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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 21:41 GMT

World: Africa

Zimbabwe gay rights face dim future

Partying - but wider society remains hostile

A government-appointed commission in Zimbabwe is finalising its work on a draft constitution to replace the one agreed at independence nearly 20 years ago.

The BBC's Grant Ferrett meets activists and homophobes in Harare
Several months of public consultations have stirred up a number of contentious issues including the rights of homosexuals.

President Robert Mugabe has been Africa's fiercest and most persistent critic of homosexuality, which he has condemned as a Western import.

So the first task for Zimbabwean gays and lesbians is to assert their identity.

[ image: Lesbian and gay speakers were heckled at the Constitutional Commission]
Lesbian and gay speakers were heckled at the Constitutional Commission
"Many people are saying that people like me don't exist," a lesbian speaker told the Constitutional Commission.

"Well, here is living proof that we do, and I'm proud to be a black lesbian in Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe as a nation needs to accept that there are lesbians in Zimbabwe from all races and creeds, and I'm one of them."


But the hecklers - even in the rarefied atmosphere of the commission hearings - proved how far gays and lesbians have to go before they gain that acceptance.

"All satanic!" called someone from the floor. "We do not like that in Africa."

When a sympathetic supporter called on the chairman to restore order, the heckler butted in again: "No order with lesbians."

Public hostility

[ image: Members of the commission are confronted with widely varying opinions]
Members of the commission are confronted with widely varying opinions
Such views are widely held in a mainly rural society. One villager was quoted in the main state-run daily newspaper as saying that far from having equal rights, homosexuals should be hanged.

But talking to people in central Harare reveals that attitudes in the cities are not much different.

"Maybe in European countries, not here. They should not have rights here," says one man.

"I think maybe it was meant for animals, not human beings," adds a woman.

[ image: Professor Jonathan Moyo: Change is possible]
Professor Jonathan Moyo: Change is possible
But despite this apparent hostility, Professor Jonathan Moyo of the Constitutional Commission believes that prospects are good for a constitutional change in favour of gay rights.

"This is one issue which the international community has misunderstood," Professor Moyo says, warning it is wrong to assume that the views espoused by the president are shared by all Zimbabweans.

"I think as president he's entitled to his views, but we must also acknowledge that he's the very same person who has set up this commission and mandated it to listen to all the views of the people of Zimbabwe."

Presidential veto

[ image: Simba Zwangobani: Gays and lesbians are made scapegoats]
Simba Zwangobani: Gays and lesbians are made scapegoats
But gay activist Simba Zwangobani points out that any constitutional change has to be approved by the president, who is to receive the constitutional proposals at the end of November.

"That man's very homophobic, so not much chance there," he says.

"As far as I've seen, I think we're just used as a scapegoat. Whenever anything goes wrong in this country they start using gay people. If the economic situation is bad, it's blamed on gay people, there are droughts because of gay people."

But he remains optimistic that things could be very different in the future.

"I think with a bit more education of the public, we've got a much better chance in the next few years of getting somewhere."

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