A couple of weeks ago while I was in Lusaka, Zambia I discovered that a group of Zambians fighting for gay rights had tried to launch an organisation to lobby for gay, lesbian and transgender rights but was stopped before they could even do a mission statement.
Inside Track with Grace Mtandwa
I understand as soon as the group made its intentions known, the State announced that anyone who dared to join or associate with the group would be arrested.
Fellow Zambians were also encouraged to report anyone they suspected to be involved with the group. The organisation was massacred before most people could even try to understand why gay rights should be upheld.
Zambia is not alone in responding harshly towards anything to do with gay rights. Although Zimbabwe has the Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (Galz), this does not mean the situation is any different.
Zimbabwe has just had a referendum, which accepted a draft constitution that bars same-sex marriages. Zambia is currently debating a draft constitution that will also not enshrine any gay rights.
In Zambia if you ask questions about sexual orientation you will get the standard answer, “We are a Christian country.” In Zimbabwe many people will tell you that being gay is a western culture or lifestyle.
A year ago Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni became the first African leader to state honestly in an interview with the BBC that, “We have always had gay people in Africa but these are things we don’t talk about. It is something we don’t want to publicise.”
And President Museveni is right. In Africa we are not comfortable talking about our sexuality. It is more acceptable especially for men to exude machismo and this is normally embodied in being seen around women, marrying a woman and bedding as many women as possible just to prove a point.
It is more acceptable for men to say how many women they have slept with, than to tell friends that they are attracted to other men —you stand a very good chance of losing friends and possibly your liberty if you do that.
But Museveni was wrong in assuming that by publicly acknowledging that gay people do exist in Africa, it will encourage young people to pursue a gay lifestyle. Gay people fall in love with other gay people.
The truth is that it is not just Africa that is uncomfortable around gay rights issues.
Even in the United States where the federal government has left it to the different states to decide whether or not to uphold gay rights, some states have refused to embrace same-sex marriages.
‘Homosexuality is not a lifestyle’
In South Africa where gay rights are recognised, gay people still have to struggle with acceptance. Their sole consolation is that at least their government does not form part of the army that despises and attacks them.
They have the constitution to protect them.
The reality is that being gay, lesbian or transgender is not a lifestyle. It is not a choice that someone makes over a cup of coffee. It is not something that Christians can pray against and it vanishes.
It is not a tradition or culture. It is a given sexuality — one that many struggle with because of the problems it brings. It is not easy for heterosexuals to accept the reality of homosexuality and it is equally hard for some gay people to embrace who they are.
We were all raised to accept heterosexuality as the norm which is why we have so many gay men who marry, have children but still seek the love they feel safe with elsewhere.
Some men and women are forced to live a lie or lead double lives because they so desperately want to be accepted by family, friends and society.
Gay people’s mission is not to convert heterosexual people into gays or lesbians.
Even if you do not want to think about gay rights, ask yourself why the number of stories in the news about married men accused of sodomising other men are on the increase? There are many people trapped in a pre-determined sexuality that is not necessarily theirs.
No matter how much people hate gays and lesbians, someday we are going to have to talk about them. One day we are going to have to face up to the fact that ignoring their rights and the gay people themselves will not make them disappear. One day we will have to admit that being gay is not a disease that can be passed on.
Yes most of us do not understand how a man or woman can love a person of the same-sex. And most of us really do not even want to be engaged in discourse that makes us think about the challenges and politics of sex between people of the same-sex.
Bring the gay rights issue to your own family level then maybe you will gain a clearer understanding.
Will your son no longer be your son because of his sexuality? Will you disown your brother because he is gay?
How will you handle it if your daughter is a lesbian? Will you ban gay people from your church?
Yes, we do not want to hear about same-sex people demanding that their rights be recognised.
But no matter how hard we try to block out their voices, turn a blind eye to their plight or ignore their existence, the reality is that they exist — they walk alongside us, they eat with us and sometimes we meet them at parties and they dance with us. They exist!