Compelling Issues

Being LGBT In Zimbabwe: 6 Queer Zimbabweans Share Their Stories

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Being LGBT in Zimbabwe  6 Queer Zimbabweans Share Their Stories Zimbabwe flag LGBT flag jpg

Image by GALZ

“We reject attempts to prescribe new rights that are contrary to our norms, values, traditions and beliefs. We are not gay.” This is what Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert G. Mugabe, said at the 2015 UN General Assembly.

He’s the same leader who’s known for saying people like me are “worse than pigs and dogs.” And let’s be honest. For someone who’s known to be very educated, and he is, comparing us to animals wasn’t quite an intelligent remark. Check out this article published by Pink News if you want to know why. Spoiler alert: every animal, from human beings to pigs, dogs, and even insects fall across a spectrum of sexuality.

The man may no longer be Zimbabwe’s leader but his legacy lingers. He is revered by some as the Lion of Africa. To LGBT folks in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is the infamous champion of anti-queer policies.

Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, hasn’t been as vocal about his intolerance as his mentor. Don’t get it twisted, though. He isn’t any less intolerant towards the LGBT folks in Zimbabwe. In fact, at the 2017 World Economic Forum, the leader made it clear he’d not be advocating for LGBT rights. The Crocodile, as he’s known in Zimbabwe, told Richard Quest that doing so is tantamount to not upholding the Constitution. By the way, its the same Constitution which states that the President must “promote unity and respect the diversity of people in Zimbabwe.”

Wondering what Zimbabwean law says about homosexuality? The Constitution Amendment Act 2013 doesn’t expressly outlaw same-gender relationships. However, it prohibits same-gender marriage.Click To Tweet Act 2013 doesn’t expressly outlaw same-gender relationships. However, it prohibits same-gender marriage.

The Criminal Law, Codification and Reform Act [Chapter 9:23] forbids sexual relations between men. Even if the act is consensual and agreed upon from both parties. Surprisingly, the same Act only criminalizes forced intimacy between women. One wonders if this is because physical intimacy between women is fetishized by the same people who cringe at the thought of other men being intimate with each other.

Anti-queer policies have fuelled hostility towards the LGBT folks in Zimbabwe.Click To Tweet Many suffer from these policies in various ways and to varying degrees. Many continue to live in closets because they fear being subjected to unfair discrimination on the grounds of their sexuality. Many also fear being rejected by their families once they come out.

An asterisk (*) signifies a name has been changed to protect the identity of the individuals whose experiences are shared in this article.

Lexa*, a 20-year-old bisexual woman, hasn’t disclosed her sexuality to her family. While it’s hard for her not being herself around loved ones, Lexa fears they’ll have a hard time accepting her sexuality. “It’s harder around the elders of the family because their generation isn’t open to queerness. They believe it’s unacceptable; that’s what they’ve always known. And their intolerance is very harsh judging by the words they use and the disgust on their faces.”

Pumba* is also in the same predicament as Lexa. His family is religious so he fears they’ll struggle to accept his sexuality. Fear of being rejected means the 29-year-old hasn’t been able to come out to them. Being someone they think highly of, Pumba also doesn’t want to disappoint them.

While these two struggle to come out to family, PJay has been one of the fortunate few who hasn’t faced much intolerance from family members. Still, the 23-year-old says “being lesbian in Zimbabwe is very complicated because you have to keep your life private especially when you’re in certain spaces… You can be mocked and called names by random strangers. It’s only at events for LGBT folks where we can be our authentic selves.”

Sadly, Junior* now knows that it’s not only strangers one needs to be wary of. For the 25-year-old, having family know about her sexuality means she’s now side-lined from certain family discussions, even the ones that concern her. Junior* was outed to her mother by her sister who found text messages between her and another woman. Since then, Junior says she’s misjudged and her sexuality is dismissed as satanic.

Various organizations exist that cater to LGBT folks in Zimbabwe. These include Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), which has made progress in advocating for LGBT inclusion in institutions like Population Services International (PSI).Click To Tweet

Various organizations have been established that cater to LGBT folks in Zimbabwe. These include Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe  (GALZ), which has also made notable progress in advocating for LGBT inclusion in public institutions like Population Services International (PSI).”

PSI works with Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry to ensure the public’s access to healthcare services. Thanks to GALZ and other organizations, now LGBT folks can also access these services. Key populations who are at risk of contracting HIV now have access to proper preventive methods, something they didn’t have before. Still, LGBT folks continue to face challenges in accessing these vital services.

When Junior* visits the clinic for a check-up or HIV testing, nurses tend to call others before asking her invasive questions about her sexuality. The challenges don’t end there.

Work culture presents even more hurdles for LGBT folks in Zimbabwe. While some are unfairly denied employment, some are fired once word gets out about their sexuality. There are few protections in place to keep this from happening and it’s completely legal by the government’s standards. Those who are fortunate to be working have to avoid presenting themselves in ways that can lead to being perceived as queer, something Pumba struggles with regularly.

And let’s not forget the T in LGBT. A woman named Jordan Chanetsa* is having a hard time landing a job as one of the few openly transgender folks living in Zimbabwe. Jordan says many companies aren’t willing to risk their reputation by being associated with a transgender person, or any visible member of the LGBT community for that matter. With her legal ID showing her sex as male, the 21-year-old says she’s often accused of impersonating someone else or trying to commit fraud.

There are several LGBT organizations in Zimbabwe striving for change, there’s one simple fact: Zimbabwe is not a completely safe space for queer people and the work is just beginning. Even the organizations don’t have the full backing of the Zimbabwean queer community — some of those people fear that being associated with any LGBT advocacy firm increases the risk of being outed. Others, like Jordan, simply feel unwelcome.

She feels LGB folks don’t respect transgender identities because they also believe gender is binary and one’s gender is the one they were assigned at birth. “It seems acceptance is only extended to gays and lesbians,” says Jordan, who’s reluctant to be in spaces where she’ll end up being the topic of a conversation.

Another woman named Yolanda* finds it hard to find spaces where she feels safe enough to be herself, as well. There are many people who are quick to judge others based on their appearances. And, in a country that views homosexuality as immoral, Yolanda feels this adds fuel to the fire to out LGBT folks. The 27-year-old, who’s only out to a few people, says this only forces her to stay closeted.

It’s not all grim, though, as Yolanda is in a relationship with someone who she says has become her safe space and the partnership has helped her become more comfortable with her sexuality. Of course, the challenge for these two is finding places to be together where they can’t be harmed by someone offended by their relationship.

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Image by Mahrael Boutros via Upsplash

Jordan, who hopes to encourage more visibility by living openly, says it’s hard to find partners who’re willing to love her outside of the closet. This means she often finds herself in complicated situations where she is used.

For several queer folks, the attitude towards homosexuality in Zimbabwe influences their ability or willingness to engage in stable, romantic relationships. Such relationships seem to only happen in movies… Or in other countries where people are more empowered to be themselves. Queer antagonism is the reason why Pumba has never dated. Although this makes him feel lonely most of the time, he simply sees no point in dating in a homophobic context.

LGBT folks in Zimbabwe continue to face challenges post-Mugabe presidency. These challenges are as systemic as they are personal. Different folks experience them in different ways. Still, these experiences are all different versions of one song. All this shows is that the fight to exist freely is far from over for LGBT folks living in Zimbabwe.