Gay men and lesbians in Zimbabwe are hoping for an end to years of "hysterical homophobia" by having their rights enshrined in the new constitution.
Sexual acts between men are outlawed in the socially conservative country (there is no legal reference to women) and the president, Robert Mugabe, has encouraged a climate of hostility by condemning homosexuality, describing it as a western import.
His opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change are more supportive of gay rights, raising hopes that Zimbabwe’s constitution could follow that of South Africa, the first in the world to specifically outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.
Keith Goddard said the group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) – of which he is director – had tried twice to get sexual orientation included in the constitution.
"Now, with the new constitutional review, we are pushing again for sexual orientation," he said. "The National Aids Council has moved forward enormously from its original policy, and in its strategic plan for 2006-10 it specifically calls for the decriminalisation of homosexuality because punitive measures have simply driven the community underground and make this hidden population difficult to reach.
"So I think we can use it on the grounds of health and HIV/Aids interventions to try and argue the issue. Arguing it on religious or moral grounds is not going to get it anywhere. We live in hope. I think we’ve probably got a 50:50 chance."
GALZ, which has about 400 members, is the main meeting place for Zimbabwean gay men and lesbians in the absence of specified bars and nightclubs.
Mugabe’s public statements had contributed to an atmosphere of "hysterical homophobia", Goddard added. "People are very fearful to come out to their parents for fear of being chucked out of home, or of even letting their friends know … the broader network that we’re in contact with are people who are very hidden and very scared."
For years the only mention of homosexuality in the media was in prurient reports of criminal cases, Goddard said, though now South African soap operas with positive gay role models were on Zimbabwean TV. But for a public figure to come out would be "political suicide", and at present civil partnerships and gay marriage were "not even on the gaydar screen". The Guardian (UK)