No Uhuru yet for the Zimbabwean LGBTI movement

LGBTI people in Zimbabwe are regularly harassed by the regime. During teh 2013 election the abuse escalated when president Robert Mugabe tried to win voters by promising that if he won there would be “hell for gays”. Journalist and activist Miles Rutendo Tanhira describes the Zimbabwean activists' catch 22 – if they follow the law, they will adapt to the regime. If they don’t, they risk persecution.

December 16 2014 Text: Miles Rutendo Tanhira

“Where two elephants mate the grass suffers”, goes the adage. That explains well the hostile environment LGBTI** activists find themselves in as African countries exercise unchecked powers by amending and/or enacting laws that impact constitutional civil liberties in attempts to rule out political opposition.

While many Africans are battling with issues of state instigated homophobia, LGBTI rights activists’ efforts and mobilization are also curtailed by a domino effect of laws which may not necessarily be motivated by homophobia. Being a minority group, working on such ‘taboo’ issues is considered the Achilles heel that alienates most LGBTI organisations operating in such volatile situations.

Activists working in countries where state repression is so profound often discover themselves in a ‘catch 22’, as abiding by these laws means to conform to oppressive regimes while an opposition to it risks prosecution. Such is the predicament of the LGBTI living and organising in Zimbabwe, where democracy remains a pipedream as the oppressive nation continues to stifle dissent. This southern African country has a wide range of repressive laws that infringe on civil rights. Such oppressive laws enforced under the guise of ‘protecting citizens and maintaining public order’ directly affect the lives and assembly rights of the LGBTI community as they criminalise their very existence and homosexual activities.

The Constitution of Zimbabwe, signed into law on May 22nd of 2013, guarantees its citizens a broad range of rights, amongst them freedom of expression, association and assembly, while legislation ultra vires the Constitution and seeks to curb internationally recognized human rights practices still in place. In addition to the hideous Sodomy Law of 2006 that criminalises consensual same-sex acts and any other physical contact of a homosexual nature between male adults, draconian laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) of 2002, Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Act of 2004, and the Censorship Entertainment and Control Act (CECA) of 1967 are repeatedly exploited to deny people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex

The PVO Act stipulates that all non-governmental organisations be registered and approved by the government prior to functioning. This Law has been used notoriously to shut down NGOs and raid LGBTI activity groups on several occasions, it makes it hard enough for LGBTI-related organisations to get registrations to operate let alone police clearances to conduct meetings. In most instances, notifying the police of its activities will threaten members’ personal security.

While operating as a universitas, the offices of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) have been raided by armed police on numerous occasions, resulting in arrests and confiscation of computers and publications. However, in January 2014 GALZ won a landmark court case in which the organisation challenged the police for the beating and detaining of activists and confiscation of office computers.

POSA was crafted in an effort to close democratic gaps and to stamp out government opposition and criticism. This atrocious Law requires organizations to obtain police clearances prior to conducting public meetings, while being infamously and selectively used by government agents. Misinterpretations of this Law have resulted in the police denying such clearances and in most instances allowing them to force entry into private premises to raid meetings organised by LGBTI activists while beating, harassing and arresting them on unscrupulous charges intended to silence human rights defenders and government critics.

The CECA criminalizes possession of pornographic materials in public and private places and has been employed to prosecute LGBTIs and to raid LGBTI rights activists’ operations. Educational materials of LGBTI Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) are often considered pornographic. And since the Law prohibits homosexual acts, being in possession of sex toys is also considered an offence even in private homes. This makes LGBTI activists and homosexuals potential “criminals”.

The prohibition of same-sex marriage in Section 78 of the Constitution has been widely misrepresented to criminalize homosexuality, which has opened avenues for blackmail and extortion of families by members of society and the police. Most LGBTIs often discover themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place in such occasions and are likely to payoff blackmailers for fear of being exposed.

GALZ recently published a report documenting widespread and systematic human rights violations on individuals who are or perceived to be LGBTIs. The report cites 42 individual cases of violations and seven recorded incidents of hate speech by public officials. Those violations included police harassment and blackmail, assault, threats, exposing of homosexuals, detention, discrimination, disownment, hate speech, and invasion of privacy. It also references discrimination experienced in health institutions by LGBTIs, constraining them from seeking important sexual and reproductive health services and at times having to go prolonged periods with untreated STDs.

State-sponsored homophobia churned out by politicians and the media has had diverse effects on the lives and gathering of LGBTIs. The President of Zimbabwe is on record as saying: “Then we have this American President, Obama, born of an African father, who is saying ‘we will not give you aid if you don’t embrace homosexuality’. We ask, ‘was he born out of homosexuality?’ We need continuity in our race, and that comes from the woman and not from homosexuality. ‘John and John’, no; ‘Maria and Maria’, no. Kana zvirizvo, tovavharira five years mumba imwe, murume nemurume, vobuda vane vana [“we lock them in a room for five years to see if they can reproduce”]. If they don’t, we will cut their heads off.”

Such public statements give society and the police complete discretion to attack, harass and impose instant justice on LGBTIs with brazen impunity. If such cases are even reported, there is no compensation for the survivors of such abuses.

In view of the foregoing, it goes without saying that, although LGBTI activists continue to challenge oppression and call for inclusion and recognition, they are still faced with insurmountable obstacles, and the journey is certainly not free of vigils and thorns. Yet, the struggle continues, because if not now, then when?

* Uhuru means freedom in Swahili.
** LGBTI stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex.