealed well underground.

The Harare government has banned a daily radio programme aimed at promoting gay rights and has blocked efforts to “educate the black majority that homosexuality is not a white man’s disease”, Goddard said. In the last five years, gay presenters have lost their jobs on state radio.

“It will take some time for Zimbabwean homosexuals to be accepted,” said Pascal Richards of Zimbabwe Watch, an Amsterdam-based platform for Dutch NGOs working in Zimbabwe.

“Zimbabwe is a known human rights violator. Like in many human rights areas, the government doesn’t honour gay rights.” Goddard’s organisation, Galz, has won accolades from international gay rights organizations for its advocacy work.

Paula Ettelbrick, director of the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said Galz had been “creative and fearless human rights leader, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout Africa”.

Despite the harassment, Goddard says attitudes are softening.

Many Zimbabweans have “embraced and generally accept homosexuality”, he said in an interview.

Though much work remains to be done, Goddard says he has found allies in unusual places, even among the police.

“Sometimes the police give us tips on how and where to hold meetings without seeking police approval as is required by the law,” he said. - Sapa-AFP

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