With a law that qualifies homosexual acts as sodomy punishable by imprisonment, and a society that despises homosexuality, gay men in Zimbabwe are living in constant fear of discrimination and abuse. Which is why Tendai S. (not his real name) is forced to stay in the closet.
By Misheck Rusere, Harare
Tendai S. is 27 years old, Zimbabwean, and homosexual. He grew up in Marondera, some 75 kilometres east of Harare. After his coming out, life in his hometown became unbearable and, at age 17, he took the decision to move to the capital.
“Whenever I would board a bus, people who knew me would shout at me and call me ngochani, a Shona word for gay,” says S. “And people at my mother’s church started to discriminate against her. Others in the neighbourhood threatened to set my parents’ house on fire. That’s when I decided to leave, for my mother’s safety.”
Gay and lesbian lobby group besieged
According to the Criminal Law Codification Reform Act, Chapter 5, sodomy is punishable by imprisonment of a maximum of one year, where sodomy is defined as ‘[...] any male who, with the consent of another male person, knowingly performs with that other person anal intercourse or any act involving physical contact other than anal intercourse or any act involving physical contact other than anal sexual intercourse that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act [...]’. For reasons unknown, lesbians are not affected by the ‘sodomy law’.
But gay men are having it tough in Zimbabwe. It is reported that police are actively hunting them down. In a recent incident, they besieged the offices of lobby group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). They searched the place looking for materials they believed to be promoting homosexuality, and took the names and addresses of all the members present at the time of the raid.
The irony is that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s anti-gay statements are actually helping us, says Chesterfield Samba, GALZ director. “There is this joke in local and international gay circles that Mister Mugabe is an ambassador for gay rights,” says Samba, who thinks that Mugabe has personal issues with homosexuality.
“I don’t know how many times he has spoken out against homosexuality. By doing so, he has made people aware of the issue and is helping our [gay] community to come out of the closet. [Through Mugabe’s comments] they know GALZ exists and they know there are other people like them.”
Meanwhile, S. says he will stay in the closet. An upcoming musician, he says promoters would not book him if they would know he is gay. He says that he’s only ‘out’ when he is in a space together with other homosexuals, for example in the GALZ office or at the rare gay gatherings.
S. is always feeling insecure, scared of government officials as well as members of the public, who have been conditioned by the country’s leadership to hate homosexuals. “The feeling that I’m not free is always there,” he says. “What will happen if someone finds out that I’m like this? It’s definitely going to be a criminal case. And President Mugabe’s anti-gay stance is very scary, because it triggers violence against us from his supporters.”