Attacks by President Mugabe make Zimbabwe's gay community nervous


HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Leonard looked around his small apartment and realized he had been robbed. Someone who was staying with him for a few days had taken his television set and CD player.

He knew who had done it -- but Leonard was nervous about going to the police, because Leonard is gay, making him one of the targets of new, somewhat bewildering attacks from Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's increasingly autocratic president. In speeches, Mr. Mugabe has taken to criticizing homosexuals as "sexual perverts" and insisting that they have no political rights.

"I just don't know what the police will do," says Leonard, who works in a florist's shop, "whether we will get into this whole gay thing."

Mr. Mugabe's outbursts have been seen as part of his effort to divert attention from the country's problems in advance of next year's presidential elections. By criticizing gays and other vulnerable targets, the president has sought to shift debate away from a stagnant economy and drought-plagued farms.

The harsh words have so far not been followed by government action. But many Zimbabweans worry that his remarks reveal Mr. Mugabe's true attitude toward civil liberties and the rule of law.

"It's not like gays were ever completely hidden here," says Leonard, who is 37 and grew up in the town called Bulawayo but asked that his last name not be used. Indeed, Harare's gays appear to have to have adopted the same low profile that prevailed in urban gay communities in the United States 20 or more years ago. Unless one looked for the community, it remained virtually invisible.

What attracted the ire of Mr. Mugabe was the community's becoming visible, in a book display.

An organization called Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, or GALZ, set up a booth at Harare's annual African book fair, one of the city's major cultural events. Though all the literature at the booth was cleared by censors from the government's Department of Information, Mr. Mugabe declared that unless GALZ was barred from the event, the fair would be closed.

Ironically, the theme of this year's book fair was freedom of expression. But the organizers reluctantly complied with the president's order and closed the GALZ booth.

Speaking at the fair's opening, Mr. Mugabe only increased the furor: If homosexuals were guaranteed political rights, he said, then so, too, would be drug addicts and "those given to bestiality."

In the weeks that followed, he repeated his attacks, often deviating from his prepared text to put in a few choice phrases about gays.

People suggest that attacking gays was a shrewd political move. About 80 percent of Zimbabwe's 10 million people live in traditional, conservative rural communities where the very idea of homosexuality, much less public acknowledgment of its reality, is anathema. And in those communities Mr. Mugabe's anti-gay stance is immensely popular.

His message includes a claim that homosexuality did not exist among Africans until European colonizers introduced it. He has thereby positioned himself as a defender of African tradition at a time when the country's increasing urbanization causes many to worry about the growing influence of Western culture, especially among the young.

The anti-gay message also makes it more difficult for the political opposition to mount a significant campaign for next year's vote. Anyone opposing Mr. Mugabe on human rights grounds could be characterized as pro-gay, a stance that would ensure unpopularity.

Mr. Mugabe has launched similarly vitriolic attacks in the past, and not coincidentally usually before elections. Zimbabwe's small white community, which still dominates the country's economy, has usually borne the brunt of criticism -- aimed first at farmers, then at the business community.

There were threats of land confiscation and of nationalizations, but the threats were not carried out. So far, that is also the case with homosexuals.

"There have not been any arrests that we are aware of," says Ozias Tungwarara, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association. "We are monitoring the situation quite closely."

Homosexuality is legal in Zimbabwe, though some sexual acts are not, but Mr. Tungwarara maintains that the country's independent judiciary would overrule a wholesale rounding up of gays.

But there are other signs of intolerance. Journalists critical of the regime have been taken to court. Before previous elections, opponents of Mr. Mugabe's party have been subject to violent attacks -- including house burnings -- by the party's women and youth leagues.

"Look at the wording of what he says," said Iden Weatherell, a political commentator for the Financial Gazette, a Harare newspaper. "He didn't just attack gays as immoral, he said that they have no rights.

"And when he threatened the farmers with confiscating their land, he said if the courts ruled against him, he would ignore them. This shows a real contempt for an independent civil society."

Mr. Weatherell says that the demands of Western donors have forced Zimbabwe to allow the pretense of a multiparty democracy and to liberalize its economy. But he suggests that Mr. Mugabe still believes in the idea of a one-party state -- the political system of the Communist countries that used to back him.

"I think it really bothers him to see a genuine democracy begin to take root next door in South Africa," Mr. Weatherell says. The president may also resent his role as the pre-eminent political leader in southern Africa's being taken over by South Africa's President Nelson Mandela.

Those political concerns were far from Leonard's mind as he searched for the man who had robbed him. Leonard finally HTC spotted him, on a bus about to leave for South Africa. When the man ran away, Leonard decided to contact the police after all.

"They were really nice," Leonard says, clearly surprised. "They seemed quite concerned."

"I just wish that whatever is going to happen would happen," he said. "Then I would know if I have a future in Zimbabwe or should get the hell out."

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