Inside Out

Keith Goddard

The Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was set up in 1990 to provide support services to lesbian and gay communities in Zimbabwe. Frustrated by the Zimbabwe government's attempts to silence the organisation and prevent it from reaching out to potential members, GALZ was forced to transform itself into a human rights lobby group and to adopt a highly political profile. Though this was done under the watch of international human rights bodies and other organisations, it was some time before GALZ started to be accepted by local human rights groups. Even today, many organisations view the work of GALZ with suspicion.

Shortly after its formation in 1990, GALZ joined the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). In 1992, GALZ attended an ILGA conference in Paris and made contact with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). However, GALZ found it difficult to convince the international community that lgbt1 people in Zimbabwe faced problems: there was no evidence of the gay community being targeted for persecution, and government had no policy on the matter.

The climate changed in 1995. The state-controlled Sunday Mail carried a headline article in January ridiculing an independent initiative by the American gay activist, William Coursen, to take the Zimbabwean government to the African Court of Justice for abuses against the Zimbabwean lgbt community. Although the article contained useful ammunition for GALZ (it claimed that homosexuality was a foreign perversion being imposed on Zimbabweans by outsiders), Coursen's initiative backfired. GALZ asked Coursen to withdraw the article, but too late: the African court still issued a damning statement which has made it difficult to reopen the case at a later stage.

The book fair saga

Throughout 1995, the climate changed dramatically. GALZ applied to participate at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) which had as its theme that year, Human Rights and Justice. The application was rejected but the efforts of GALZ to be admitted received powerful support from South African publishers and others. Although GALZ did not participate, the organisation learnt for the first time that its concerns were legitimate and that outside pressure was a powerful tool for purposes of lobbying. The campaign very nearly brought down the Book Fair.

The 1995 Book Fair saga and the first vitriolic speeches against the gay community by President Mugabe, who opened the fair and who later delivered his infamous "Dogs and Pigs" speech at a political rally, launched the lgbt struggle in Zimbabwe and sent a clear signal to the international community that gay people in Zimbabwe were about to be targeted for persecution. Now better prepared, GALZ repeated its attempt to participate at ZIBF in 1996 which again invited a strong negative reaction from the government and others. This time, GALZ took the government to court and won its right to participate.

Mugabe's anti-gay rhetoric, rubber-stamped by Parliament, whipped up a climate of hysterical homophobia in this country and put the lgbt community at risk, but the positive outcomes have been many. GALZ received substantial funding from foreign funders, the organisation became a household name and the plight of homosexuals came to the attention of the London office of Amnesty International which began to monitor the human rights abuses against lesbian and gay people in Zimbabwe.

In 1996, the troubles that a lesbian member, Tsitsi Tiripano, faced as a consequence of her presence at the GALZ stand at ZIBF, led to a year-long international alert by Amnesty International and to a three-month speaking tour in the first quarter of 2000 where she met with human rights supporters and detailed the situation facing lesbians and gay men in Zimbabwe.

At both book fairs, the National Coalition of Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) provided a strong shoulder and encouragement to GALZ. Gays in London responded by forming the May 8 Group which now provides legal advice and general support to lesbian and gay operations in Southern Africa.

Arrest that man!

President Mugabe is a renowned globe trotter. Lgbt (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual) groups in South Africa, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, have kept up the pressure through high visibility public protests, a style of action not possible in Zimbabwe because of the danger of being shot.

These public protests went largely unreported in the local press. But in November 1999, the London-based group, Outrage!, went much further by attempting to arrest Mugabe who was on a private shopping trip in London. The incident sparked a diplomatic incident between Britain and Zimbabwe, heated discussion in the media and became the platform from which Mugabe launched his campaign against the British government to sponsor the land reform process in Zimbabwe. Although the incident led to a couple of isolated revenge attacks on members of the gay community here and a row in the British gay press, Mugabe's claims that the British government was run by "gay gangsters" in league with secret agents who want to destabilise Zimbabwe was so far-fetched that even Mugabe's own hardline supporters were incredulous. Although GALZ had no knowledge of the incident, the organisation received many calls and letters of congratulation and GALZ bathed in reflected glory. Again, if such an incident had been tried in Zimbabwe, the instigators would have been shot on the spot.

International publicity brings with it both positive benefits and problems. The attempts by GALZ to participate in the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches were unsuccessful: GALZ was exluded on a technicality. But the local and international publicity generated by the process leading up to the Assembly proved invaluable in exposing the Zimbabwean Council of Churches (ZCC) as a body of hypocrites. The issue of homosexuality and the church was widely debated over many months. GALZ won friends in the international church community and this has led to the formation of the GALZ Fellowship Group.

International law

International law has provided the backbone to much of the work of GALZ. Zimbabwe is signatory to most of the major international covenants, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Although their contents have not been translated into local domestic law, these international instruments give GALZ the moral authority to formulate policies on lgbt issues which are in line with modern international thinking.

GALZ made a formal submission to the Constitutional Commission in November 1999 which argued for the inclusion of a sexual orientation clause in the next Zimbabwean constitution. Most of the arguments used were based on international case law and much was borrowed from the arguments South African activists and lawyers had used for the inclusion of sexual orientation in their own constitution.

Fortunately, there is still reasonable separation between the judiciary and the state. The Supreme Court is totally independent: the five judges who sit on its bench have a reputation to uphold which guarantees that they maintain international principles of impartiality.

GALZ's links with the international community are criticised by its detractors as proof of a gay plot to destroy Zimbabwean culture. Similar arguments are used against feminists and other progressive thinkers. GALZ is careful to ensure that all initiatives are home grown and to ask the international community only for support. After Outrage!'s attempted arrest of Mugabe, GALZ now asks only to be informed of a planned action against Mugabe in order that it can warn the community to take extra care.

Making links

International strategy and support is vital in GALZ's struggle against AIDS. Recently, GALZ linked up with a number of AIDS activists, including ACT-UP in Paris, with a view to engaging in a mutual campaign strategy for the importing of cheaper drugs for the treatment of AIDS. Bringing the international community on board for this project is vital for its success.

Communication with the international community, greatly faciliated since the emergence of the fax machine and the internet, has been vital to the struggle for lesbian and gay equality in Zimbabwe. One concern has emerged over the last year: more and more, people are organising around a gay identity but it is one that is borrowed from the movement that errupted out of Stonewall which came at the end of the civil rights movement in the late sixties. It is essential that we develop our own strategies for combatting homophobia in Zimbabwe and not follow blindly the strategies of our predecessors who emerged at a different time, in a different cultural context in another part of the world.

Keith Goddard is Programmes Manager for Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe.
GALZ, P Bag A6131, Avondale, Harare, Zimbabwe (tel/fax +263 4 741 736; email galz@samara.co.zw; http://www.icon.co.za/~ stobbs/galz.htm).