Queer people in Zimbabwe have always understood that they stand at the back of the line when it comes to having their rights and liberties recognized. They have always known that they aren’t considered, and are even reviled, as they were under the leadership of former president Robert Mugabe, and currently under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who assumed power after Mugabe’s 2017 resignation , and was officially elected president in August 2018. Now that the time for the 2023 presidential elections, date of which is yet to be announced, is approaching, many LGBTQ+ people in Zimbabwe find themselves confronted with the question of whether or not they want to register to vote.
Zimbabwe has a long history of discrimination and harmful rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community, and laws that still criminalize queer and trans people. There has been very little progress in achieving rights for LGBTQ+ people within Zimbabwe’s borders. The current president stated, in an interview with CNN in 2018, that it is not his duty as president to campaign for gay rights.
Within campaigns for the 2023 elections, opposition party leader Nelson Chamisa has also made his stance on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights in the country quite clear, suggesting that decriminalizing homosexuality isn’t a priority for the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), a party running on centring youth and economic reform. Chamisa says he would follow the constitution as it is currently written. Supporters of the party have been vocal in their opinion that LGBTQ+ rights should not be a priority, but that instead the party should focus on “bread and butter issues’’ like rebuilding the economy. This, coupled with the conservative Christian views Chamisa holds, doesn’t bode well for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Zimbabwe in the event that he wins, as he is the biggest contender for president against the current regime and ruling party.
It is no wonder that some members of the LGBTQ+ community are hesitant and even apathetic about voting because, for them, there is no Zimbabwe where they can live happily and freely with the full extent of their humanity recognized and respected. There is no active desire to change the status quo of the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and even less so from the two major opposition parties, the CCC and the Movement for Democratic Change—Tsvangirai, the latter of which has been silent on the issues of queer and trans rights in recent years. A report by the United Nations Development Programme for the #WeBelongAfrica program, an initiative meant to foster the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in governance, and lessen the social and political stigma surrounding the community in sub-Saharan African countries, found that there is still a lot of resistance to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ issues by human rights organizations, and also by government within Zimbabwe. Many of the laws in the country are still heavily against queer, gay and trans people, as well as marriage equality. The report also took note of the general negative coverage of LGBTQ+ issues by the country’s mainstream media outlets, most of which happen to have affiliation with the state.
The discrimination that trans individuals face is especially insidious, as they wouldn’t be allowed to register to vote because their gender presentation doesn’t match the gender marker on their identification documents. This is because there is no legal provision to change their gender markers on their IDs, which often renders them ineligible to register to vote. Moreover, with the current regime and laws, trans folks are barred from accessing healthcare and services.
None of the political players have the inclination to actively and purposefully include queer and trans people in policy-making and law-making, which itself has far-reaching consequences. This is illustrated by how easily the government can strip people of their rights and civil protections should they be deemed a problem, or be seen as going against the prevailing institution, much like the way queer people have their rights stripped from them because they are seen as unnatural and proof of moral decay. A perfect example of this was in August 2018, when post-election violence broke out in the capital, Harare, resulting in the death of six people at the hands of the military. This foregoing of civilian and human rights, and firing live rounds at protestors, fell well within legal parameters for dealing with protestors in the city. The ease with which the government ordered a military response on its citizens for what started as a peaceful protest signals the domino effect of denying a marginalized group their rights. It sets a precedent that rights and civil protections for every citizen are optional rather than mandatory, and can therefore be easily taken away should the government decide they are in opposition to the current institution and leadership.
Additionally, sidelining queer voters in Zimbabwe means that they are unable to fully participate in civic duties, such as consultations on new laws and policies. It also means a lack of data that would into account the experiences of queer people, especially in the realm of climate change, its effects and ways to combat it.No one is making the effort to include queer people in these vital discussions, or to get their particular point of view, which could go a long way to ensuring that climate action and various housing and health and social policies would be more inclusive.
It’s fair to conclude that queer Zimbabweans are dispoportionately affected by problems such as homelessness and lack of access to water sanitation and hygiene services. They are bearing the brunt of the social and economic problems that the country faces. According to a survey by the Out & Proud Project funded by the European Union, at least 25 percent of queer Zimbabweans are homeless, and most likely live in squalid conditions, while 56 percent of the population of LGBTQ+ people in Zimbabwe experience financial insecurity and unemployment because of society’s perceptions of queer people, and the very real impact that has on queer lives. Mugabe’s legacy of harmful and discriminatory rhetoric can be felt and seen in how queer people are constantly sidelined and alienated in their own country.
This discrimination and marginalization that the LGBTQ+ community faces regularly is nothing new; however, it informs part of the reason why there seems to be a shift within the attitudes of queer Zimbabweans regarding how much they would like to participate in the electoral process. This change of attitude can be traced to 2021, from statements by Nelson Chamisa regarding the LGBTQ+ community, which are in contrast to his party’s stance. Why would we expect anyone to participate in civic processes when their entire community is shunned and excluded from it? There have been numerous occasions on and off social media where queer people are reminded that they are unwanted and unvalued in the country.
There are no simple or easy answers to any of these problems, and it definitely doesn’t get easier for the community within Zimbabwe if most people in the country, who also share the same views as leaders and the government, continue to exclude them. There is hope, however, in the form of activist organizations such as Trans Research Education Advocacy and Training (TREAT), which is dedicated to advocating for and empowering trans people in Zimbabwe. GALZ (Association of LGBTI+ Persons of Zimbabwe) advocates for LGBTQ+ people’s rights, and actively works to ensure that queer people are seen and heard and catered to spaces designed to actively work against them. GALZ has been key in opening dialogue with political players toward including more queer people in electoral processes.
Many queer Zimbabweans have turned to using social media to bring visibility to queer and trans issues, and consistently use those platforms to engage with and call out bad behaviour of political players and public figures. The LGBTQ+ community in Zimbabwe is finding ways to use their own voices, tell their own stories and find hope within themselves to make the better, more inclusive future they desire a reality. In a country like Zimbabwe, sometimes hope has to be enough, because hope is a sign that progress is still possible.