Zambia’s Growing Intolerance towards LGBTI persons

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During recent weeks, we have received numerous reports of increased violations against sexual diverse and gender variant persons particularly gay men in Zambia. On January 3, 2014, a self-identifying gay man was beaten up by a mob of people in Lusaka’s Garden compound, the mob according to his testimony also included three (3) police officers that threatened to ‘ungay’ him. The identified young man alleges that this is the fourth time experienced an attack by members of his own community since 2012.

Against this wave of growing homophobia, two alleged gay couples of Lusaka were recently outed on a popular news blog called the Zambian Watchdog for allegedly practicing homosexuality. Preliminary reports indicate that one of the couples detained by police are out on bail. The same week, Police in Isoka District, detained a 17-year-old grade 12 pupil on charges of ‘practicing sodomy’. Media reports indicate that the seventeen year old has admitted to the charges.

Earlier in the month, a named Catholic Priest of Lusaka was outed on the same media blog for allegedly practicing sodomy. This blog went as far as disclosing the residential address of the named person without any regard for the person’s safety. Meanwhile in Kapiri Mposhi District of Central Zambia, two young men have been held for over nine months on charges of practicing sodomy and detained without bail, if convicted on both counts on February 27th, 2014 they may face up to thirty years imprisonment to life. Under Zambian law, the act of sodomy carries with it a minimum fifteen years to life.

On November 5th, 2013 Zambia’s First Lady Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata said, ‘Personally I am concerned about the vulnerability of our women married to or in intimate relations with men who also have sex with men. We have anecdotal evidence especially in colleges where young men are enticed into having sex with men but at the same time also have young girlfriends on the side. If not checked this will derail the positive strides that this country is making.’

The Zambian First Lady statement was instantly lauded as ‘heroic’ and ‘game changing’ since she further alluded to some far-fetched notion that there was need to discuss issues around men who have sex with men. Fast-forward to 2014, the situation for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians continues to deteriorate. Those accused of ‘practicing’ sodomy are arrested and outed on online media blogs with wanton carelessness – beaten and or kicked out of their homes and schools without much of a stir from the international community, after all ‘the LGBTI community was blessed’ with a miracle in the form of Dr. Christine Kaseba–Sata’s statement in the month of November, 2013. How ironic!

I was one of those unfortunate pundits who initially lauded Dr. Kaseba Sata’s speech at the time because despite my instincts, I could not help but be hopeful that her ‘game changing’ speech albeit laced with homophobic sentiment, ignorance and negative stereotypes – would be a starting point for meaningful dialogue around a seemingly ‘contentious issue’ in my beloved country but alas!

As a human rights defender, operating on the ground in Zambia these days and often times, a victim of many a government and community sanctioned harassment owing to the work that I do and taking into cognisance my external environment characterised by increased media outings and police arrests in recent months, I refuse to sit by and allow a well-funded and well executed public relations campaign targeted at donors and cooperating partners to overshadow the lived realities of LGBTI persons in Zambia. This campaign in my opinion, was created as a mere ruse to solicit for donor funding without the accompanying accountability for the lives that are being lost as a result of failure to access essential services by the LGBTI community. Yet again, Zambia is still perceived in the eyes of the international community as a ‘queer paradise.’

The reality however is, life for sexual diverse and gender variant Zambians and their defenders has become unbearable – it’s hard to walk on the streets or sleep in your own bed for fear that your own family, friends, neighbours, co-workers may beat you, kick you out or worse, turn you over to the police as has often been the case. Law enforcement officers vying for many a promotion only have to announce the arrest of a LGBTI person to get the media attention that will catapult them into stardom and gain them the favour of the appointing authority who in this case happens to be Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata’s husband and the current Republican President.

I applaud Dr. Christine Kaseba-Sata, not for her obvious homophobic sentiments or her inability to act and follow up on her words, but more so, for her impeccable public relations skills that in one statement succeeded in pulling wool over the rest of the world without much consideration for the silenced and embattled LGBTI community. Bravo!

LGBTI Zambians, their defenders and allies continue to live in constant danger and fear of arrests owing to their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identities and the work they are involved in – allies of this community are not spared but also continue to face intimidation, arrests and harassment at the hands of the state.

Meanwhile, the world continues to celebrate Zambia’s miracle – the miracle of growing intolerance, bigotry and oppression targeted against a community that is downtrodden owing to the myriad persecutions that it faces endorsed by the world’s silence – what a travesty!

Overshadowing this worrying trend is the issue of Zambia’s final draft Constitution that the State has refused to release to the people contrary to their pre and post elections promises. High profile opposition politicians, civil society leaders, journalists are often arrested and detained while the persecution of LGBTI persons, considerably one of the most unifying issues in the country heightens without much sympathy or redress.

What has gone wrong in our once inclusive and tranquil nation? And pray, who will speak out for Zambia’s oppressed, silenced and marginalised LGBTI community if Dr. Kaseba Sata’s homophobic statement is still lauded as a miracle despite this period having been the toughest time to be LGBTI or a human rights defender in Zambia. Is the world so desperate for a miracle that they will believe anything they read without doing their own research? On the other hand, could the chilling realisation that keeps me awake at night be on point – does nobody give a damn about the Zambian LGBTI community. I know it is not the citizenry that will not stop to sacrifice their fellow brother or sister for a kwacha or personal appeasement, it is not even the global south or the enabling north.

It’s time for Zambian LGBTI persons who live the realities to take up their own struggle and in so doing become their own heroes – because they are none left. When they come for you, no one will come to your rescue, petitions will be written in your name without success, people will live their lives and move on. The world will not stop turning for you. It did not stop for James and Philip, it has not stopped for you and I, it’s only when our voice reaches critical mass that we will be heard – as a collective. I pray I am wrong, in the name of whatever deity humanity believes in, I hope am wrong.

By Juliet Mphande.

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