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Zambia’s pervasive homophobia

LGBT activists work to decriminalize ‘sin’

Juliet Mphande believes Zambia’s Christian identity and its corresponding doctrinal condemnation of homosexuality have diminished the level of critical and independent thought in the country. “This is a Christian country” or “What does the Bible say?” are examples of typical responses when the issue of homosexuality is brought up.  Credit: Kaitlin Bardswich

When police first brought James Mwansa and Philip Mubiana, both in their early 20s, to court last May, LGBT activist Juliet Mphande went to see the angry crowd that had gathered outside the courtroom.

Among the masses she found a 13-year-old girl. Intrigued, Mphande asked her why she was there. The girl told Mphande that she’d just been passing by and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. When told the young men had been arrested and were on trial for the crime of loving each other, the girl said, “But they were sleeping together!”

“But should they go to jail?” Mphande prodded.

Mwansa and Mubiana were arrested for “the offence of sodomy or having sex against the order of nature contrary to the laws of Zambia.” The two men each faced the prospect of spending 14 years or more in prison.

The girl was horrified at the severity of the possible sentences, Mphande says. Even a few young heterosexual men at the scene were shocked by the harshness of the potential sentence, she adds.

“Zambians are getting bored with the government’s aggression,” Mphande later tells me. “They’re becoming sympathetic, seeing these two young men as barely older than teenagers, confused kids who need counselling, not a jail term.”

The two men were eventually acquitted more than a year later, but Mphande says their release brings no relief. It’s only a sign that the prosecution failed to prove its case in this particular instance and a reasonable judge heard the matter, she says. The law remains strict, and four more young men, who are out on bail, still face similar charges.

For Mphande, who leads Friends of Rainka, an LGBT organization that aims to advance, promote and protect the human rights of sexual minorities, Zambia is a difficult place to be doing such advocacy. A 2010 Pew study revealed that 98 percent of Zambians find homosexuality morally wrong, compared with 79 percent of people in Uganda, a country often associated with passionate homophobia.

It was a family member who reported Mwansa and Mubiana to police, after a former Zambian vice-president, George Kunda, called on Zambians in 2009 to inform authorities about those they suspected of having same-sex relations.

I discreetly arranged to meet Mphande at a Lusaka restaurant, one that wouldn’t bring too much unwanted attention to either of us. As I searched for someone who might be her on the open-air patio, I recalled a recent front-page headline in Zambia’s daily national newspaper, New Vision: “Cage Filthy Homos . . . they are worse than dogs.”

Zambia is not a place where one can be out, even a privileged white Canadian like me.

I spot a solitary woman at a booth inside the restaurant. I join Mphande, and we immediately strike up a conversation about attacks on LGBT people in the country.

Zambia, like many other African countries, has some of the toughest anti-gay laws. Chapter 87 of its criminal code specifically prohibits sexual relations between people of the same sex.

Trans and intersex people in Zambia are further marginalized, even within the gay community. One activist, who did not want to be named because of safety concerns, explains that this is because the expression of gender by trans and intersex people is perceived as “outlandish” even within the gay community. Gays and lesbians do not want to be seen with trans people for fear they will be outed by association.

While LGBT Zambians have long been subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, prosecutions have been rare — until now.

The reason for the arrests, Mphande explains, is that the government is failing to live up to its campaign promises, such as having a people-driven constitution within 90 days of election. To redirect attention away from government’s shortcomings, a scapegoat was needed. “Who better than someone who is different than you, who you don’t understand?” Mphande suggests.

Monica Tabengwa, LGBT Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), agrees. “A lot of these countries have bigger issues that they should be dealing with that they’ve failed to address, such as massive poverty, HIV/AIDS, corruption and adequate services, such as health and education,” she says, adding that the population demands accountability and when they don’t get it, politicians fall back on vilifying LGBT people to distract from the more critical problems.

Early last year, police arrested HIV/AIDS activist Paul Kasonkomona after he appeared on television and called for the decriminalization of homosexuality to effectively address HIV/AIDS. In December, another activist named Anna (who asked that her last name not be published to protect her safety) noted that she was dating a woman whose home was searched by police after a nephew reported her as a “practising homosexual.”

In a blog post on 76 Crimes, Mphande wrote about the case of a gay man who was beaten in the capital by a crowd of people, including three police officers, who threatened to “ungay” him. Print and online news media have outed others, some of whom have had their residential addresses disclosed. Those outed or detained by police in recent months have included a Catholic priest in Lusaka and a 17-year-old Grade 12 student in Isoka District.

Tabengwa also points out that the visibility of the LGBT community has been growing, sparking a backlash that, in turn, has created a heightened level of fear. The backlash often emanates from traditional sources, including the Christian churches, which feel threatened.

Mphande believes Zambia’s Christian identity and its corresponding doctrinal condemnation of homosexuality have diminished the level of critical and independent thought in the country. “This is a Christian country” or “What does the Bible say?” are examples of typical responses when the issue of homosexuality is brought up.

Conservative Christian influence on the country combined with the taboo of talking about sex in Zambian culture not only compounds the discrimination LGBT people face, but also contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Many men who have sex with men (MSM) are too deeply closeted to get factual information, Mphande says, noting that there is a perception that condoms cause cancer.

Moreover, many Zambians believe HIV/AIDS cannot be spread through unprotected anal sex.

“There are men leading double lives because of the level of homophobia in the country. They are afraid of getting caught so take more and more risks,” Mphande says. She notes that work on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment does not officially address MSM. “How can you have a successful policy that addresses the AIDS crisis when you neglect a whole sector of society?” she wonders.

After a November statement from Zambian First Lady Christine Kaseba-Sata, who called for an end to the “silence around issues of men who have sex with men,” many LGBT Zambians entertained the hope that change was beginning to occur.

“No one should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation” Kaseba-Sata said during a UNAIDS reception. “Rather, we should address reproductive health issues around this issue.” 

Mphande and Dalitso Phiri, who works for an HIV/AIDS-prevention organization in a town outside Lusaka, initially applauded Kaseba-Sata’s statement, as did people around the world. (Phiri is a pseudonym requested to protect the activist’s identity.)

But Kaseba-Sata’s speech proved to be problematic for a number of reasons. A number of LGBT advocates deemed it a publicity stunt, as it was addressed to an audience of international donors. Phiri notes that parts of the speech suggested that homosexuality is a mental illness and that LGBT people are largely responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Zambia. Further, the speech didn’t specifically address the dangers LGBT people face. “If such a statement had come at any other time, the LGBT community in Zambia would have welcomed it. But right now it’s just a slap in the face,” Anna says, noting that state-backed homophobia is at its peak.

As the community continues to live in fear, there has been no follow-up action or even a sign of progress since Kaseba-Sata’s remarks. “People are being beaten, arrested and tortured because of a single statement,” Phiri says. “The international community thinks the environment is not as bad. Truth is, it is, and we live in constant fear for our welfare.”

Decriminalization of homosexuality is still a long way off in Zambia, Tabengwa believes. “These people [who make the laws] watch television and see what’s happening in Russia, in Uganda.” Uganda is unique, she says, as Christian evangelists from the West spend a lot of money there, fuelling the hatred and intolerance on which laws like the recent Anti-Homosexuality Act are built.

People are entitled to their religious beliefs, but the president — not just the first lady — needs to speak out in support of the right to equality before the law, she insists.

Zambian activists continue to state firmly that homosexuality is not a sin and should not be criminalized, but for now they just want to be safe. “If we can win the legal war, sensitization and awareness can then begin so that we can show people who we really are,” Phiri explains. “It’s the danger criminalization poses which makes us want to fight the legal war first.”

Anna is equally adamant. “Let them think of me as a sinner — I don’t care. I just want to live without the fear of being arrested or attacked for my sexuality.”

For now, Mphande and her colleagues working at Friends of Rainka must deal with the constant danger of possible criminal charges. To keep safe, she changes phone numbers and cellphones on a regular basis; even her family doesn’t know where she lives.

From time to time, Friends of Rainka is shut down, while its staffers seek refuge in a foreign embassy after receiving threatening phone calls. Mphande declines to name the embassy for safety reasons. Still, she doesn’t expect the government to come after her, as they don’t want to make a martyr of her.

I ask if she’s afraid and mention David Kato, a well-known gay rights activist in Uganda who was murdered in 2011. Mphande appears unfazed. “It’s not a job; it’s who I am,” she says. “The worst thing that could happen is to not be an activist.”