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Gay Zimbabweans Fight Stigma, Harsh Laws


FILE - Samba Chesterfield, Director of Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe, prepares to hoist their official flag alongside the Zimbabwean flag during an event in Harare, Zimbabwe, May, 19, 2012.

FILE - Samba Chesterfield, Director of Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe, prepares to hoist their official flag alongside the Zimbabwean flag during an event in Harare, Zimbabwe, May, 19, 2012.

Trymore “Tiara” Gendi of Zimbabwe clearly remembers the moment her life changed forever. In 2008, at age 16, she was outed as being gay to her family by a friend. Gendi, who was born a male but identifies as female, returned home to find her mother devastated by the news.

“My mom was like, sitting on the floor with rat poison in her hand, crying and saying, ‘I am going to kill myself, saying, I will not have a gay son, I am going to kill myself' that's how I was outed,” she said.

Gendi's parents eventually grew to accept her, but that was not the case with society at large. Pictures of her dressed in a wig and high heels began circulating, and people in her neighborhood responded with violence.

“People started gathering around discussing what they are going to do to me. I was hiding for days, but people knew that I was still around,” Gendi said. “So they went and told my friend, ‘We don't want to see him in this neighborhood, and the next day that we are going to see him, we are going to put wire on fire for three days and that's what we are going to use to beat him up until the gay could get out of him.'"

Before being injured, Gendi was rescued and taken out of the neighborhood by local LGBT activists who kept her safe in hiding for months.

Gendi's story is not unusual. Zimbabwe is one of the least accepting countries in the world for gay, lesbian and transgender people. A 2006 revision to the country's criminal code expands the penalty for sodomy to include acts that “would be regarded by a reasonable person as an indecent act.” This could include two men holding hands, hugging or kissing and could carry an extended prison term.

And Zimbabwe is not alone. Homosexuality is outlawed in 35 African countries and punishable by death in two countries, Mauritania and Sudan, as well as in areas of Somalia and Nigeria, according to Amnesty International U.K.

Catch-22

Strict laws against homosexuality are embraced by Zimbabwe's longtime head of state, the 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, who has compared gays to animals. During a 2015 speech at the U.N. General Assembly he lashed out at the world body for trying to force gay rights reforms on Zimbabwe.

"We equally reject attempts to prescribe new rights that are contrary to our norms, values, traditions and beliefs. We are not gays,” he said. “Cooperation and respect for each other will advance the cause of human rights worldwide. Confrontation, vilification and double standards will not.”

Gay rights advocates in Zimbabwe say the laws in the country present something of a Catch-22 for the LGBT community. While it is not technically illegal to be gay in Zimbabwe, it is illegal to act on it.

“There is no law that states that one cannot be gay. It only becomes a crime once you start committing homosexual acts in public,” said Mojalifa Mokwele, a gay rights activist in Zimbabwe. “If you take a look at the constitution in Zimbabwe, it is not a crime to stand in the streets and publicly state that he or she is homosexual. It is not illegal to be gay in Zimbabwe. Being homosexual is only regarded criminal in Zimbabwe once you publicly commit homosexual acts.”

The heated rhetoric and misunderstanding can lead to violence. In 2014, armed men stormed a gathering of the group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe and left 35 injured.

Frank Malaba, a gay Zimbabwean living in South Africa said homosexuality in the country is so culturally taboo that people simply cannot come to grips with it.

“There are a few things that make people frown upon homosexuals, the main one being people do not understand how a man or a woman is capable of being sexually attracted to someone of the same gender,” he said. “At times a person is just born that way, but people just can not grasp that idea, hence it's not something we're taught about in our homes.”

But Mokwele said that attitude is changing among the young generation. “There is still hope that change will come. The youth who are the leaders of tomorrow are a lot more accepting and understanding,” he said. “Our current leaders are old and they don't understand, neither do they respect the concept of human rights."

'Our own places'

Today Gendi lives in the U.S. and does research and outreach for an organization called the Transgender Research Education, Advocacy and Training (TREAT). In 2016 she was named a Mandela Washington Fellow, a program launched by President Barack Obama to give future African leaders the chance to study in the U.S. Gendi studied at Wagner University in New York.

Gendi said the LGBT community in Zimbabwe endures despite many hardships, and members lean on one another for strength.

“While there are all these challenges, the LGBT community has always been able to stay together and be there for each other on the ground, so for me that it is a positive thing to see,” she said. “While we still face all these harassments, at the end of the day we have our own places that we can claim, meet up, discuss and share our tragedies and share our joys as well. It's so unfortunate that we can't share our tragedies and our joys with the broader country and the world at large.”

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    Salem Solomon

    Salem Solomon is a journalist and web producer at Voice of America’s Africa Division, where she reports in English, Amharic and Tigrigna. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Poynter.org, Reuters and The Tampa Bay Times. Salem researches trends in analytics and digital journalism, and her data-driven work has been featured in VOA’s special projects collection.

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