Speeches made at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) rarely attract intense media scrutiny. However, soon after then-President Robert Mugabe stepped away from the podium in New York on September 28, 2015, his speech was quoted by several news outlets.
People mostly focused on one point in particular: the moment when Mugabe steered away from his prepared remarks to assert, “We are not gays.”
That was a perceived declaration of war against the LGBTQI+ community in Zimbabwe. Mugabe made it difficult for the community to openly come out and declare their sexual preferences.
During his era, laws criminalizing homosexuality in Zimbabwe carried penalties of up to three years in jail, and police often arrested gays, and then set them free without bringing charges.
Section 74 of the Criminal Codification and Reform Act has for years been used against members of the LGBTI community.
“Any male person who, with the consent of another male person, knowingly performs with that other person anal sexual intercourse, or any act involving physical contact other than anal sexual intercourse that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act, shall be guilty of sodomy and liable to a fine up to or exceeding level fourteen or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or both,” the Act reads.
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The populist arguments are based on among other things, depicting heterosexuality as ‘natural’, homosexuality as ‘uncultural’ and ‘unChristian’, and stereotyping gay people as licentious.
However, in 2017 when the current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa took over, there seemed to be ‘leniency’ towards the community.
Mnangagwa’s stance on the community has been a welcome development to some activists who push for the respect of all sexual orientations.
His remarks during the World Economic Forum in 2018 made him an unlikely hero in the community. However, Mnangagwa declared that the activists will have to fight for their recognition.
“Those people who want it are the people who should canvass for it, but it’s not my duty to campaign for this,” he said at the time.
True to his words, Mnangagwa has somewhat paid a blind eye to the community and allowed them to operate freely.
Some of them are even actively participating in political spaces albeit facing much resistance from ‘straight’ people.
“So far in politics, we have a new president who has made it clear that he is not leaving anyone behind no matter who you are, you are still a Zimbabwean and you matter more. So, I think he wants a building, even if you investigate the noble, everything has its own purpose. So, we are all part of the body of Zimbabwe, whether you are LGBTQI, you matter because you contribute something,” said Queen Bee Chihera Meki (trans woman) who is the Program Director for Trans and Intersex Rising Zimbabwe.
In addition to institutionalized discrimination and human rights violations that amount to torture, Queen Chihera said existing research finds that, compared with non-LGBTQI+ people, the community experience physical, mental, and behavioural health disparities
Perpetrators are rarely held accountable.
“Hate crimes against the community are still there although it is still underreported due to several reasons. We don’t have indicators of how many of these cases are happening. For Harare, clubbing spaces are where most of this is happening. You are denied entry because of how you look or are perceived to be looking,” Queen B said.
Chido, a gender non-binary person asserts that members of the community now more than ever need to be integrated into all spheres of the economy.
“Our lives are sexualized and in everything I try to do, people are concerned about my sexuality, no one sees me as a person who is able to do something. There is always doubt that a person like can contribute to anything.
“My dream and hope are that when our stories are being told, people look beyond who we are sexually, but they should look at us as human beings,” they said.
Without policies to protect the rights of everyone despite their sexual orientation or gender identity, the community remains vulnerable.
Tonderai Ndoro*, who was born intersex, said he has had difficulties in getting employed whenever he shares his story of how he was born with two organs of different sexes.
He has often faced resistance from potential employers who are sceptical about him being associated with their companies.
However, Ndoro noted that greater inclusion of LGBT people could expand an economy’s human capital by generating opportunities for LGBT people to enhance their human capital through more education, better health outcomes, or additional job-related training.
On the flip side, he said, the exclusion of LGBT people in educational settings and health-related contexts will diminish their human capital.
“Inclusion can also lead to a more efficient utilization of existing human capital, which increases overall productivity and economic output,” Ndoro added.
For Queen B, the government must walk the talk on inclusion and not leave anyone behind.
“We have a big role to play economically, socially and politically and we hope to be in every ministry so that it becomes clear that we are humans and our rights matter.
She said they yearn to participate in all socio-economic and political spaces.
“We want to be able to contribute everywhere because we love our country, and we want to make a change. We love whoever is leading the country, we don’t care who is who, but we only care for the protection of the community and the country.
Civil society organizations have lobbied the United Nations for recognition of human rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity since the body’s founding in 1945.
The loss of labour productivity and output because of employment discrimination and the loss of life years due to early death or disability will reduce the economic output of the Zimbabwean economy.
With better research on the lived experiences of LGBT people, researchers could use existing analytical tools to estimate the total cost of LGBT exclusion.