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Saturday, 23 October, 1999, 13:22 GMT
Fighting for gay rights in Zimbabwe
two gay men holding beer bottles Homosexuals have few rights in Zimbabwe

By Grant Ferrett in Zimbabwe

It looked a familiar, if old-fashioned, sight. Beauty contestants parading along a catwalk in evening dress to an enthusiastic, mainly male audience.

The various hopefuls were asked questions by the master of ceremonies, who explained that this competition was about personality, not just looks.

"What would you do if you became Miss Jacaranda?" one contestant was asked.

There came the standard response about working tirelessly for charity. But the questioning became progressively more political and loaded with innuendo as the evening went on.

Defiant display

man's face and wearing glasses President Mugabe is anti-gay
"The first prize is two nights at a top holiday resort," said the host to another finalist.

"Who would you most like to take with you? President Moi of Kenya, President Museveni of Uganda, or our own President Mugabe?"

The response was drowned out by shrieks of laughter from the audience at the outrageous absurdity of the question.

All three African leaders have made stridently anti-homosexual remarks, and the Miss Jacaranda contestants are all gay men who enjoy dressing as women.

By Western standards, this was a fairly routine drag contest. But in a conservative, male-dominated African country which usually avoids confrontation at all costs, this was a spectacularly defiant display.

It's one thing to be secretly homosexual, but quite another to publicly parade oneself in women's clothing and make lewd remarks about a head of state whom local gay activists describe as "the world's number one homophobe".

Worse than pigs and dogs

balding man in blue Former President Banana: Convicted of sodomy and sexual assault
President Mugabe perhaps invited such confrontational tactics when, several years ago in a row about a book fair, he described homosexuals as not only "un-African", but "worse than pigs and dogs".

The most senior civil servant in the Ministry of Information, who's now the editor of the main state-run daily newspaper, later attempted to clarify the government's position by confirming that homosexuals had the right to life, but little else besides.

After a year or so in which the issue had largely dropped out of the news - except for the highly-colourful trial and conviction of the former President, Canaan Banana, on numerous charges of sodomy and sexual assault against his male employees - homosexuality in Zimbabwe is once again making headlines.

The country is in the process of drawing up a new constitution to replace the one signed 20 years ago on the eve of independence.

Little sympathy for gays

The wittily-named GALZ - which stands for Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe - has seized this opportunity to promote its cause and demand a constitutional guarantee of protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Its chances are, to put it mildly, slim. A huge consultation exercise - in which nearly 400 hundred commissioners have travelled the country holding thousands of public meetings - suggests that there's little sympathy for gays.

The main daily newspaper reported on its front page the comments to the commission of residents in one rural area.

"Villagers in Umzingwane district do not want rights of homosexuals to be enshrined in the new constitution, and have called for the hanging of those engaged in homosexual practices," the paper said.

Gay rights leaders say such views reflect the impact of years of anti-gay propaganda by President Mugabe and his party. They hope that, in time, Zimbabwe will adopt constitutional guarantees which are as liberal as those in neighbouring South Africa.

But, given the fact that the findings of the constitutional review have to be approved by Mr Mugabe before becoming law, such a change is unlikely to happen just yet.

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Homosexual and hated

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