Saturday, 27 March 2010

Is Morgan Tsvangirai's anti-gay talk just political posturing?

Gordon Brown and Morgan TsvangiraiImage by Downing Street via Flickr
By Paul Canning

The fight to include protections for LGBT in Zimbabwe's new constitution has received world-wide attention following predictably harsh homophobic statements by President Robert Mugabe.

What has upset many Zimbabwean human rights activists and opposition supporters has been their echoing by Zimbabwean Prime Minister, former Nobel Peace Prize nominee and erstwhile President Morgan Tsvangeri.

New Zimbabwe reports that Tsvangirai, speaking after Mugabe at a ironic International Women’s Day celebration event (ironic as Mugabe has used rape as a weapon in repressing Zimbabweans), said (translated from the original Shona): “The President has spoken on the issue of gay rights, men who breathe to other men’s ears. Never, I don’t accept that culture. Why do you look for other men when women make up 52 percent of the population? Men are few.” reported Tsvangirai's remarks as: “I don't agree with the idea of a man breathing hard on the neck of another man while humping him."

The country's power-sharing government, headed by Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai of the MDC-T party, is shortly to embark on nationwide public hearings about the drafting of a new constitution.

The drafting of a new people-driven constitution is part of a series of democratic reforms aimed at ending the repressive laws and policies of the nearly 30-year Mugabe era.

The anti-gay posturing has been building since the MDC-T submission to the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) was made last October. It says, under the Bill of Rights section, that:
In addition, the right to freedom from discrimination, given our history of discrimination and intolerance, must be broad to include the protection of personal preferences, that is gays and lesbians should be protected by the constitution.
The inclusion followed ongoing lobbying by Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), who organised a major Sexual Orientation Indaba (conference) on February 26 involving many other NGOs and have made their own submission to the NCA. Some members of the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (COPAC) have said that prospects are good for a constitutional change in favour of gay rights, saying it was wrong to assume that Mugabe's views are shared by all Zimbabweans. Irene Petras, Director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, told the Indaba that LGBTI rights had been discussed in three of COPACs thematic committees, which she described as "encouraging".

According to the South African Mail and Guardian the MDC-T position "holds that homosexuality is a private issue and cannot be criminalised".

When the MDC-T draft proposals were published in October some MDC-T MPs immediately went to the state media to complain that the new draft constitution "was not crafted by the MDC but by other unknown, shadowy and sinister forces."

But it was a March 14 front page article in the Mugabe supporting Sunday Mail about a supposed collision course of Mugabe's Zanu-PF and MDC-T over including sexual orientation in the new constitution which led to Tsvangari's comments.

MDC-T immediately issued a statement describing the Sunday Mail's claims of gay rights support as "false and malicious".

More press reaction followed and Mugabe seized on a 'wedge issue' - like numerous other African politicians -  and with Tsvangari by his side forced his hand, his comments followed Mugabe's.

What is worrying activists is that Zanu-PF have proposed anti-gay constitutional provisions which seize, like Kenyan and Ugandan politicians, on the non-issue of same-sex marriage. In another tactic copied from other African countries but also widely used for many years in similar ways against Tsvangeri and MDC-T they have said that Zimbabwe is "under pressure from its [foreign] donors wishing to promote homosexuality".

One largely absent tactic, unlike elsewhere, is to say that homosexuality is 'un-African'. Largely because of the sensational sodomy trial of Zimbabwe’s first post-independence president, the late Canaan Sodindo Banana, in 1998.

Testimonies during his 17-day court proceeding revealed the ex-President as a closet homosexual who abused male subordinates while in State House. Banana was subsequently convicted of sodomy and jailed for a year. In November 2003 he died – a publicly disgraced figure. Mugabe staunchly refused to allow the interment of his remains at the Heroes Acre.

The Zimbabwe Times quotes "the gay community in Harare" as saying that although Banana’s trial was more about abuse than the pursuit of sexual freedom, “it went a long way to convince people that being gay is not a white-imported thing”.

Tsvangeri's supporters include many who favor at least basic protections such as decriminalisation. Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) national chairman, the lawyer Kucaca Phulu, told journalists last week at the Bulawayo Press Club that he agrees with GALZ's proposals - using, however, a bizarre analogy: "Even murderers have rights. I don’t think you would want murderers to be killed soon after arrests by police. They have to be tried in courts."

In an open letter to Tsvangeri the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe, which includes Zimbabwean NGOs and civil society organisations, questioned whether the remarks quoted in the Zanu-PF supporting Herald newspaper were actually made by Tsvangeri. They ask:
If it is an accurate reflection of the Prime Minister’s response, and his personal views, what is the position of the MDC about homosexuality, gay rights and the protection of gay rights in the Constitution?
An MDC-T spokesperon James Maridadi told the New York Times: “Tsvangirai was speaking off the cuff in a very lighthearted way. He wasn’t getting into the rights of gays. Whatever he said, it was a personal opinion, and he always invites people to agree or disagree with his personal opinions.”

Unlike Tsvangeri's reported comments, the MDC-T statement does not actually rule out gay protections in the Constitution. It said:
“Nowhere in our principles document is there any reference to gays and lesbians. We simply believe in the entrenchment of people’s freedoms and that is why our position is that any amendment to the bill of rights will require a referendum.”
Citing the current situation in Uganda the Trust warns Tsvangeri in its letter that the encouragement by politicians of prejudice against minorities "can easily fuel violence, hatred, and intolerance, which can divide the country. It is imperative that politicians use their public profile and status to promote tolerance, encourage diversity, and embrace all sectors of the population. To do otherwise is an egregious, offensive violation of the spirit of democracy, peace, human rights and ubuntu [an ethical concept of African origin emphasizing community, sharing and generosity] on which the Movement for Democratic Change is founded."

Zimbabwean online forums have been filled by comments such as:
To those gay men, if we catch you we will slice off your private prts so you can be a woman. And the gay women we will slice off breasts so you can be a man. Get a life.

This is insane people,I mean come on!!!!!!I dont like the old man but i support him when it comes to gay lesbian issues…it’s just insane!!!!!!NO rights for them, NEVER!!!!!!!
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