The Zimbabwean anti-gay lobby is active and unrelenting in its attempts to smoother any discussion of gay rights. If the self-appointed moral standards bearers are to be believed, homosexuality is not African; rather, it is an ungodly, abhorrent behaviour that has no place among black African society. What race, nationality or religion is homosexuality then? In perhaps a first for a leading and active Zimbabwean politician, the Prime Minister Mr Morgan Tsvangirai was reported to have suggested that there was a place for gay rights in Zimbabwe. One would assume that the PM was not misquoted and there has been no denial of this position from him or his office and it does not seem there will be one, at least not unless his ratings start to tumble down!
The PM’s position would appear to have shifted considerably from him being previously sympathetic to the president’s anti-gay position to acknowledging the need to consider those rights. The President (Mr Mugabe) once called gays worse than pigs, ironically his views on gays is arguably as twisted as a pig’s tail. For whatever reasons, the PM’s position might have genuinely changed or his shift was a temporary one of political expediency aimed at the Western audience bearing in mind the British PM had just warned the Commonwealth nations that his government would seriously consider not using British public money to help homophobic states.
Ignoring the possible function of Tsvangirai’s speech and only concentrating on its form, it has to be said that it was a brave and significant assertion to make in a largely conservative, if not homophobic, Zimbabwean socio-political environment. Tsvangirai’s assertion has generated intense debate, most of which has predictably been uncivil, among Zimbabweans on social networks. There has been a wide range of views, ranging from the naive to the absurd to the downright ridiculous. Just a summary of a selection of views: homosexuality is learned behaviour; it is unAfrican; it goes against Zimbabwean traditions; there are no gays in Zimbabwe; God condemns homosexuality; it is sodomy; it is wrong because these people will not procreate; if gay behaviour is ‘allowed’ the number of gay people will increase in the country; millions of people are dying of starvation yet we are debating gay rights; people will be turned into gays and so forth. Suffice to say Mugabe has many fans when it comes to gay rights or the nonexistence thereof. In the margins of all this however, there is a significant minority of Zimbabweans who have no problem with homosexuality and who think gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples.
I will randomly pick and discuss items from the last paragraph. Yes, the Bible does condemn homosexuality as much as it disapproves of polygamous marriages. While the Biblical text condemns homosexuality, it does not explicitly bestow any responsibility of punishing ‘offenders’ on individual members of the Christian faith. Suddenly (in the minds of some) God needs human assistance to manage His people! God will punish whoever goes against his word Himself at the time of His choosing; it would be helpful to God if His people had faith in Him. We know too that God is a forgiving God.
It becomes rather suspicious when people want to use the Bible to arbitrarily select and enforce societal moral codes of behaviour. Zimbabwe has many people who are or have been in contact with the Biblical teachings so the desire to draw inspiration from religion (especially Christianity) to ‘guide’ legislation on morality will be understandable though not necessarily always appropriate. Morals are not the preserve of Christianity; they are neither static nor objective.
Furthermore, the Bible is not the basis of Zimbabwean legislation that is why as pointed out earlier in the paragraph although polygamy is not allowed in the Bible; polygamous men do not face the same wrath as homosexuals from the Zimbabwean morals brigade. Instead, traditional norms and values are summoned to defend the practice of polygamy.
It is naive to suggest that homosexuality is a Western culture, homosexuality is tolerated and accommodated in many Western societies in terms of government legislation but certain sections of Western society are yet to embrace it which is why a gay footballer will be petrified of ‘coming out’. Perhaps more significant is the rather crude but now normalised reference to sexuality ‘gay, lesbian, straight’ in some official documents. It is rather disingenuous to purport that homosexuality does not exist in our (African and Zimbabwean in particular) culture simply because it is ‘unknown’ or not openly practised. We have always had individuals who have presented as being unable to form sexual bonds with members of the opposite sex and the ‘diagnosis’ given is often that they had a spiritual wife/husband or anything other than the possibility they were gay or lesbian.
There is no suggestion here that all people who appear not attracted to the opposite sex are gay; there are of course many physiological and/ or psychosocial explanations of such presentations which are beyond the scope of this blog. However, there is a good chance some of them would be celibate homosexuals both by choice or ignorance (not sure what to do when faced with the rather ‘out of sync’ sexual feelings towards individuals of one’s own sex) and the outright fear of reprisals from an intensely homophobic society.
I do acknowledge that homosexuality is not an understood subject in Zimbabwe and many parts of the world. While validating the lack of knowledge and understanding of homosexuality in Zimbabwe, I believe the sustained reference to cultural norms and values in social network debates does not quite prove unequivocally that homosexuality is indeed a taboo in our culture as the taboo element of the practice is inferred from the subjective view that homosexuality is an unknown entity.
That homosexuality or the knowledge of it is not immediately available to a majority in a society is by no means a confirmation of its nonexistence. The fact is that there are black Zimbabweans who are attracted to the same-sex and some are in flourishing same-sex relationships both within and outside the country. It is these people’s rights that should be protected. I will tie this point with the phony argument that legally entrenching gay rights will lead to a dramatic increase of the practice. That is a fallacy, a rather calculated naughty alarmist perception, legislation does not attribute sexuality per se but biology does.
What legislation will do is create a framework to protect homosexuals from potential and real emotional and physical harm from heterosexual bigots and extend rights currently a preserve of heterosexual couples to same-sex couples. Legislating will most likely lead to an increase in the number of gay people officially registering their relationships but that is not to say legalising gay relationships will somehow create new gays in Zimbabwean society. No genuinely heterosexual person will suddenly turn gay because a law has been passed to protect gay people.
There are those individuals and groups arguing that Zimbabwean law which currently illegalises homosexuality should be retained. There is no effort to interrogate the process by which laws are made in our country. How did the law-makers arrive at that decision (illegalising homosexuality) in the first place and knowing what we now know about homosexuality in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular, how safe and fair is that legislation?
We should be wary of supporting legislation on the basis of our strong feelings and beliefs but weak objectivity. It is wrong to illegalise behaviour simply on the grounds that many people do not like it – taxes are unpopular but people pay them. Laws created on emotional grounds alone tend to be neither sustainable nor defensible in the long term. Feelings are not facts they are generated by our cognitive interpretation of the world around us and interpretations are themselves framed by our subjective core beliefs.
I will also argue that turning a blind eye on gays is perhaps counterproductive in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Epidemiological studies from the West in the 1990s indicated a high incidence of HIV infection among gay men so strategies have been put in place to provide targeted interventions. While findings from Western studies may not be generalised to Zimbabwe which is socially and culturally different hence different factors will apply, such findings are worth taking into consideration but then we cannot possibly do that in a society where people are inclined to hide their sexuality. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the presence of gays may be driving a significant minority to lead double lives: one satisfying societal expectations (having a wife and children) and the other meeting their feelings (having a gay partner) thereby risking infecting their wives with HIV.
There are undoubtedly strong feelings among Zimbabweans against homosexuality and the prospect of gay rights is unthinkable. However, the use of religion/culture and legislation to illegalise unwanted, but not necessarily wrong behaviours is not justified. Gay people are criminals of convenience; legislation should not be used to create criminals out of vulnerable minority members of the society yet ignoring some ‘wrong’ acts (in the face of the Bible) that people would rather not acknowledge because they are beneficial to them such as polygamous marriages. There is no evidence that homosexuality, as opposed to polygamy, is an individual choice and not a biological attribution, what evidence is available is that homosexuality knows no race, culture or religion but polygamy is a male domain, strictly a choice. Also misplaced is the assertion that upholding gay rights will lead to an increase of gays. This is not backed by any evidence; there is no evidence, yet, to suggest that children raised by homosexuals go on to develop homosexual tendencies. Zimbabweans should have a little more tolerance; this all-or-nothing attitude is not beneficial as our politics is proving right now.