There was a celebratory mood in Zimbabwe after former president Robert Mugabe finally threw in the towel after 37 years. Among those who were glad to see his back was the gay community, though they are sceptical about chances of change. By PUSELETSO NTHATE.
Where does one even begin to tell a story about homophobia, stigma, and discrimination of the gay community in the country? The question is asked by Samuel Matsikure, a gay Zimbabwean who chose to stay in Zimbabwe despite the persecution of gays under the Mugabe regime.
Matsikure, who is with the Gay and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) but was speaking in his personal capacity, said it was hard to believe Mugabe’s era had come to an end.
Chester Samba, a director at GALZ, said gay Zimbabweans were “ecstatic that the face of brutality, hate, and impunity has resigned”.
Homophobia has been official policy in Zimbabwe for years, with Mugabe responsible for stirring up homophobic sentiments and defending the country’s anti-gay Lesbian Gays Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) laws.
In President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnagwagwa’s inauguration speech last week, nothing was said to address the current perspective of the gay community in Zimbabwe.
In his inauguration speech, Mnagwagwa said he intended “to approach security issues from a broad human, physical and social perspective. All citizens must feel and enjoy a sense of belonging to the Land.”
Johan Meyer, health manager at OUT LGBT Well-Being, based in Pretoria, predicted that despite the departure of Mugabe, the oppression of gay people would continue. “There is no indication that his successor will have a different viewpoint,” said Meyer.
Laws passed in 2006 criminalised any actions perceived as a homosexual in Zimbabwe. Sexual deviancy is one of 15 additions to Zimbabwe’s criminal code that were quietly passed in the country’s parliament.
The country has actively carried out actions against LGBTI people and leaders have spoken out in public against homosexuality.
Established in 1990, GALZ is an LGBTI rights organisation that has operated under challenging political and socio-economic conditions.
Samba said that through the years, GALZ has been on the receiving end of the brutality and hatred of Robert Mugabe’s aversion to diversity. “Former president Robert Mugabe repeatedly fuelled public prejudice against LGBTI individuals through public statements that endorsed abuse of LGBTI people in Zimbabwe.
“GBTI people were subjected to abuse and harassment on account of their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression,” added Samba.
“In many cases, the state had been an active sponsor of homophobia by subjecting individuals suspected of being gay or lesbian to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”
Mugabe previously expressed tacit support for gay people being put to death. Mugabe described homosexuals as worse than animals because pigs knew who to mate with. He further said that homosexuals destroyed nations, and described homosexuality as a filthy disease.
“Mugabe displayed a lack of understanding and his total disregard of mounting scientific evidence with regards to homosexuality,” added Meyer.
He said a wedding is for a man and woman: “I can’t understand how these people dare to defy Christ’s explicit orders as our Lord prohibits mankind from sodomy,” said Mugabe.
Matsikure said religious fundamentalism has emerged in the past decade and has cast out people perceived to be homosexuals. “The house of God, which used to be a sanctuary for many gay people, has left them on the margins of society.
“Some have been dethroned of their positions in the church, made to believe they are not worthy and worst sinners. The claim that Zimbabwe is a ‘Christian’ nation and has to protect its morals has made it impossible for the gay community to be open and participate in church,” added Matsikure.
In 2015 Mugabe gave a bizarre speech to the United Nations (UN) in which he ranted about gay rights before shouting, “We are not gays!”
He told the UN that his government rejected attempts to prescribe new rights that were contrary to the values, norms, traditions, and beliefs of the country.
Samba said Zimbabwe now had a chance to return to constitutionalism. “Never again should gay people live in fear and be treated as second class in their own country.”
Samba said a new democratic Zimbabwe required a new way of doing things, which did not repeat the intolerance and discriminatory politics of Mugabe.
“GALZ implores Zimbabwe’s future leaders to allow Zimbabweans to enjoy their freedoms, particularly of expression and association, and to ensure that Zimbabweans do not live in fear of their leaders,” stated Samba.
Mugabe represented a brutal system and the real work of sanitising this system continued, added Samba.
Matsikure said there were many gay people who skipped borders with no proper documentation or enough money for the journey into the unknown. He, however, had chosen to remain in the country.
“I am one of those who decided to stay in Zimbabwe because I believed in the prosperity of my country and equal opportunities for all. I was born and bred with many supportive friends I have made over the years and family. What has happened in the past few days with Mugabe’s era coming to an end brings relief to all of us. I was part of those who took to the streets calling for him to step down,” said Matsikure.
“We encourage our future government to take all necessary measures to guarantee that the rights and freedoms of all people are respected and that human rights’ defenders are guaranteed space to promote and defend human rights,” added Samba. DM
Photo: A demonstrator for gay marriage tries to stabilise a giant rainbow flag against the wind, during a counter demonstration on the occasion of a conservative demonstration against gay marriages in Berlin, Germany, 15 September 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN