By, Miles Rutendo Tanhira
LGBT Zimbabweans marked their country’s Independence Day celebrations with mixed emotions as the south African nation turned 33 on April 18.
During the Independence Day Celebrations in Harare, the capital city, President Robert Mugabe eschewed his typical homophobic diatribes and instead focused on the importance of maintaining peace as the nation prepared for fresh elections.
“So I say go and vote for your choice candidate, I will not force you to vote for me, ‘munozvisarudzira’ [You make your own choice]… Peace begins with me, peace begins with you, peace begins with all of us,” the controversial leader said while addressing a large gathering which thronged the Heroes Acre, a national monument in Harare.
Some LGBT Zimbabweans took the day as a signal of the immense progress the country has made.
“I celebrate because Zimbabwe has come too far, slowly but surely we will get recognized. Societal attitudes can change and laws can be improved, we are quite a peaceful nation compared to a lot of places,” said a lesbian woman from Harare.
During the Independence Day celebrations across the country, some said they were grateful that the nation had come so far since 1980 when Zimbabwe attained Independence from the United Kingdom. However, despite such cheerful rhetoric from the president, others had a lukewarm reaction to his speech.
“It’s good that the President spoke about peace and condemned political violence, though I think he should speak out against all forms of violence — not just political,” a lesbian woman from Chitungwiza told 429Magazine.
“At least he did not attack homosexual people today. That means I will have peace in my neighborhood. Usually when he makes homophobic comments, the youths in my area give me a hard time,” she said.
Others found less hope in Mugabe’s statements.
“I feel the peace message is just political rhetoric. For me it’s like an uncle who molests you every day and then buys you candy,” said a gay man in Harare.
“Should everything be okay because he is preaching peace? This peace message should be treated with a pinch of salt, already as LGBT people we are subjected to all forms of violence which is often supported by the state,” he said.
LGBT people in Zimbabwe face a wide range of human rights abuses and many of them live in daily fear for their lives. Mugabe’s notoriously homophobic rhetoric backdrops a climate of intense fear for LGBT people in the country of nearly 13 million.
“I can’t be myself in public. I feel as if we are still in the struggle fighting to be freed from these chains of hate that bind us. I pray for Independence Day when all Zimbabwean can be free to express and associate openly without being harassed, intimidated or arrested. Only then can I celebrate,” said a transgender man in Harare.
For some, their connection with the country’s history is tenuous as they live their lives in secrecy and fear.
“I don’t know whether I should celebrate or mourn,” explained a gay man in Harare. “While I acknowledge that they are gallant people who fought for an independent Zimbabwe, I feel as a nation we can do better especially by embracing diversity and promoting tolerance not only on a political level but all levels in society,” he said.
Outside the country, LGBT Zimbabweans watched the events attentively.
“As a young gay Zimbabwean man, I am heartbroken because I know those who fought for freedom did not wish for anyone to face discrimination — just like racism, homophobia hurts and is destructive,” said Tendai Marufu, who lives in South Africa.
“But 33 years later I am still a prisoner in my homeland only because of who I love,” he said.
“It’s not like we enjoy being in foreign countries, we are here because of the death of freedom of expression, as LGBT people we cannot freely be ourselves without being harassed, by both society and police,” said Charlene Ndlovu, a transgender woman who lives in Australia.
“We still have a long way to go with regards respecting human rights,” said Trevor Gore, a gay Zimbabwean living in the UK. “If I can’t be myself in my motherland, then I don’t know if I can say I am free.”
Zimbabwe’s criminal law criminalizes same-sex consensual sexual acts, including hugging and kissing. In March during a referendum the country voted on a draft Constitution which also criminalizes same-sex marriage.