Ever since the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, compared gays and lesbians to dogs and pigs, his country has earned an international reputation for homophobia. But a Canadian professor at Queen’s University in Kingston who has spent several years working and doing research in the country says that view is wrong, and he hopes to prove it.
Marc Epprecht says that life for gays and lesbians in the southern African country is “not really as bad as it’s cracked up to be,” and he’s spreading that message in a new book published in Zimbabwe in late 2007. “Unspoken Facts: A History of Homosexualities in Africa” is the country’s first mainstream book on the topic of gay and lesbian life.
Epprecht’s personal history in Zimbabwe goes back almost a quarter century. For three years in the mid-1980s, he worked as a high school teacher in rural Zimbabwe, as part of an international development program. Then, after earning a PhD from Dalhousie University in Halifax, he returned to Zimbabwe in 1995 to teach at the country’s main university. That was the year President Mugabe first stunned the nation — and the world — with his homophobic rants.
“If you see people parading themselves as lesbians and gays,” Mugabe said at the time, “arrest them and hand them over to the police.”
Mugabe called homosexuality “un-African” and said it came from white colonialists, who ruled the country from 1890 to 1980, when Mugabe took over as president.
Mugabe’s anti-gay speeches — which were numerous — made Epprecht skeptical. First, he had never sensed that homosexuality or homophobia were major issues for most people in the country. And he didn’t believe in a pro-gay conspiracy started by whites.
Epprecht said he wanted to “trip up Mugabe’s claims.” But he needed proof. So he did what most academics do — research.
With grants from various sources including the University of Zimbabwe (ironic, since the institution gets most of its funding from Mugabe’s government), Epprecht set out on what he called a “Gay Rural History Project,” which included one-on-one interviews with Zimbabweans in cities, towns and villages.
Epprecht learned that homosexuality wasn’t acknowledged in official documents until the British colonized the region in the late 19th century, and created laws to ban sodomy. But homosexuality has indeed been a fact of life for black Africans then and now, thanks to what Epprecht calls “strategic secrets” and “traditional closets.” Gay and lesbian Zimbabweans have always been getting it on — they just haven’t been calling it homosexuality.
It was relatively easy for Epprecht to find signs of queer life in big cities like Harare, since the Association of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was formed in 1989. But even in rural villages he found that homosexuality is relatively common and even accepted. Most homos who carry on same-sex relationships are not “out” the way many couples are in Canada. But it’s not like opposite-sex relationships are heavily discussed, either, as proven by all the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS and sex in southern Africa.
Epprecht also discovered that most Zimbabweans are embarrassed by Mugabe’s anti-gay rants. “Mugabe made himself a laughingstock on that issue,” he says. Whereas in certain parts of North America, politicians win votes with verbal gaybashing, Mugabe’s homophobia is mostly seen as an attempt to steer people’s attention away from the country’s real issues: brutal poverty and high death rates.
Still, there’s definitely a sense within North America’s gay community that things aren’t too peachy for our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe.
“There’s a market for bad news in Africa,” Epprecht says, “and it’s complicated to give a different picture.”
That’s one of the reasons he wrote his book.
“It’s symbolic,” he says, “just to show it can be done.”
He says that GALZ, which worked with him to produce his book, has an open-door policy at its office in Harare and works openly with other rights groups, including women’s organizations. GALZ has launched a poster campaign to make people aware of the connections between gay sex and HIV/AIDS, and fights for a sexual orientation clause in Zimbabwe’s constitution (just like its neighbour, South Africa, has).
Epprecht acknowledges that, while things might not be as bad as we think for queers in Zimbabwe, it’s not exactly Downtown Toronto, either. He openly admits there’s only “a couple hundred” out gays and lesbians in the whole country, and extortion is a real problem for them. And while it’s unusual for Zimbabweans to talk openly about sex, it’s even more unusual for them to discuss homo sex, which is one of the key reasons the HIV/AIDS crisis continues.
Epprecht hopes that his determination to prove Mugabe wrong on queer issues will prove useful to Zimbabwe’s historical and cultural record. Mugabe is a shoo-in for president in 2008’s round of rigged elections, but Epprecht believes the president will think twice before gay-baiting.
“It’s unlikely it’ll be an issue,” he says. “People aren’t stupid.”