SAR, Vol 12 No 2, February 1997
GAY RIGHTS (CONT'D)
I - ZIMBABWE
BY MARC EPPRECHT
Marc Epprecht teaches history at the University of Zimbabwe and is author of several articles on gender and history in southern Africa. This is an update on his earlier article in Southern Africa Report vol. 11 no. 4, July 1996.
First the bad news. At the end of July, and to the surprise of many, the government of Zimbabwe declared a ban on the participation of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) in the international book fair for 1996 and "forever." With much the same kind of vile rhetoric as we heard in 1995, homosexuals were denounced as a threat to the Zimbabwean body politic. Their very existence, let alone the materials that they intended to display, were described as offensive and obscene. The spokesman for one civic group threatened GALZ with "public genocide." The fair organizers also came under attack as incompetent for having accepted GALZ's application for a stand in the first place. The President himself did not personally enter the fray, but since his "anti-homo" campaign in 1995 it appears everyone just knows what he likes to hear.
Despite the short notice of the banning and the ugliness of the rhetoric, GALZ hurriedly organized to fight back. First, it challenged the banning in the High Court: how could censors declare GALZ material obscene when they had not even seen it? In an emergency ruling, the High Court concurred and overturned the government's notice of prohibition. The government immediately appealed that decision. It argued that a GALZ display (whether actually obscene or not) would provoke the masses' righteous anger. In effect, it was arguing that it had the right to ban the display of published material on mere suspicion that such material was obscene or provocative, a dangerous precedent indeed.
These court contests unfolded over several days. In the meantime, a few brave souls manned the GALZ stand to answer naive questions about homosexuality from the public (mainly reporters). For about 34 hours on the final day of the fair they also handed out their rather innocuous pamphlets. All of their material had been passed on to a curious public when word came of an approaching mob. GALZ beat a strategic retreat but reporters were on hand to capture the immortal words of the vigilante leader, Herbert Ushewokunzwe Jr. (a senior state prosecutor, well-connected in the ruling party). As the mob trashed GALZ's abandoned stand and tried to set it alight, Ushewokunzwe explained: "We don't care what the High Court says; this is a Court of the people, not a Court of `poofs'."
Typically, neither this crudity nor the subsequent intimidation (including death threats) against GALZ members elicited a murmur of disapproval in the state-owned press. On the contrary, GALZ was blamed for its arrogance and insensitivity.
Now, the good news. The government has since quietly withdrawn its appeal against the original High Court ruling and has paid GALZ court costs. In other words, the government has tacitly conceded that it does not have a legal leg to stand on. This implies that for 1997 it will either have to acknowledge GALZ's right to participate in the book fair or to introduce legislation which specifically bans the group. The latter is most unlikely given that it would seriously compromise Zimbabwe's ability to host the World Council of Churches conference in 1998.
The book fair affair brought GALZ huge publicity. Most of the independent media were sympathetic to its human rights case (if not to homosexuality itself). Some were downright scathing in their denunciations of the behaviour of government officials and press lackeys. It was, in fact, quite a good day for civil society in Zimbabwe where critical discussions of the nature of the ruling party, democracy and sexuality were all advanced.
Also worth noting was another legal victory by an individual GALZ member in November. The High Court ruled that the complainant had in 1993 been unlawfully detained by the police. Not only was he awarded damages but the police were required to apologize, an exceedingly rare event in contemporary Zimbabwe. Some of GALZ's more vocal opponents - the "radical" Student Representative Council at the University comes to mind - may one day appreciate the important civil rights implications of this ruling.
In recognition of GALZ's patent ability to enrich civil society, the association won a substantial grant by the Dutch agency HIVOS. This money has enabled it to hire a full-time administrator - Suzie Bruce is an indigenous black lesbian whose very existence, not to mention her professionalism, sends a strong signal to Zimbabwean chauvinists (who claim that homosexuality is a white man's perversion). GALZ has also been able to buy a computer and office equipment. In February it acquires a permanent public space to function as a social centre, library, and office. The HIVOS grant is also being used to commission works of community theatre to take the case for tolerance to the wider public.
Aside from attracting international support, one of the most ironic aspects of the book fair affair of 1996 is that the publicity it generated has revitalized GALZ's sagging membership. In the six months since the fair, the association has doubled in size. The fastest growing element within it is now black males (as is the case in similar organizations in South Africa). The annual Jacaranda Queen pageant held in October reflected this trend. Not only was there a record crowd in attendance but also a record number of contestants. Of the 18 lovely queens (men dressed as women), almost all were black.
GALZ is not at present a militant association. On the contrary, most of its members can and do pass as "normal" Zimbabweans. Many are actually married and have children. But GALZ does bring together men and women across race and class divisions to discuss forthrightly issues of human rights, power and sexuality. It offers a pointed critique of the social inequities and confusions in wider society. In that sense it is undoubtedly one of Zimbabwe's more politically radical associations, willing "to boldly go" where others fear to tread. Whether the government will have the courage to modify its public hostility to this aspect of democracy remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that GALZ will not be caught unprepared when this year's book fair rolls around.
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