With a law that criminalises homosexual acts as punishable by imprisonment, and a society that despises homosexuality, gays in Zimbabwe live in constant fear of discrimination and abuse. Which is why Tendai S. (not his real name) stays firmly in the closet.
Misheck Rusere, Harare
Tendai S. is 27 years old, Zimbabwean, and homosexual. He grew up in Marondera, some 75 kilometres east of Harare. When his sexual identity was revealed, life in his hometown became unbearable and, at age 17, he decided 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 rights group besieged
Under Zimbabwean law, sexual contact between two men is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Lesbians, however, are not affected by the ‘sodomy law’.
Gay men have it tough in Zimbabwe. There are reports of police actively hunting down gays and in a recent incident, they raided the offices of activist group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). They searched the files looking for materials “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 the president 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 community to come out of the closet. [Through Mugabe’s comments] they know GALZ exists and they know there are other people like them.”
S though is planning to stay in the closet. An upcoming musician, he says promoters would not book him if they knew he was gay. He says 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 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.”