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Illustration by Walker Gawande in which five people stand in front of a raindbow painted wall with a purple hand and shout or sing

Visibility as Resistance: How Zimbabwe’s LGBQTI+ Community Fights Queerphobia on Social Media

Queer Zimbabweans – invisibilized or vilified under the regime of now deposed President Robert Mugabe – turn to social media to reclaim their narrative.

A trans man sharing his life as a parent. A “rainbow” love story over a span of 10 years. Queer people and the challenges they face in seeking employment. Bisexual women and their joys, fears.

 

A whole spectrum of stories about the Zimbabwean LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex) told by them, for them. 

This is what the YouTube channel of Purple Hand Africa, an organization established in 2019, offers the online audience in Zimbabwe and beyond. The brainchild of Trevor Molife, the organization’s name is borrowed from and pays homage to the San Francisco protest that occurred in 1969.

There, protesters who had purple paint poured onto them retaliated by dipping their hands into it and leaving handprints on the walls of the building housing the media publication, The Examiner, which wrote homophobic articles.

“This is the same mark that I need to make in Zimbabwe,” Trevor said during a Kanthari presentation in 2018.

 

He was referring to the symbolism of this retaliation which inspired him to relocate to Zimbabwe from South Africa and stand up against queerphobia.

Purple Hand though is just one of the new social media initiatives by queer Zimbabweans that enable them to tell and own their stories, a form of digital activism against the prejudiced reporting of modern-day Examiners.

Zimbabwe’s laws against queerness

For many years, stories published by some local outlets have reinforced the narrative that ridiculed, pathologized, demonized and othered the country’s LGBTQI+ community.

“…The detestable practice of homosexuality is only amenable to communities and cultures in the West. Gay practices are not human rights but Western rights. Western countries should not force other nationalities to accept homosexuality.” This is an excerpt from a 2013 article published in The Herald, a state-owned publication.

In an editorial in July 2021, however, the same publication referred to the LGBTQI community sans such negative depiction, though there is still a lingering distrust and worry among the LGBTQI Zimbabweans about its capacity and willingness to write about them in a positive light.

Reclaiming power over their narrative is important for queer Zimbabweans who have long endured state-sanctioned bigotry that seeks to silence and invisibilize the community, while punishing those who dare to openly exist. 

Zimbabwe is one of 34 African countries that continue to uphold anti-LGBQTI+ laws even if its former President Robert Mugabe – who was infamous for hate speech against gay people and women –  stepped down in 2017.

Map of the world depicting laws referring to the LGBQTI+ community, either laws that criminalize them or protect them.
Map via The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, ILGA

Section 74 of the country’s Criminal Law, Codification and Reform Act outlaws sex between consenting men. According to this colonial relic, which the country insists on upholding while denouncing homosexuality as a Western import, men accused of exercising agency over their sexuality are “liable to a fine, imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or both.”

Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution prohibits same-gender marriage. It was signed into law by Robert Mugabe. 

 

These laws continue to be championed or go uncontested by politicians. Unfortunately, there are also some Zimbabweans who want freedom from oppression, but remain unmoved by or actively participate in the continued criminalization of the LGBTQI+ community.

From podcasts to Facebook

Using various online platforms, queer Zimbabweans are able to quickly and easily raise awareness of their experiences and highlight the need for their freedom. They not only challenge cisheteronormativity but also confront cyberbullies who use threats of violence since too often, queer visibility tends to embolden their hatred. 

 “Social Media offers a relatively safe space to tackle issues not usually spoken about in the mainstream media,” Trevor tells Unbias the News.

 

As part of its advocacy, the Purple Hand Africa team travels to different parts of Zimbabwe and chats with queer folks about their experiences. The stories shared are documented on YouTube where the organization has set up a channel that can be accessed by anyone.

In this video, a gay man—whose face is blurred and voice altered for security reasons—talks about the challenges he faces as a sex worker. Some of these include refusal by clients to use condoms or pay for services and sexual harassment.

 

Even though existing laws in Zimbabwe do not prohibit the profession but mostly seek to suppress it, this man finds it difficult to report any cases of harassment or violation due to the stigmatization of sex work. Since he also faces the same stigma from his community, this lack of support takes its toll on his mental health.

While Purple Hand Africa uses YouTube to amplify the voices of those who have faced political, social and cultural violation in Zimbabwe, transgender people have banded together to document the issues they face through podcasting.

Purple Royale Podcast, transgender Zimbabweans’ own audio diary, was co-founded in 2019 by Alessandra “Bree” Chacha, Transsmart Trust and Children’s Radio Fund.

Purple Royale Podcast airs on five international radio and podcast platforms: these are AnchorFM, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Radio Public

Transsmart Trust is another organisation advocating for the rights of Zimbabwe’s transgender and intersex community. According to Bree, the podcast is the main medium through which members of this community share their story and advocate for their freedom.

“We have had few avenues to own and share their lived realities. We are misunderstood by society. Many people ask why [we] were born this way.”

Alessandra “Bree” Chacha

Too often, these questions breed the stigma that results in the difficulties transgender individuals face at home or when navigating other cisheteronormative spaces. This inspired the community to find a platform where they would address this stigma while highlighting the various ways it harms them. Thus, the podcast was created.

Bree, who is also the podcast’s executive producer, says this amount of airtime enables them to reach a global audience in their attempts to inspire change. To help them continue advocating for change, the team behind Purple Royale Podcast has partnered with Spread Shirt and is selling various merchandise online.  Proceeds will go towards maintaining the podcast and running projects meant to empower the transgender community.

The intersex community is also taking advantage of social media as a tool to help them raise awareness of their particular experiences including the challenges they face in Zimbabwe. Live Talk With Mc Bollaz, a Facebook page run by Boldwin Maposa, has also been helping the intersex community in this regard as some members are invited to shed light on what it’s like to be intersex.

“It has been important for us to share our experiences in a bid to end stigmatization and unfair discrimination of intersex people due to ignorance,” says Ronie Zuze, the director and founder of Intersex Community of Zimbabwe (ICoZ) which currently has 40 members. 

 

Ronie, who mainly uses their Facebook platform to share information related to the intersex experience, says they decided to share their own story because they wanted to end the pain of living a lie.

“I also believe that in sharing my experience, it would empower other intersex people who are still shameful of living their realities which also causes the continuation of the violation of our rights,” they tell Unbias the News.

Lockdown but not locked-out

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of our interactions onto the virtual world. It also forced many of us to rethink the role of social media in social justice movements. This is likely the reason why several of Zimbabwe’s LGBTQI+ organisations increased their online presence during the time that upended many lives.

Suffice to say, the lockdown period saw more online visibility of queer Zimbabweans. Charmian, a student and fierce feminist, is one of them.

Realizing the freedom that comes with being a small account, Charmian says they began to use their Twitter account to “externalize their internal monologues.” They use their platform to talk about issues they read about, a habit they took up to distract themself from the challenges they faced in their teenage years. On that platform, they also assert their non-negotiable commitment to the fight for all humans’ rights. 

Using social media as a tool to fight queerphobia was not a conscious decision. I just tweet my thoughts.”

Charmian

While folks like Charmian simply found themselves tweeting about what matters to them and what they stand for, some queer Zimbabweans have needed some pep talks so they can face their fears and speak up. 

 

Bree says this was their initial challenge as they set out to get the Purple Royale Podcast rolling. They held empowerment sessions that helped boost the confidence of transgender individuals. The organisers helped them see why telling their stories was an important part of the fight for transgender rights.

“They saw how they needed to use their (often traumatic) experiences to show the need for transgender inclusion, which would also see to it that those coming after us do not face challenges we are currently facing,” Bree says.  

 

Since the lockdown started in March 2020, organizations working on sensitization programs for better coverage about queer issues have also boosted their use of social media to aid the important work they do offline.  

 

These include Pakasipiti, Voice of the Voiceless (VoVo), Trans and Intersex Rising (TIRZ), and Trans Research Education Advocacy Training (TREAT) and Association of LGBTI+ People in Zimbabwe (GALZ), which is the oldest organisation engaged in in-person advocacy for the freedom of queer Zimbabweans.

This is a significant move for GALZ, which has – and continues to play a crucial role in disseminating educational information about the community it serves – for 31 years. 

 

Samuel Matsikure, the Programs Manager, says, “GALZ always had a desire to take advantage of the world where technology has become useful even for marginalised communities.”

“We have managed to create relationships with community radios and private media. We are training editors and journalists to improve their reporting. We aim for reporting that is factual, sensitive and evidence-based.”

Rural outreach

Some of the videos created by Purple Hand Africa also highlight the challenges faced by queer folks in rural areas. These challenges are no different from what their peers in the urban areas contend with. However, the former group tends to have little to no access to mental health services, which are also queer-affirming, to help them navigate these challenges. Molife says there are hardly any services, except for general peer-to-peer conversations.

“They lack local professional help and are only able to access it from organisations in urban areas once in a blue moon. Then again, not everyone from rural communities knows about the organizations or even has enough funds to travel.”

To help bridge the gap, Purple Hand Africa has partnered with organisations already working with the rural communities. It now includes rural-based queer individuals in its Expressive Writing Camps. At these camps, art and writing are employed as therapeutic tools to help one deal with trauma.

 

Queer individuals from different backgrounds have the opportunity to attend these camps which are also open to allies. This opens an opportunity to nurture supportive relationships between queer Zimbabweans and their allies who have key roles to play including amplifying and protecting queer voices both on and off social media.

Purple Hand Africa was also able to unexpectedly see solidarity spring into action in a rural area.

 

For one, the organization shot a video of a couple running Mother’s Haven, an organization for queer women in one of Zimbabwe’s rural areas. An altercation ensued as some locals misconstrued the empowering work being done by the couple as an indoctrination of their children into homosexuality. This raised some interest from one of the traditional leaders who wanted to learn about the organization and queer people. 

 

“The organization gained an influential ally,” Trevor said.

 

“This has increased security of the organization and the queer community in that area. What’s more, queer individuals who did not know about the organisation have begun to come in for assistance with various issues.”

Online protection

On social media, queer Zimbabweans are bringing attention to the challenges they unfairly endure. At the same time, using online platforms for such purposes leaves this group exposed to another challenge: targeted harassment of people who defy gender norms, online gender-based violence.

The climate of intolerance in Zimbabwe has always resulted in queer folks facing backlash when they are not only visible but vocal about their rights. LGBTQI+ organizations have documented many accounts of hate crimes perpetrated against queer folks. This violence is pervasive in the online space and often takes the form of cyberbullying and threats of offline violence.

Charmian understands that with online visibility comes the risk of attracting cyberbullies. Because their account is small, they tell Unbias the News that this may be why they don’t attract that crowd that much. If anyone reacts to their posts with bigotry, Charmian says they don’t hesitate to block or mute them. 

Surprisingly, the Purple Royale Podcast team is experiencing a different reaction from listeners. Bree believes that since their content comes from a place of empathy and honesty, this may be why they barely receive backlash.

“We receive sympathy and encouragement even from those who were once transphobic,” she says.

This does not mean that the team doesn’t take steps to protect the individuals whose stories they publicise. A legal team is available to assist anyone who may become a victim of targeted online violence.

This was a welcome development from what Moud Goba, an openly lesbian woman, experienced. She had to face online criticisms alone when she had her stories re-published in traditional media.

 

“I have received backlash online from the Zimbabwean community after my stories were published. Most times, this was in the comments’ sections of the articles. Some would directly message me or make vicious comments in some Zimbabwean women’s groups,” Goba, tells Unbias the News.

Goba has written for several US and UK publications about her experiences as a lesbian in an intolerant Zimbabwe. She has also written about going through the painstaking process of seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, where she now works as Micro Rainbow’s National Manager. “I lead the organization’s safe housing work that provides direct housing support to homeless LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the UK,” Moud shares.

“What drives me to share my stories is the importance of visibility. I grew up without knowing or seeing a lesbian or queer person I could relate to. I thought I was the only gay person in the village. There was no role model and most times, I thought I was strange and suffered from a lot of shame. It is a painful way to go through life, hiding your true self due to shame. I never wanted that for anyone.”

Moud Goba, National Manager at Micro Rainbow

Successes to date

The increased online visibility of queer Zimbabweans and the discussion of queer-related issues is a milestone because, as Molife Trevor concisely put it, this was never the case. This visibility, according to Charmian, is the greatest form of resistance.

The online discussion of queer-related issues is a good entry point into further discussions on how society can be more inclusive. Through Purple Royale Podcast, Bree says the generated interest is seeing them have more conversations with policymakers and other stakeholders like CSOs, UN agencies and embassies.

Success stories such as these are a motivating marker of the progress being made as queer Zimbabweans continue their fight . The community is yet to attain constitutional protection from targeted hate crimes.

“Policies that are negatively affecting the intersex community remain unchanged,” Ronie tells us. 

 

Still, queer Zimbabweans continue to use social media to reclaim power over their existence. In numbers that keep increasing, they are rising against bigotry and calling for a change that frees them.

Whether we use our real identities or not, we should refuse to be silenced. We can no longer allow the lie that we don’t exist to continue.

- Charmian

Just like Moud, who vows to continue sharing her story and living as loudly as she can, says, “perhaps our visibility and sharing of our stories will eventually change the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans as they start to see us as humans.”

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