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Gay Pride & Zimbabwe's Stonewall

In June 1969, on a sweltering hot New York City night, the day Judy Garland was buried, the police raided The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. This in itself was not unusual as the cops routinely harassed the drag queens and hustlers who frequented the bar. But something snapped that night, and the queens fought back. There were running battles with the police in the Village for 3 days. From the Stonewall Riots the modern Gay Liberation Movement begun. Since then, gays and lesbians in most counties of the world began their uphill battle for equal rights and an end to discrimination. In the United States, the birthplace of the movement, while Vermont has legalised civil unions between same-sex couples, in most States, sodomy is still illegal. In South America, people are still being killed because they are gay. In most African and Islamic countries, gays live in constant fear of exposure. South Africa remains the only country whose Constitution forbids discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The presidents of Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia, routinely treat us to outrageous homophobic outbursts. Our own President has become an international laughing stock who cannot visit the United Kingdom for fear of being harassed by in-your-face gay and human rights activist Peter Tatchell.

Yet we have something to thank Mugabe for. For those of us who us who were part of the GALZ Book Fair Task Force in 1995, listening to Mugabe's infamous "worse than pigs and dogs" speech, was frightening and unsettling. Sure, the already marginalized gay community made an easy scapegoat. We were either universally disliked, condemned, ignored, or people did not know we existed. After Mugabe's hate speech, two important things happened. The first was that the gay issue was firmly and forever placed on the national agenda. There was no way we were ever going to be ignored again. The second was that the hitherto mainly invisible black homosexual population of Zimbabwe was outraged to be told by their President that they did not exist, and if the did, they were a product of corruption by foreigners. Suddenly, there was a common cause to rally for. Gays fought back. We refused to back off. The 1995 Book Fair was our Stonewall.

It was also an eye-opener for many people in civil society. If a small, marginalized, maligned group of people could say NO to State repression and intimidation, there was no excuse for others not to stand up and be counted. It exposed Mugabe for what he is, for the whole nation and the world to see. We have since then, in the face of incredible vitriol, been slowly, but not always quietly, been chipping away at the State's version of what it means to be a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe is not a monolithic cultural entity. If one looks at Great Zimbabwe, it is made up of millions of small stones. In the same way, Zimbabwean society is made up of millions of different people from dozens of different cultures. The nation is composed of the sum of all the people who live in our soon-to-be-great-again country. Gay and Lesbian Zimbabweans have a right to that place in the sun, just as much as everyone else. We have always been here, and will continue to be here long after Mugabe is forgotten.

Visibility's Rewards

Invisibility is one of our greatest enemies. If people do not know we exist, and that we actually make up a large proportion of the population, how can they recognise or understand the discrimination or the prejudice we suffer? It has been estimated that in industrialised societies, up to 10% of the population is gay. Let's say that Zimbabwe's population stands at 13 million, (including the 2 million who have supposed to have left in the last year) and let's be conservative and say that perhaps 5% of the population is gay. (Let's not even get into the "western gay identity" or "men who have sex with men" debate here). That makes 650 000 of us, which is half a million more than the white population at its peak in the mid Seventies. That's a pretty substantial minority.

All right, we know that Mugabe credits us, along with his mythical "gay gangsters", with wielding more power than we have, but surely we should have a lot more influence? It's up to us to be more vocal and more visible. This is the only way to guarantee our rights. If people know that their child, parent, sibling, employer, accountant, secretary, maid, labourer, is gay, they will be less inclined to be hostile. It gives homosexuality a human face, not just some ethereal concept that some preacher or politician rants on about. Take the case in point of Anglican priest Tim Neil, who has been getting a lot of publicity lately. In an article in The Financial Gazette of 8th June 2001, he writes: "I am on record as publicly describing homosexuality as a perversion. Now, at some of the meetings I go to there are members of the Gay & Lesbian Association (sic) of Zimbabwe, and I say to myself Yes, Tim, they want freedom also'. They don't want and certainly don't need my condemnation. I see now that we Zimbabweans need to deal with our deep-rooted prejudice by entering into meaningful dialogue with them so that we arrive at a true respect of their personhood." What gay people have been saying for a long time is that people do not have to like us, or approve of our "lifestyle" but they must accept us as equal under the law. We don't want "special privileges". We want an end to discrimination and prejudice. NOW.

Now if the national gay organisation GALZ had not more or less forced the NCA (National Constitutional Assembly which is trying to write a more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe), to accept it as a legitimate stakeholder, would Tim Neil have ever met any openly gay people, which would lead him to change his views? He probably had a lot of gays in his congregation, but they were invisible. In South Africa, the anti-discrimination clause was not added by some benevolent or patronising straight people who felt sorry for us. Gays demanded it. Likewise in Zimbabwe, we are not asking for the crumbs from the table. We are demanding our full and equal rights under the new Constitution. Nobody is going to give them to us on a platter. We have to take them. But for that to happen, we must become more visible. We must be proud of who we are.

Visibility has its risks of course. Recently in Namibia all men wearing earrings had them ripped out by the Police. Meanwhile everybody knows that a man wearing an earring has long ceased to be a sign of being gay. And if we are going to use the cultural debate about what is African, men and jewellery have been part of African culture for thousands of years. Visibility, like coming out, is a process, a matter of degree. It's one thing having a drag show in a nightclub. But would we be so rash as to try and have a Gay Pride Parade past Parliament? Not yet anyway, but maybe quite soon after we have a new Constitution and new government. But that does not mean that we cannot celebrate Gay Pride. There will not be a Parade in Harare this year. But we will have a party, at least. We can all do something for the cause of visibility, and for ourselves. No matter how out we are, we can all come out to at least one person who does not know we are gay this Pride Week. Visibility is the first step on the road to our Liberation. Show anyone who hates us that at least some of the stones that make up that Great Stone Wall, which is the symbol of our nationhood, have a gay orientation. Removal of those stones, which could be at any level, will accelerate collapse. We, and all those other marginalized Zimbabweans are needed for the restoration of Zimbabwe. So let us make ourselves visible, and let us stand up and be counted.