Walls Against FreedomAugust 20, 2014
“I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and revulsive [sic] organisations, like those of homosexuals who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and even elsewhere in the world.
If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organised drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality, the rights they might claim and allege they possess under the rubrics of individual freedom and human rights…Robert Mugabe, ZIBF, 1 August 1995
1 August 2014, marks 19 years since GALZ took the decision to enter the 1995 Zimbabwe International Book Fair ( ZIBF). This decision came at the end of a road. The careful strategy of trying to open doors quietly had failed. The state had effectively silenced GALZ and, to add insult to injury, gay and lesbian people were now being subjected to frequent outbursts of anti-gay propaganda in the papers, which was clearly aimed at discrediting the community as morally corrupt and perverse.
As the theme for the 1995 Book Fair was ‘Human Rights and Justice, it would only be appropriate for GALZ to apply for a stand. It was an act of desperation, intent on reaching out to a few interested passers by. But, without realising it, GALZ at that moment set itself on a path that would turn the tide of Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in Africa.
The fears and the continuing cautious self-censorship amongst members of the executive committee of GALZ then were evident in the minutes of the meeting that took this decision. The association decided to ask for a stand in a corner of the Book Fair above which would be placed a bold sign saying ‘information to be given only to people over the age of 18’. The stand was to carry HIV and AIDS information of a general nature, membership application forms and two pamphlets (one published both in English and in Shona debunking myths about homosexuals), the other about homosexuality, human rights and the law. There was also a cautiously- worded flier in Shona and English advertising GALZ counselling service.
The President in his opening speech at the 1995 Book Fair, Mugabe evoked the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
All human beings are born free and equal and are endowed with reason and committed to respect human rights… My government is committed to the respect of human rights and striking a practical balance among the rights of the majority versus those of minorities and the individual…
The double standard of naming the universality of human rights in the same breath as denying others the right to freedom of expression was laid bare when Mugabe turned to “homosexuals who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious belief”
Until that moment, GALZ had failed to get even a counselling advert into a sate-controlled newspaper and ironically, it was Mugabe who launched the gay rights movement publicly in Zimbabwe. Homosexuals became the talk of the town and, from first public day of the fair, young and old, black and white, men and women, crowded around GALZ members stationed at the abandoned stand opposite the shrine. Many were hostile, some sympathetic, others just curious.
Even with the best of resources, GALZ would never have been able to bring so much attention to the situation of LGBT people in Zimbabwe in the way Mugabe had done. For Zimbabwean LGBT people, this meant another strategy in state-sanctioned homophobia. Two commercial sex workers complained that the emergence of GALZ threatened their trade. The late Keith Goddard suggested that they apply for their own stand at the next fair – it would do wonders for their publicity.
Ten days after the 1995 ZIBF, Homosexuality was placed firmly on the national agenda in Zimbabwe. At Heroes Day celebrations, Mugabe referred to lesbians and gays as ‘worse than dogs and pigs’ and tried to instigate a witch hunt, saying:
“If you see people parading themselves as lesbians and gays, arrest them and hand them over to the police.”
In September 1995, the Parliament of Zimbabwe fully endorsed the attitude of the President. During the debate, Member of Parliament, Aeneas Chigwedere uttered the Nazi-style comment:
“The whole body is far more important than any single dispensable part. When your finger starts festering and becomes a danger to the body you cut it off…The homosexuals are the festering finger.”
The clear message given to Zimbabweans and in particular the Zimbabwean police force was that lesbians and gay men could be harassed with impunity. The Commissioner of Police, Augustine Chihuri, is on record in many places as saying that he is partisan and loyal to ZANU (PF). The lack of cooperation on the part of the police to act against and prosecute perpetrators of brutal attacks and murders committed in the name of ZANU (PF) is ample proof that the police bend to the will of their political leaders. Commissioner Chihuri has clearly stated that the police will not intervene when an issue is political. Government’s anti-GALZ crusade government falls squarely into this category.
Mugabe’s pronouncements against LGBT people have, to a large extent, defined the enduring public discourse regarding homosexuality among Zimbabwean citizens over the last nineteen years, and for LGBT people, the effects of his statements remain palpable. Mugabe has proscribed the environments and attitudes of the nation towards LGBT people, thereby significantly influencing social dynamics and how LGBT people and issues are perceived.
The President’s statements, as well as statements by other political and religious leaders, result in placing homosexuality in the public domain in a manner that even if GALZ had set out to create public awareness, it would not have been able to do. This has ironically led to LGBT people who had not known of the existence of GALZ, finding out about GALZ through such free, consistent and predictable stratagem.