Let them be gay in the US, Europe and elsewhere, they will be sad people here,” so says President Robert Mugabe at the roadside in Harare in the eye of his anti-gay storm in the winter of 1995.
I cast my mind back to these words when I heard President Barack Obama talk of an end to discrimination against gays in Africa, during his visit to Kenya 20 years later. I cast my mind forward to the look on Mugabe’s face when Obama said this. In those desperate August days of 1995, people railed against homosexuality saying it was un-African and another disease visited upon the continent by Europeans. We investigated and the answer – politely put – is that this is nonsense.
The big man in Zimbabwe had been on a roll for weeks. The rant at the roadside, just outside government offices in Samora Machel Avenue, to members of the Zanu-PF women’s league, was vintage Mugabe. We heard late on that cold day, August 18, that he was making the roadside speech and rushed to set up our camera. Mugabe, the consummate orator, spoke his mother tongue, chiShona, keeping a weather eye on our crew. As soon as the cameraman had stopped fumbling and looked down the lens, Mugabe switched seamlessly into English to tell the world gay people would be sad people in Zimbabwe.
“It degrades human dignity. It’s unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs. If dogs and pigs do not do it, why must human beings?” says Mugabe –a few days earlier.
Mugabe had shocked the world with a maiden and an astounding and caustic attack on gays, in his speech to open the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Now, the book fair was always supposed to be the celebration of reading, erudition and light. In 1995, it was the dim, murky power of brute force that ruled the day.
The Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) bore the brunt of it. All they asked for was a stand on which to display their books. The government said no and threatened to withdraw support and the organizers acquiesced and GALZ members were vilified.
“If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fiber shall our society ever have to deny organized drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality,” says Mugabe at the opening of the fair. On the way out of the opening I asked Mugabe what his problem was.
“I do not think men should give birth by having wombs,” he replied, surely the answer to another question? It struck us as an obsession too far.
On that night, we ran a TV news item on two black men living in Harare as man and wife. It included a goodbye kiss in the morning that sent shockwaves over the airwaves. Both knew they were risking their lives in telling their story.
If they were in any doubt; the following year, GALZ got its stand at the book fair. A mob burned it down hurling abuse and threats, under the cynical eye of police, at the brave people who tried to run it.
This was a story that reached far beyond the chattering classes. I got to interview a lot of the activists in GALZ over these months and grew to respect them; many working class black lesbians and gays went through hell in the townships far from the middle class book fair. Thugs carried out assaults and burned down houses; families ordered men to rape their daughters in a bid to “convert” them. Even against the background of plummeting human rights in Zimbabwe, it stank to high heaven.
We journalists wondered how a people who had fought against the deprivation of human rights could so easily wipe out the rights of brothers and sisters.
I will never forget the unflinching dignity of those Africans who stood up against it. It is just a shame that so many Africans across the continent are still being forced to do so.