Introduction: Despite the daunting, corrupt and oppressive reputation of Zimbabwe there survives a successful LGBT health and rights organization called Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). A visit to the capital city Harare and to GALZ’s home, with its courageous and gentle staff, a visitor catches a glimpse of the real heart of this politically abused country and of the lives of durable LGBT people who dwell here.
By Richard Ammon
This story features an interview with Keith Goddard, director of GALZ. Keith died prematurely in October 2009 from pneumonia.
GlobalGayz was privileged to meet and interview with Keith in the spring of 2009. He was comfortable to be with, witty and thoughtful–and he was a force for change and human rights. We spent much of the day together including a ‘deluxe’ lunch at a nearby cafe where we reminisced about our youthful coming out days (before Mugabe) and compared them to today’s society.
Keith was given a frail body but a strong mind and was unruffled about the oppression from the corrupt Zimbabwe government, having eluded serious persecution for nearly 20 years. He knew well how to steer GALZ out of harm’s way and still get the job done of health education all the while fostering human rights. The high wall surrounding GALZ home offices in Harare is both real and symbolic in protecting vulnerable LGBT people from discrimination.
This story is dedicated to the courageous life of Keith Goddard. (See full tribute)
How does a gay human rights organization survive in such a toxic political country as Zimbabwe where thousands of people have been assassinated or disappeared over the past generation? How does a marginalized half-hidden gay organization find its way to funding especially among the bizarre financial chaos of Zimbabwe? How does that organization operate in a culture where homosexuality is criminalized and with a president who obsesses about the evils of gay people—even when he’s asked a question that has nothing to do with sexuality? (photo right: Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Such questions cannot be answered without being on the ground in Zimbabwe, in the capital Harare and in the offices of GALZ—the organization of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe.
The stereotypes and scary headlines in the western press have painted a picture of a country in total economic collapse with corpses of starving people along the roads and gays prosecuted by a hateful government.
To see truth and fiction, GlobalGayz went to Harare to see Harare, visit the offices of GALZ and talk to queer citizens. The resulting observations were, as usual, quite different from the superficial headline news.
Harare is a huge city (2,800,000 in its metropolitan area) with a central business district of some sleek modern buildings, numerous colonial houses and many worn shops housing viable businesses. Buses and minibuses run along their routes, banks are open with no lines (this week), the Spar supermarket chain store (based in South Africa) is packed with thousands of food items and the local grocery stores have modest basic supplies.
Gasoline is cheap (about the same as USA in March 2009). An opposition newspaper openly criticizes Mugabe and calls for his resignation along with his “dead wood” cabinet. Hospitals are open and managing with too few medicines. And the charming Bronte Hotel just out from the city center remains manicured and polished.
However, writing only this distorts the full truth of Harare. Opening the opposition newspaper, The Standard, headline stories reveal the decay: for a year primary school teachers have been on strike for back pay and the schools have been closed across the country; cholera has broken out in eastern Zimbabwe due to lack of proper water supplies; hospital staff went on strike for back pay and surgical operations stopped for a while in Harare.
As well, devious old President Mugabe secretly and illegally swore in extra deputy ministers recently thus packing the government with political cronies; the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe cannot pay its employees in cash but has given them grocery vouchers instead; the stock market recently opened after a three month closure and only one stock sold on re-opening day– it traded at one cent.
The hyper-inflated Zim dollar (photo above) is no longer accepted as viable commercial currency. Peddlers on the street sell hundred-trillion Zim dollar bills as souvenirs for 50 cents!
GALZ-Gays and Lesbian of Zimbabwe
It is against this bizarre social , economic and political background that we found a pleasant surprise down the road about a mile from the Bronte Hotel. In a tidy middle-class neighborhood (behind the usual tall protection walls) sits the modest home of GALZ–the home owned by GALZ—a compound of three buildings (could the color be called pink? “It’s actually Cape Peach” I was told) with covered parking for several cars. (photo below) Inside are more than half a dozen offices complete with computers, copiers, faxes and phones and a paid staff of eleven people. This was no mere backroom operation operating on a shoestring budget.
GALZ director, Keith Goddard offered a tour of the various functioning spaces—reception, programming, fund raising, health outreach, social room, conference room, director’s office, resource room with health brochures and sexuality information. It is a substantial organization that has been here for over 18 years and operates on donated funds from the Dutch HIVOS, Astrea Foundation, Ford, Open Society and others.
GALZ is a story of determined success against daunting odds in a dangerous country run by a deranged leader who, just this week, spent thousands of US dollars for a lavish 85th birthday party despite massive poverty in Harare and across the country. Unfortunately he is resilient despite a new government-sharing coalition that formed, under great duress, in January 2009. The financial chaos is being somewhat stabilized by the USD taking over as the legal currency. Slight hope is emerging although most people will not see it for years to come.
Through all the suffering and government mismanagement and corruption GALZ has continued to stay the course and provide a beacon of hope for homosexuals throughout the country.
(Running a viable LGBT organization in Zimbabwe goes beyond the usual human rights and HIV education purposes, which GALZ does well. GALZ also is a means of personal survival for its staff. Without funding from abroad, the organizers could well be destitute like most others.)
Achievements Despite the Odds
For GALZ, an important shift in recent months has been the recognition of MSM (men who have sex with men: gay, bi or straight) as a target population to receive HIV health education funding from the state. For years both non-governmental organizations (many of which are Christian-based NGOs) and the Zimbabwe National AIDS Council have tried to deny MSM people exist due to homophobia and the criminal status of sodomy.
(In this country sodomy does not mean homosexuality per se; oddly, sodomy as described in the statutes has a loose definition that means intimacies like intercourse but may also be interpreted to mean kissing and holding hands in public places.)
Happily for the first time, the National AIDS Council Strategic Plan for 2006-10 mentions MSM–as urged by GALZ–and describes the risks of continued criminalization that can only drive this group underground and isolated them from HIV education and care.
After 18 years the GALZ has made numerous calculated connections within the government health ministry, at lower political levels, that enable them to express some influence in HIV policy. Additional funding for this work has come from UNDP this past year.
Another project of GALZ is the ‘Positive Image Scheme’ that has provided access to care for HIV infected members by ensuring that HIV positive members have affordable access to health care including anti-retro-viral medications. But with soaring costs and the increased number of people, Keith said it has become difficult to sustain the program. With only a few months of funding left, he has warned members that they should begin to look for alternative sources of health care. Some may be forced to go to the pitiful public health clinics.
Speaking of HIV infection, Keith said the rates in past were as high as 34% but through government and NGO education programs the rates have been brought down to about 15% recently.
GALZ also sponsors social events such as parties where members can come and be relaxed and authentic with others. “It helps their self-esteem to be around supportive like-minded others,” said one member.
There are also outreach buddy groups each with five men and five women who are trained in health education to visit members in their home areas. The staff engage with them in casual conversation about health and sexuality issues such as HIV prevention and testing, condom usage and STI treatments. Free condoms are provided through UNAIDS and the Zimbabwe Family Planning Association.
The once-controversial appearance of GALZ at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) held every year in Harare has calmed now. GALZ got world attention from human rights organizations in 1995 when government banned their participation at the fair which had as its theme that year ‘Human Rights and Justice. In his speech on opening the fair, Mugabe issued the first in a string of tirades against gays labeling them ‘worse than dogs and pigs’.
The following year, government again tried to ban GALZ participating in ZIBF but GALZ was ready, took government to court and won the right to participate in all future ZIBF events. However, after a few years of exhibiting, GALZ found itself being ejected from the fair by smartly-dressed men in dark glasses. Appalled by this disregard for the law and the right to freedom of expression, GALZ has taken to putting up a black and white banner with the slogan ‘Bring Back the Rainbow’.
“ Given the current breakdown of law and order, it is not possible for us to take our place at many public events such as ZIBF. Our deliberate absence and banner make our point very clear, noted Keith.”
Other activities at GALZ include sports such as netball and soccer teams. GALZ sent sporting members to the Gay Games in 1998 in Amsterdam and hopes to send others to the OutGames in Copenhagen in 2009.
Lunch with Keith
Keith Goddard (photo below). a sharp-minded articulate man in his late forties, sat down to lunch with GlobalGayz at the nearby ’40 Cork Road Cafe’, an upscale outdoor restaurant and crafts shop surrounded by manicured lawns and massive overhanging trees.
“ From the outside,” Keith explained, “Zimbabwe looks like a basket case, I know. People ask how do you stand it? But seen from inside it’s simply a matter of survival.” There’s an expression here ‘when things go wrong, make a plan’, which means do what’s possible even though it may be different from what you planned. (This was told to me by a white farmer whose property was seized.) GALZ’s plan in these tough and changing times has been to trim some services, secure their funding and keep to their purpose of providing a safe gay space, educate people about HIV and offer care to the infected.
“ We knew things would change eventually. And they have—they are now. With the dollarization of the economy and a new coalition government the situation is starting to improve a little for some. We survived the Book Fair fiasco, the rancorous scandal of Zimbabwe’s first president—Canaan Banana—being arrested for sodomy, and Mugabe’s tirades against us. We got a lot of negative publicity—but here we still are.
Survival of GALZ
What accounts for this survival? Goddard said, aside from their own determination, the law here guarantees freedom of association that give GALZ some pretense of legal protection. “We are recognized under law as a ‘universitas’ which means we can own property, open bank accounts, and sue and be sued.” Second, because the organization has been around for so long they are no longer ‘news’. “Except for the odd salacious story the media doesn’t rage against us anymore, especially given all the other crushing issues going on. But thanks to all the previous bad stuff written about us most people know we exist.” And GALZ is wiser: they don’t try to make public noise and certainly keep their noses out of party politics.
There are no privacy laws in the country so that the government has a horrendous track record of ignoring any law when it suits them.
Keith observed that “part of GALZ’s success is due to our transparency and honesty. We don’t try to hide or pretend we are something we’re not. We are clearly a gay and lesbian organization but we don’t have a hidden agenda of ‘gay rights’. We are clearly a helping organization involved with health and human rights for all, which includes the right to honor our LGBT members.”
With the new GNU (government of national unity) formed in January this year—joining the two opposing political parties, who seriously dislike each other—we look forward to more support since the MDC opposition party is more human rights supportive than Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.”
Best Things Achieved
What are the best things GALZ has done, I asked Keith on our way back to the office. “I think we have provided a stable home for the LGBT community here, and now we have an office in Bulawayo. We have given a population that is mostly depreciated a way to feel normal, and as we network with authorities, such as the police, and straight society with our positive health message they see we are not strange or peculiar. We are normal like others.
“In turn this gives other LGBT people courage to come out and join with us to make more groups and have more outreach. It’s about survival and having a good heart. It makes me think about a higher purpose to our work, showing integrity and compassion, and in a small way helping relieve the pain of poverty.”
The Current Financial Debacle
The current financial crisis (hyperinflation and depreciation of the Zim Dollar) has produced bizarre opposite results for different segments of the population. For clever—and corrupt–people with access to money they have manipulated the hyperinflation and dollarization to their great favor by buying and selling USD and ZimD using the state Reserve Bank to launder their shady transactions. As a result many dealers have become wealthy in a short period of time.
But for the vast impoverished majority, the fall of the ZimD along with a recent drought has resulted in hunger and ruined agriculture. Black farmers can barely afford to buy seeds and fertilizer (not to mention expensive irrigation equipment) so crops shrivel and cattle die. As a result, many people have become dependent on meager government help and the ruling party has cruelly used food as a political weapon to deny opposition people any help while rewarding supporters with food, supplies and water.
Exacerbating the entire agricultural collapse has been the disastrous and corrupt ‘land redistribution and resettlement’ program, if it can be called that, which has seized vast plantations from generations of skilled white farmers who provided the country with more than adequate food. Zimbabwe was once the ‘breadbasket’ of southern Africa with surpluses for export. Today it is illegal to export food.
The huge farms were given to crooked politicians, Mugabe family members, military elite and well-connected judges who in turn divided the land among unskilled farmers (allegedly ‘veterans’ of the war of independence against Britain) as a reward. But these workers know little about profit-making management of agriculture.
As of February 2009 the seizures were still happening. In the first two months of the year, the Standard newspaper reported 40 more farms were taken out of experienced white hands and given over to subsistence farmers. (photo left, President Mugabe)
One afternoon, by accident, I sat next to a white grain importer, Barry, during a flight from Harare to Bulawayo. He grew up on a very large farm that produced tea; the business was so large it was listed on the once-respectable Zimbabwe stock exchange. I asked him about the current economic situation and if his import company or the tea company faced any threats from the government. “Not yet,” he said with a smirk on his face.
He described how several times a year an official with a bit of authority would show up at his office and threaten him for possessing US dollars, which was illegal until recently. As usual the threat was not intended to be carried out but was a ruse to extract a bribe from Barry.
How did he feel about such blatant corruption? “You can’t let it upset you. You know it’s going to happen and you live with it; you build bribes into your budget.” Again I was reminded of the survivalist expression in Zimbabwe, ‘if something goes wrong, make a plan.’
In addition of commerce, Barry’s company sponsors a charity program called the Prison Fellowship that donates food to prisons. It is both a kindness as well as a political game point in this lethal chess game of survival in Zimbabwe.
Life at all levels has been devalued by the bizarre policies of the Mugabe regime. But Barry felt a significant turning point had been reached lately with the US dollarization of the Zim dollar. He thought it was helping to stabilize inflation and eliminate irrational manipulation of exchange controls. Zim dollars now can not be found in commerce anymore. Instead they are now sold as souvenirs. A hundred trillion Zim dollar can be bought for fifty US cents. It was an unusual moment for me to hear a white entrepreneur expressing hope for change.
Life in the Rural Lands
Of course LGBT people don’t all live in the urban areas. Gay life in the countryside has for generations meant getting married and having children despite secret feelings of being different. For many who have not been exposed to any information about sexuality there is little understanding of what this difference is.
Same-sex desire/attraction for someone other than one’s spouse is an unusual feeling that is at odds with traditional behavior. In small villages and towns, there may be an occasional furtive experiment with homo activity but it’s unlikely to develop into a relationship although such things are known to occur under certain isolated circumstances.
Goddard told how trans people have it the hardest with their opposite gender feelings of identity. An effeminate man or masculine woman is considered ‘funny’, at variance with most others who don’t understand such behavior. The result is a lonely isolated individual who may feel ‘possessed’ by a spirit from an opposite-sex ancestor since they don’t feel the same heterosexual urge to produce descendants. Children are believed to carry the spirit of their ancestors and not having offspring breaks this spiritual lineage.
In the 2008 book ‘Unspoken Facts’, produced by GALZ, a chapter about rural life describes circumstances under which same-sex activity commonly and knowingly happened (and very likely still happens) among poorly educated miners in their arduous work circumstances. Younger workers were chosen by older miners as conjugal wife substitutes–called ‘mine marriages’.
Whether the intimate sex act was actually intercourse or ‘thigh sex’ (both were common) is difficult to determine—dependent on the individuals involved. Doubtless most miners were essentially straight, some bi-sexual while others leaned toward a homosexual orientation which governed the type of sex act between them. Other labor conditions such as for herdsmen, migrant farm laborers or railroad workers that kept countless men away from their wives and porstitutes left the drive for sexual release open to various furtive experimentations. So much for the myth that homosexuality is a colonial import.
For the miners’ wives back home there is testimony that female-female intimacies were formed as ‘co-wives’ were brought into the family unit. Other female-only relationships, called ‘mummy-baby’, were found even in middle class populations. But the research on rural gay life is thin with much of it done outside Zimbabwe and much before the onset of modern homosexual constructs.
Modern Gay Couples
As for the modern trend there is somewhat less pressure to marry in recent years–noticeably more in the urban areas than in rural pastures and mines—but there are only a handful of cities in Zimbabwe with sufficient populations to provide an anonymous mask for same-sex couples.
Chief among these is Harare a city where a wide cross-section of the population lives, ranging from classy mansions (surprisingly quite a few) to many tidy middle class houses and apartments on private tree-shaded plots, to the overcrowded humiliating filth of countless apartment blocks with broken windows and dirt yards.
Gay and lesbian couples who manage to move to–or live in–Harare have the ability to live together quietly as ‘roommates’. On their own these partners feel little pressure to marry since they live away from their families, although more than a few carry some guilt for not following family tradition to marry and make babies. Some succumb to the pressure and enter marriage, produce a child then divorce to regain their independence.
Long-term relationships do happen but they are not common. Internal homophobia (within the individual) as well as public depreciation of LGB love creates a low expectation of lengthy ties, so dating is thought of as a short term deal as people move on to another trick after one or a few dates.
At GALZ I was fortunate to find two exceptions, Sammy and Patience, both in relationships that have survived into several years.
Sammy is a thirty-something, handsome, articulate staff member at GALZ in the HIV outreach education program. Under the spreading branches of a cooling acacia tree he spoke about his growing up as a boy attracted to other boys and his eventual coming out and finding a long-term partner.
He and his partner Webster have been together for ten years and ‘sort of’ live together in a middle class apartment block in one of the quiet leafy suburbs of Harare. Because of his work in another town Webster stays with friends during the week and comes to Sammy on the weekends. They met at GALZ, which is not unusual since the house where the offices are located also serves as a LGBT social center that hosts monthly parties and outings. At any time an individual member may stop by to hang out, chat, ask for help, watch TV—or cruise for a mate. “It’s the safest place in town,” said one member.
Sammy knew he was different as far back as he can remember. His family is Catholic but not fundamentalist; as his parents watched him grow and develop interests in art and design and not in girls they didn’t try to coerce him toward ‘manly’ ways. “We are a loving family. When I finally came out to them in my teens they were not shocked.”
By the mid-90’s homosexuality was easily a universal issue and major magazines such as Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on gay people that were not biased. Sammy said these were helpful to his realization about himself as he went to boarding school and started experimenting with sex and affection. There he had a boyfriend for a while although they both dated girls to fit in and cover their truth.
He took classes in design, psychology, Bible studies and trained to be a teacher. Maturing after finishing school he put an ad in the South African magazine Drum and came out to his siblings who were also supportive. “I was becoming who I was with some confidence,” he said “and I knew there was nothing wrong with me and my future was mine to create. That was a good feeling to have. I was lucky to have support. I know people who were hit and rejected by their families. We see some here (at GALZ) who come for the support they lost at home.”
Such a personal hopeful awareness in Zimbabwe in the 1990’s might seem implausible. These were the years of the Mugabe tyranny when political assassinations, economic decline, hyperinflation, international condemnation of his bizarre racist ideas, the illegal seizure of white-owned farms and subsequent food shortages. Not to mention his regular outrages against homosexuals as worse than dogs.
But many common lives such as Sammy’s are not directly connected to the dysfunctional antics of the government. In his twenties Sammy developed his first serious relationship, with a white man older by twelve years. The relationship eventually grew into a friendship and less as lovers, which they still maintain today.
“By then I didn’t care what people thought. I was comfortable with myself and my partner. We lived together and had no serious trouble with neighbors who were moderate middle class people as well. It depends on your personality whether you get along with other people or not.”
A couple of years later he met Webster, who is black and two years older. “For me love is color blind; I don’t care if my man is black or white. It’s his heart and attitude that matters.” Sammy reported there is generally little overt homophobia where he lives. “We don’t make ourselves obvious or get in people’s faces. We have our own friends and live quiet normal lives.”
Some of these gay friends are married with kids. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most gay and lesbian people in Zimbabwe are married with kids as they hide their true identity and conform to social and family expectations. In fact, Webster got married years ago and had a child but is now separated from his wife. Sammy said it’s likely the wife will drift away and find another mate; Sammy has now become a willing and affectionate ‘uncle’.
It is not an easy burden to be gay or lesbian, Sammy continued. As in other countries in southern Africa, homophobic Christianity has invaded—indeed usurped—the native tribal spiritual ways which, according to some research, allowed for certain same-sex arrangements with little fuss or disturbance. Today, some gay folks are confused by their feelings and feel possessed. They go to traditional healers to be cured, which only deepens their misery when it doesn’t work.
But self-confident Sammy and emerging Webster are sure of their feelings for one another: they have pledged to one another with rings.
For occasional social fun, Sammy and Webster might go to one of the popular night clubs in central or outer Harare where the crowd is mixed but word of mouth knows where the gay folks are. I saw one of these clubs briefly on a Saturday night on the outskirts of Harare. It was the size of a small factory, called Oasis, with music loud and large enough to tilt a battleship. Hundreds of cars surrounded the glittering place and hundreds of customers leaned against their cars talking and laughing with friends, some drinking while inside the dancing and whooping carried on.
(Regarding the power of Christianity, as I write this on a Sunday sitting on a veranda in Livingstone, Zambia near Victoria Falls I can hear two different church services in the distance, one amplified sufficiently for me to hear the singing and preaching. The music is gospel, loud and long, intended to sweep people into the mood of the spirit. The music calms after 45 minutes as quiet amplified prayer talk spreads over the congregation, followed by preaching about the good book and exhorting the godly Jesus-filled life. I hear ‘hallelujahs’ and cheers from the people as blessings and healings are made… The power and the fervent intensity of the service leaves no room for any truth outside their heterosexual Biblical system, certainly nothing as strange and sinful as homosexuality.)
Patience the Leader
Patience is a sweet-faced woman in her twenties who also works for GALZ, and like Sammy met her partner Millcent within the membership. (It seemed to me that GALZ is as successful at matchmaking as with its health and education programs!)
At first, Patience was a bit unsure of this white stranger (me) probing into her personal life. “I’m not sure what to say,” she commented as we sat down under another sprawling tree on the GALZ property. But after a few minutes of describing GlobalGayz and its purpose, she warmed to telling that lesbian relationships here are not easy “because lesbians don’t come out. They are very closeted so the known community is small.” There is no exclusive lesbian venue in Harare but the LGBT community go to straight night clubs—but fewer lesbians than men go.
Patience said the membership of GALZ is about 75% men and 25% women. Why? She said men have more freedom than women. “There is a lot more pressure for a woman to marry and this results in a lot of unhappiness.” She said she receives calls at work from women who don’t want to be where they are, especially in small towns where everyone knows everyone and there’s no option other than marriage; they are confined in their choices.”
Unlike Sammy and Webster, she and Millcent have had some trouble with living together. At their first apartment, a couple of years ago, they were reported to the Rent Board and were forced to move due to ‘unclear circumstances’ as neighbors and the owner were suspicious. They were first reported by their maid who found some ‘masculine’ clothing hanging in their closet.
Patience said the butch-femme dichotomy is still strong in the lesbian tradition in many parts of Africa, although she has seen recent signs that this division is softening, at least in her friendship circle. “But it will be along time before it disappears,” she noted. “Millcent and I have had lengthy talks about this issue, especially since we are members of an advanced LGBT organization here. We are unusual in this. We are challenging these artificial stereotypes of lesbians. Why should we bring patriarchal attitudes and roles into a feminine relationship? I understand these roles come from our heterosexual families where the man is in charge.”
She also noted the recent shift of some butch dykes to becoming transsexual people, as seen especially in Uganda’s LGBT community, which is making these issues more complex as identities shift, genders change and roles become more negotiable.
When Patience and Millcent first came together they followed this butch-femme model without thinking too much about it but over the past couple of years they have re-negotiated the relationship to a more equitable and comfortable arrangement—and they moved to a more moderate neighborhood.
Patience said her family is now okay with her orientation. Although they have always known her to be more tomboy than a feminine girl, coming out to them was hard for all of them. She moved out at 19, unmarried, which was unusual and stressful for all. But her work situations forced her to move back in and then out again before securing work with GALZ. (Most staff at GALZ earn about US$400—more than 25 trillion Zim dollars—per month, “enough but not enough” said one member.)
Survival is a powerful motive for better or worse. GALZ as an organization and as a group of individuals has taken its survival as motivation for goodness and compassion toward disenfranchised people—the sick, the alienated and the countless les-bi-gay citizens of this battered nation. They are clearly part of the solution and the future of this beautiful land.