BULAWAYO, May 13 (IPS) - Zimbabwe is trying to rebuild itself as a nation where rights to freedom of expression and association are protected. Amongst the chorus of voices raised in support of a new constitutional order are the country's gays and lesbians.
Sexual acts between men are still illegal in Zimbabwe; the absence of constitutional protection for lesbians makes them equally vulnerable to discrimination and prosecution.
Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) director Keith Goddard spoke to IPS correspondent Busani Bafana about the challenges faced by marginalised groups that his organisation represents.
IPS: Has the situation of gays and lesbians changed since the public showdown in which your stand at the Zimbabwe International Book fair was closed down many years ago?
Keith Goddard: There is a difference between government's campaign against gay and lesbian people and the attitudes of the general public. ZANU-PF maintains its anti-gay stance although it is rare for anyone in the party these days to speak out against lesbian and gay people. It must be over a year since President Robert Mugabe even mentioned the subject.
Homophobic attitudes are common amongst members of the general populace but we have seen a gradual shift in attitudes with more and more people becoming either accepting or at least tolerant of gay people, especially in urban areas.
IPS: What are the prospects for change now that there's a new government in place?
KG: With the Government of National Unity, we now have a number of people in parliament who are gay-friendly. This could be an opportunity to engage with the government on issues affecting marginalised groups such as GALZ and ensure that government supports our call for specific mention of sexual orientation in Zimbabwe's next constitution.
Until debate on this matter is reopened, we have no means of assessing if the situation is likely to change. GALZ will support a process that is people-driven and incorporates various fundamental rights including the right to one's sexual orientation.
IPS: What are some of the immediate challenges?
KG: Although I have said there is growing tolerance, most of our members still fear to tell their families and friends that they are gay. There is a small but growing number who are coming out of the closet.
Gay and lesbian people face the same challenges as our heterosexual counterparts when it comes to economic opportunities, education, health, housing etc. Although when it comes to housing, there have been times when a landlord has evicted or tried to evict a tenant because he or she is gay.
In a surprising move, the National AIDS Council (NAC) Strategic Plan for 2006- 2010 specifically mentions the need to remove punitive measures against men who have sex with men because it drives this vulnerable community underground and makes them difficult to target with HIV/AIDS interventions.
The plan calls for research into MSM and HIV in Zimbabwe and the NAC is now part of the team which includes GALZ which intends to conduct this research. This is a big step forward.
IPS: What policies discriminate against gay and lesbian rights?
KG: Rambling, vocal rhetoric against gay people does not constitute a policy. Government also cannot outlaw rights in Zimbabwe. Human rights are inalienable and cannot be given or withdrawn.
Being gay or lesbian is not a crime in Zimbabwe: only sexual acts between men are illegal although government has made the definition of a sexual act very broad indeed and it could even be extended to hugging or holding hands in public.
IPS: What is your organisation doing to highlight and push for these rights?
KG: There is little or nothing in our law that we can use to challenge homophobic legislation in the courts. We are preparing ourselves for a possible fresh national constitutional process in which we will push for the inclusion of sexual orientation.
We have done much over the past ten years or so to embed ourselves in the various networks of NGOs and we are now starting to persuade them to mainstream gay and lesbian issues in their work.
IPS: How are gays and lesbians coping in Zimbabwe?
KG: Although there are added difficulties facing gay and lesbian people in Zimbabwe, the major problems we face are those we share with the vast majority of the population: fear of government oppression if you are a member of an unpopular minority or opposition political party, hunger, unemployment, poverty and lack of shelter and clean water.
IPS: How big is the gay and lesbian community in Zimbabwe?
KG: We have no idea because the vast majority of gay and lesbian people are obviously in the closet given the general prevailing attitude of disapproval and the attitude of powerful members of government.