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When Intolerance Rises to Intolerable Levels

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GALZ's Helping Hands
June 1999 marked the 30th anniversary of "Stonewall," a historical event in which homosexuals stood up to harassment by police at the Stonewall Inn in NYC, leading to a chain of events that sparked off the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement in America. Sadly, homosexuals are still targets for discrimination and violent acts, such as the torture and murder of Mathew Shepherd in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. Attacks against gays are also counted among the 8,000 reported "hate crimes" committed during 1997. In light of these events and the passing anniversary, President Bill Clinton proclaimed June 1999 to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month and encouraged all Americans to honor the "gay and lesbian Americans whose many and varied contributions have enriched our national life."

Now let's imagine a different President of the United States, who publicly states that gays are "lower than pigs and dogs." Then picture a national leader who, instead of proclaiming a month of commemoration to one of the country's minority groups, is publicly quoted as saying that, "[gays] have no rights whatsoever." Well honestly, it's hard as an American entering the 21st century, gay or otherwise, to imagine a leader who would make such hateful comments about any group of citizens.

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Racism isn't just about race

Here in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has gone on record as having said both of the above quotes in public, and without apology. Although his stature as president is powerfully symbolic, he is by no means alone in his views of gay people in Zimbabwe. Sodomy (sexual acts between same sex partners) is illegal in Zimbabwe and, therefore, so is homosexuality. In response to this, the organization, GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe), was formed during Mugabe's presidency in 1989 to support the country's oppressed and often hidden gay citizens. People having problems with: accepting their sexual identity, coming out, relationships, HIV/AIDS, or domestic violence can talk to a GALZ counselor. GALZ is internationally funded by the Dutch humanitarian organization, Hivos (promoting the arts and protecting human rights), and Southern Africa Aids Training (SAT) as well as Amnesty International (London), SF Pride (San Francisco) and even the US based church group Global Ministries. GALZ has a membership of about 150 people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and even heterosexual.

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Can you find the letters G, A, L and Z in this photo?
What are the practical effects of Mugabe denying gays their rights? How is Zimbabwe's situation different from the more passive intolerance and commonplace prejudice existing in other countries? I received answers to these questions from Dumisani Dube, Publications Officer of GALZ and editor of its bi-monthly magazine, "The Galzette," which features informative and entertaining articles, news, letters, and humor. He told me, "Sometimes gay people here are simply afraid. If they go to a nightclub for instance, they can easily be the targets of harassment, theft or even violence. But they dare not turn to the police because the police are usually anti-gay too. The attacker could easily claim that he [the gay victim] was making homosexual advances toward him which immediately debases a [gay] victim's legitimate complaint, as far as the police are concerned."

National policies prohibit many young teen homosexuals from receiving any sort of counseling or support altogether. GALZ must legally turn young people (under 18) away, and are powerless to help them. By giving a teenager a copy of "The Galzette" or other literature, they can easily be accused of targeting minors or contributing to the teen's "perverted" (Mugabe's term for it) lifestyle. Dumisani recalls one touching instance when he was forced to tell a 16-year-old gay boy to return when he turns 18, to which the boy responded, "If I can't turn to GALZ for help today, then I will never turn to GALZ at all." Such are the limited options for gay youth here, many of whom have been forced to rule out their parents, siblings, teachers, and friends when seeking support.

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Here I am with my friend Dumisani Dube.

As in other African nations, there is a widespread misconception in Zimbabwe that homosexuality is entirely "unAfrican," and is a phenomenon brought to Zimbabwe by white colonists at the end of the 19th century. Dumisani explains, as many African historians have written, that within both Shona and Ndebele tribes there have been practices that could be considered similar to "homosexuality" today. "In the Ndebele culture, if the husband was found to be infertile or impotent, then a practice known as ukugena (the Shona practiced the similar kupindira) was used. The husband's parents or grandparents (in the case of the Shona, the aunts) would consort with the bride and arrange for her to sleep with one of her husband's brothers, thus conceiving a child who the husband would forever assume was his own, raising him or her accordingly. In the Shona culture, too, if the husband was repulsed at the thought of sex with his wife or even if he preferred to have sex with another man, then kupindira was also utilized and the man was usually able to retain economic and political privileges and maintain his reputation."

Within GALZ there is a fundamental belief that, "Homosexuality did not come from the West, but homophobia certainly did." Keith Goddard, the Programs Manager of GALZ, is hopeful about the organization's future contributions to Zimbabwe including the revision of the nation's Constitution. He states, "We are allying ourselves with the potential future leadership of this country and turning our attention away from the political dinosaurs that are stubbornly refusing the path of extinction." GALZ has formally joined the National Constitutional Assembly and has even made cooperative gestures towards the Constitutional Review Commission (Mugabe's own creation, likely to reject GALZ's participation anyway). Above all, Keith would like to see a "sexual orientation" clause added to the Constitution, much like the one included in South Africa's more progressive constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of "sexual orientation." He would also like to see to the addition of more standard clauses for the protection of race, religion, gender, political views and right to privacy.

Presently, Zimbabwe does not recognize same-sex marriages (in the US this is not mentioned in the Constitution, leaving the decision to each state). Although the Constitution protects citizens from "arbitrary search or entry" it does allow for the "search of persons or homes" in the interests of "defense, public safety, public order, [and] public morality" and other reasons. A man named Sipephile Vuma tried to extort money and goods from Keith and threatened to report him for sodomy if he didn't acquiesce. Vuma was arrested but then gave police a phony story about how Keith had raped him three times at gunpoint. The police investigated and searched Keith's home immediately but only found 2 water pistols still in their packaging (which, amazingly, were seized as possible evidence!). Constitutional protection is a fundamental necessity in order to guarantee that the rights of gay citizens are not infringed upon.

GALZ has gained local and international recognition by both positive and negative publicity. When Mugabe's government prohibited organizers of Zimbabwe's International Book Fair from allowing GALZ to display any of its literature at the fair (August, 1995), protests rang out from gay communities from around the world. In contrast, the local media has exhibited prejudices in its allegations that GALZ's center is being used as a "brothel," and GALZ must turn to independent papers to run its ads. Surprisingly, a new publication called "The Sun" has agreed to run a weekly column addressing gay issues. But even the weekly TV show, "Gender Focus," which discusses birth control, parental responsibility, and issues affecting men and women, is prohibited by its producers' policies to give voice to homosexual topics. GALZ has most recently been highlighted in the media for helping to form the new Christian Fellowship Group for gays seeking to establish a complimentary program to their present churches. According to GALZ, "[it] would allow gays and lesbians to be themselves before God." Dumisani likes to remind people that, "Homosexuality is not just about sex, but it involves a heavy investment of emotion, time, and energy and the freedom of love and choice." Despite obstacles, he encourages everyone to, "Stand up for what you believe in!" As the very famous and openly gay French writer Andre Gide put it, "It is better to be hated for what one is than to be loved for what one isn't."


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Abeja - Visiting a Tobacco Auction
Making A Difference - Send A Message!

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