Ellen Chademana and Ignatius Muhambi hid their faces as they emerged from a Harare court late on Wednesday, hiding from two photographers — and from a society that still sees homosexuality as a disease.
The two, who work for Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), have been charged with undermining President Robert Mugabe and for possessing pornography. They were due for a bail hearing on Thursday.
While they were appearing in court, police raided the home of leading gay activist Chesterfield Samba, seizing identification documents but making no arrests.
A court heard on Wednesday how Chademana and Muhambi had been harassed in police custody. They had been forced ‘into a sitting position, without chairs, for long periods of time”, their lawyer said. Muhambi had also been beaten on his knees with empty bottles.
That the two tried so hard to hide their faces reflects the stigma that is associated with being gay in deeply conservative Zimbabwe. The raids have added fire to sensitive debate on whether gay rights should be included in on-going constitutional reforms.
Despite Mugabe’s rhetoric, arrests of gays have been rare and the raids appear to be an attempt by Zanu-PF to bait the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has no coherent position on gay rights. Zanu-PF could be looking to put Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on the spot — he cannot condemn the arrests without being seen as supporting gay rights, which are strongly opposed by his supporters. But he cannot support the arrests as this will anger his civil society allies and Western supporters, who want an end to years of restrictions on personal freedom under Mugabe.
In March, while jointly addressing a Women’s Day rally with Mugabe, Tsvangirai backed Mugabe’s stance on gays. ‘I have heard President Mugabe speak about men who breathe into other men’s ears,” Tsvangirai said, to cheers and laughter. ‘I too disagree. Why would a man look for another man? There are more women than men anyway.”
But, reflecting the MDC’s unclear position, days later an official in Tsvangirai’s office told reporters the prime minister had only been expressing his personal views and not those of his party.
Gay in Africa: a long walk to freedom
Amnesty International’s annual report detailed much of what most of us already knew. Issued this week, the report documented the state of human rights globally in 2009. In Africa, the group noted that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — continued to be harassed and intimidated, with some facing ‘arbitrary” arrest and detainment, as well as recently introduced legislation that would further criminalise homosexuality.
The report, in addition to noting the Malawi case where two gay men were sentenced to 14 years in prison earlier this month, specifically noted:
Sam Matsikure, GALZ programmes director, said gays hoped the new Constitution would protect them from harassment. ‘Politicians should not speak on behalf of the people. We want a situation where people speak for themselves,” Matsikure said.
But in Zimbabwe’s deeply conservative society, homosexuality remains taboo and anti-gay sentiment is prevalent in religious circles. At open-air church sermons, it is not uncommon for ‘former gays” to testify about how they had demons cast out of them, curing them of what many see as a disease.
Gay bashing is as popular in churches as it is in urban youth culture, where anti-gay lyrics are popular in local dancehall reggae music.
The widely shared hate belies the fact that, for its first seven years, Zimbabwe was led by a man who was most likely gay. Canaan Banana, ceremonial president until 1987, was arrested in 1996 after an aide, Jefta Dube, on trial for murder, claimed Banana had murdered a colleague in a rage after he had called him ‘Banana’s wife”.
Banana was found guilty of 11 charges of sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault. An ordained Methodist priest, he was defrocked and sent to prison for six months.
Under Zimbabwean common law, homosexuality is described as ‘unnatural”. Censorship laws, which ban ‘undesirable publications”, have also been used to stifle gay activism. A publication is seen as undesirable if it is ‘indecent or obscene, or is offensive or harmful to public morals, or is likely to be contrary to public health”.
Additions to the Criminal Code in 2006 banned any ‘act involving contact between two males that would be regarded by a reasonable person as an indecent act”. The ‘sexual deviancy laws” effectively ban same-sex couples from holding hands or kissing in public.
Gay rights activists are hoping for some protection under a new Constitution. But the opposition is strong — and not only from Mugabe.
Paul Mangwana, Zanu-PF’s representative on the constitutional reform committee, said a planned outreach programme would not even seek public opinion on gay rights. ‘This issue has been shunned by the three principals and we cannot let the nation dwell on such a matter,” said Mangwana.
Mugabe on homosexuality