'Dogs and pigs' no more? asks Zim gay coalition
May 24, 2004
BULAWAYO — "Worse than dogs and pigs" is how Zimbabwean President Robert
Mugabe described homosexuals almost a decade ago, when the gay
community attempted to highlight widespread homophobia in the
southern African country.
That statement, reported around the world, still reverberates in
the country, casting a long shadow over the exercise of sexual
Under Zimbabwean law, homosexuality as such is not illegal. But
sodomy, narrowly defined as anal sex between men, is.
Yet, in subtle ways, things are also changing. Intolerance,
particularly at the official level, seems to have mellowed into
The random and all too frequent arrest of gays
appears to have ceased, while the police's last raid of the Gays
and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (GALZ) office was in 1996.
"We have a good relationship with our local station," says Keith
Goddard, who heads the 400-member organisation. "They treat us with
Furthermore last July, after years of fighting, gays were
allowed to set up their own stand at the annual Zimbabwe
International Book Fair, no small feat, considering that their
presence at the 1995 event caused a fiasco.
"We thought it was a positive development and we can now put
that whole campaign to rest," Goddard told IPS.
Buoyed by a new-found confidence, the gay community is now
pushing for greater recognition by society.
"I wouldn't say there is complete acceptance, but there is
growing understanding regarding what being gay, or lesbian, is
about," Goddard observes.
Ironically, the impetus for such transformation was the
sensational sodomy trial of Zimbabwe's first post-independence
president, Canaan Banana, in 1998.
Testimonies during the 17-day court proceeding revealed the
ex-president as a closet homosexual who abused male subordinates
while in State House. Banana was subsequently convicted of sodomy
and jailed for a year. In November 2003 he died, a publicly
Goddard says that although Banana's trial was more about abuse
than the pursuit of sexual freedom, "it went a long way to convince
people that being gay is not a white-imported thing."
Since then Goddard and several other high-profile GALZ members
have frequently been invited to address groups. The organisation
itself conducts regular workshops on matters such as sexual
identity and the blackmail of gays, something that, happily, has
In its awareness and educational work GALZ focuses on the
younger generation, ignoring peers of the 80-year-old president.
The belief is that the minds of these individuals are set, and that
nothing much can be done to change their views on homosexuality.
In 1999, when the government attempted to write a new
constitution, GALZ pushed for the inclusion of a sexual orientation
clause. This was resisted and the government's draft constitution
was itself rejected in a referendum, albeit for different reasons.
A GALZ representative who calls himself Chesterfield
participated in the process. One of the first homosexuals to be
open about his sexual orientation, the 29-year-old says his family
was confused and frightened by the president's harsh statement.
Fearing official opprobrium, his father confronted him on the
matter and threatened to report him to the police.
Fortunately the older man has since relaxed his position and now
even manages to enquire about Chesterfield's partner of 10 years.
The rest of the family also appears to have developed greater
understanding. "But it was different for my sister," Chesterfield
remarks, "maybe because of the competition that I'd snatch her
Ironically, one of the most repressive laws to be put on
Zimbabwe's books, the Access to Information and Protection of
Privacy Act of 2002, protects the sexual orientation of citizens.
But in a country where the law is often applied selectively,
Goddard wonders if it's not just meant to shield those higher up in
Since the 1990s GALZ's priority has been preventing the spread
HIV/Aids among gays.
The group stepped into the fray because it was concerned that
information about preventing HIV transmission appeared to be aimed
at heterosexuals. "Our issue, the gay and lesbian issue, is
completely ignored," Goddard says.
However, in 2000, the association was pleasantly surprised to
receive a small sum of tax payers' money from the government-run
National Aids Council.
An audit later found that, "we were one of the organisations
which put the money to good use," Goddard says.
At present, GALZ is one of the few lobby groups in Zimbabwe that
has a treatment plan up-and-running for people with full-blown
Aids. "We don't want our members to die of Aids, they can die of
accidents," says GALZ health manager Martha Tholanah.
Before the end of the year, the association intends to make
condom packs available to gays and lesbians and to put up posters
that warn people about the ways in which gays might be vulnerable
Taking its agenda a step further, GALZ has also applied to
present a paper at the national Aids conference scheduled for next
Chesterfield says awareness about homosexuality might have
increased, but that the subject still makes many Zimbabweans
uncomfortable. "People know, but don't want to be confronted with
the �in your face visibility' of gay people," he told IPS. – Sapa-IPS
Zimbabwe's first black president Canaan Banana dies [11/11/2003]