Gay rights at center of Zimbabwe's constitutional debate

Published: December 18, 2011

HARARE, Zimbabwe — “Pigs and dogs” he called them, and that was just the beginning of President Robert Mugabe’s campaign of abuse of gays.

This year, 16 years after his searing attack, his sentiments about gay people are back in the news.

As Zimbabweans draw up a new constitution, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party has decided to play its leader’s vitriolic views center stage.

Mugabe last held forth on the topic of homosexuality at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995. The event was an important diary item in the country’s intellectual life and luminaries such as Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka were in attendance. The theme for the book fair in 1995 was "Freedom of Expression."

When a little-known activist group, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz), sought the right to attend the function there was strong opposition from the government. As a result Gordimer and others crafted a statement asserting the right of Galz to attend.

Mugabe delivered the opening speech of the book fair and chose the occasion to denounce gay rights in blistering terms. He made the now notorious remarks about gay people being “worse than pigs and dogs” and, without even a nod in the direction of Oscar Wilde’s trial, claimed that next they “would be doing it in the street.”

Mugabe’s remarks represented a watershed for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe. While rights groups denounced his stance, churches and traditionalists rallied around the president. Mugabe was able to put together a handy coalition ahead of elections in 2000.

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