Africa: Human Rights, Gay Rights

Africa: Human Rights, Gay Rights

Africa: Human Rights, Gay Rights
Date Distributed (ymd): 960522

The controversy ignited last year when the Zimbabwean government forced the closure of a stand by Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) continues to echo. At issue are fundamental questions of the scope of human rights protections in Zimbabwe and other African countries, issues which have confronted and are confronting governments and organizations in the United States and elsewhere.

An extensive review of the issue (Marc Epprecht, "Culture, History and Homophobia") was published in the March 1996 issue of the Harare-based Southern Africa Political and Economic Monthly (SAPEM), as the essay of the month. SAPEM is available from the Southern Africa Political Economic Series (SAPES) Trust, P.O. Box MP 111, Mt. Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe (Tel: 727875; fax: 732735; e-mail

Another comment on the issue, from a U.S.-based church organization with long involvement in Zimbabwe, is reproduced below, with permission.

April 3, 1996

The Joint Ministry in Africa

Board For World Ministries
United Church of Christ
in the United States
475 Riverside Dr., 16th Floor
New York, NY 10115-0109
Tel: (212) 870-2834; fax: (212) 932-1236

Division of Overseas Ministries
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
n the United States and Canada
P.O. Box 1986
Indianapolis, IN 46206-1986
Tel: (317) 635-3100, fax: (317) 635-4323

In Zimbabwe Gay Issues are Mission Issues

The Situation

During the past eight months anti-gay frenzy and hysteria has figured prominently in the formerly tolerant and progressive Zimbabwe, historically one of Africa's more viable and forward-looking nations.

It all began in July 1995 when President Robert Mugabe shut down a book exhibit organized by the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) at the prestigious Harare International Book Fair. Explaining this action, he declared that homosexuals had "no rights at all" and that they were "worse than dogs and pigs" and that they should be cast out of society. He inferred that homosexuality is not a part of African culture and that it has been perniciously imported into Zimbabwe by the decadent West.

Newspaper coverage of the president's remarks was very broad throughout Africa as well as in Europe and North America. Many analysts drew attention to Zimbabwe's historically tolerant attitude to homosexuals. Some pundits thought that Mugabe was using gays as a convenient scapegoat to mobilize Zimbabwe's conservative church constituents to vote for him in the March 1996 elections. Zimbabwe's economy is in bad shape and the vilification of gays could draw attention away from this reality as well as from the existence of pervasive official corruption in government circles.

Other commentators noted the difference between Zimbabwe and neighboring South Africa where homosexual behavior is not illegal (it is illegal in Zimbabwe) and where gays and lesbians are accorded constitutional protection and civil rights.

Zimbabwean church leaders did not take long to start weighing in on the matter. Hardly any of them spoke an public word of condemnation of the president's hateful and bigoted speeches. In fact, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the main ecumenical body of Zimbabwean churches, in what appeared to be a hastily drafted communique, stated agreement with the president on behalf of the mainline Protestant religious community. The communique predictably cited Leviticus as proof that homosexuals are beyond the pale of Christian morality.

Complicating the council's response is the fact that Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, is the projected venue for the assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1998. While making a public show of support for Mugabe, the council moved quietly behind the scenes to assure the World Council of Churches, on behalf of the Mugabe government, that gay and lesbian delegates to the Assembly would not be harassed or barred entry to the country.

In spite of the president's injudicious remarks, the Zimbabwean public appeared more worried about basic survival issues such as food, housing, education, health care and employment than with lynching gays and lesbians and turning them into the police. And by late October it seemed that the media had forgotten the whole affair. In the meantime, President Mugabe laced other speeches with sexist references and with anti-Semitic comments.

However, on the eve of the March presidential elections (which Mugabe won), Mugabe raised the specter of vast numbers of gays and lesbians subverting Zimbabwean culture and morality at an international conference of evangelicals organized by the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God. He said that Christians should join his government in the battle to restore moral values and fight "the cankering worm of debauchery and the affliction of homosexuality."

Mugabe was quickly joined in his homophobic rantings by other leading Zimbabwean politicians. Member of Parliament Border Gezi demanded that the police "put them (homosexuals) somewhere where they can never be seen because we cannot mix with such people." His colleague in parliament, Anias Chigwedere, stated: "The homosexuals are the festering finger endangering the body and we chop them prevent national contamination." Zimbabwe's Department of Customs and Excise immediately banned London's respected Gay Times newsmagazine as "pornographic."

Even though Zimbabwe remains a popular venue for international conferences and even though there is no indication that the World Council of Churches is considering changing the venue of the 1998 Assembly, some international bodies are already discussing shifting their various conferences to other places. They cite official homophobia as one of the reasons. One of these groups is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). This organization refused to hold its 1994 meeting in Denver because of Colorado's anti-gay legislation.

Disciples-UCC Africa Office Response

For more than one hundred years, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has maintained relations with people in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). Represented by the Africa office of the Global Ministries of the two denominations, partnerships in Zimbabwe are with: the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Synod of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, and Christian Care. More than US$100,000 in grants and staff support (there are currently four joint Disciples/UCC missionaries in Zimbabwe) is allotted to the country annually.

The Africa office of Global Ministries is guided by five guiding principles including the following: "Recognizing the freedom of God's Spirit to act in diverse ways we commit ourselves to engage in dialogue, witness and common cause with people of other faiths and movements with whom we share a vision of peace, justice and the integrity of creation."

State sponsored homophobia constituted a human rights crisis in Zimbabwe. Alarmed by the possibility that President Mugabe's inflammatory rhetoric would provoke or set the stage for vigilante style lynchings and harm to Zimbabwean gays, lesbians, bisexuals, outraged by the comparison of GALZ members to animals, pigs and dogs (meaning they are not even worthy of respect as humans) the Africa office has taken four steps:

1. In September 1995 a letter was sent to the heads of each of the four partner organizations expressing profound concern over the events surrounding closure of the GALZ exhibit at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair and sharing relevant information on United Church of Christ and Disciples formal church actions concerning homosexuality. The letter invited dialogue on the matter with the churches but indicated that some day it might be necessary for the Africa office to take a public stand on homophobic actions and statements coming from the Zimbabwean government and churches.

2. In October 1995 the executive of the Africa office engaged in dialogue with each of the partner organizations while on an annual visit to Zimbabwe. The United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe indicated only that it had no particular thoughts on the matter and it was not on its list of priorities to address one way or the other. The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, including the Zimbabwe Synod, is engaging in a denomination-wide study on sexuality where the topic of homosexuality will be addressed. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches expressed surprise that North American churches, whose missionaries taught Zimbabweans that homosexuality is evil, are now shifting their views. Christian Care expressed that the letter from the Africa office had provoked a good deal of internal staff discussion.

3. Direct contacts between the Africa office and GALZ were established in November 1995.

4. In identifying the key advocacy issues to be addressed by the Africa office in 1996, gay civil rights in Zimbabwe was listed. Several articles for limited distribution church periodicals have been published.

Recommended Action

Even though it is possible that Mugabe only used the gay bashing card as a short term electoral device to attract votes of conservative church members, his public rhetoric may put into motion hate motivated dynamics (such as gay lynching or withdrawal of civil rights from gays and lesbians) that may not be easily contained in the future.

The Africa office recommends that concerned church members make known at once their outrage at Zimbabwe's officially condoned homophobia to the office of President Mugabe himself. They may wish to challenge the Zimbabwe Council of Churches on its statements that simply clone theologically the views of the Zimbabwe government. They may consider writing to the World Council of Churches requesting that it change the venue of its 1998 assembly from Zimbabwe. They may consider sending a message of solidarity directly to GALZ.

Following are addresses for correspondence. The Africa office is interested in receiving copies of replies coming from Zimbabwe or others on this vital African advocacy and mission issue:

Office of the President
Pvt Bag 7700

Zimbabwe Council of Churches
PO Box 3566

The General Secretary
World Council of Churches
PO Box 2100
CH - 1211
Geneva 2

PVT Bag A 6131

Africa Office
Global Ministries (UCC & Disciples)
PO Box 1986
Indianapolis, IN 46206-1986

Message-Id: <> From: "APIC" <> Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 21:28:57 -0500 Subject: Africa: Human Rights, Gay Rights

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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