IDAHOT 2017 kicks off in style
By Elizabeth Ndhlovu-Dumbreni
Various women from the lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) community converged at a secluded location in the leafy suburbs of northern Harare recently to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). Their aim was to commemorate and discuss the strides members of the LGBT community have made in life, as well as the challenges they face as a result of their sexual orientation.
The private event, which was organised by Hivos Regional Hub for Southern Africa with support from the US Embassy, GALZ, Pakasipiti, the Canadian Embassy, the British embassy and the US Embassy among other local partners, was characterised by discussions around womanhood, games and question and answer sessions. An assortment of food and drink was also on hand.
The event, which was graced by at least three high-profile ambassadors, kicked off at 2pm and ended around 5pm. SAfAIDS, because of its good repute in the country and beyond, was engaged as the official media partner. As the programme progressed, one could tell that the LBT women were at ease, as they mingled and met new friends and danced the day away unperturbed. This was only possible because they knew they were in safe surroundings and away from the ‘glaring and judgmental eyes of the public’, as they described it.
The event, which was officially launched on the 17th of May, will be followed by a film screening on 19 May and a an IDAHOT Family Fun Day the following day, where each woman will invite at least one member of their family who has given them hope and strength in their journey of being an LBT.
SAfAIDS managed to engage in discussions with a number of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women (LBT) on 13 May, most of whom were keen to describe what they have gone through in their lives due to their having a different sexual orientation from what society considers the norm. But some had different and heartwarming stories to tell of how families and friends have been supportive following their disclosure that they were with lesbian or transgender. Below are testimonies from some of the women we spoke to.
Woman A is based in central Harare and is in her early 50s. She is HIV positive and has four adult children from four different fathers. She says her children have been so supportive of her decision to eventually date another woman.
“My sons and daughters are very supportive of me. They respect my partner and they love her.”
However, she says, at first she didn’t know how her children would take finding out that their mother was a lesbian and relates how at one point, two years ago, she was shocked to learn that her youngest son, now aged 21, had stood up for both himself and his mother, after the church had tried to segregate him based on his mother’s sexual orientation.
“In 2015, some of the church elders forbade my son from joining the altar servers because ‘his mother is a lesbian’. My son fought his own fight and told them I am his mother and nothing will change that. To date, he is an altar server and he has so much respect for me,” she says.
She implores the LBT community to improve communication with their respective families and if need be, try to present scientific information to those who are ignorant, so that they appreciate LBT women as they are.
“Communication is very important; so is timing, you have to find the appropriate time to come out,” she says.
Woman A says that although her children have been supportive of her, she still faces constant backlash and attack from her siblings and other maternal relatives who take every opportunity to pour scorn on her at family gatherings or via family Whatsapp groups. She says she finds comfort in the arms of her partner, who stands by her in times of trouble.
“I have leant to ignore those relatives that insult me because of who I am. I want to live a stress-free life. Before I met my partner, my CD4 was around 71; i gradually rose to about 450-500 and now the virus is undetectable because I am living a stress-free life. I do not allow myself to be stressed anymore,” she says with a smile on her face.
“What is needed is a clear communication path with family, friends and even religious leaders so that they do not speak or act in a homophobic way. We need to come up with scientific data to help change people’s mindsets towards us.”
Woman B is based in Harare and has been dating the woman with whom she is currently living, for the past six years. They have three children, from a previous heterosexual relationship between her partner and her ex-husband.
She says one of the main challenges that comes with dating another woman is when the children’s biological father has control over the children. “This has a bearing on how these children will then relate with us when we date their mothers”. She says because the laws of the land do not condone same sex unions, it is difficult for one woman to marry another and formally adopt the woman’s child or children. The children end up being caught in between the two different family set ups and this demands clear communication channels between parents and children so that they better understand what is going on around them.
Woman C says: “My partner and I are in a loving relationship. We have three grown children and we are beginning to open up to them about our relationship. The next big step is about us figuring out how to break the news to our siblings and parents. We don’t know what their reactions will be like. Whatever the case, nothing is going to stop us from going ahead with our plans”.
“I figured out that I wasn’t heterosexual when I was in high school. The way I dressed, talked and walked explained it all. While my age mates were beginning to have their first boyfriends around the age of 14–15, I had no interest in all that. Rather, I was interested in spending more time with the girls and being as close to them as possible.
When I finished high school and went to college, my parents already had plans for me. Being the eldest in the family, they wanted me to get married and have a big wedding. I dreamed of spending the rest of my life in the arms of a beautiful woman, at least that was from deep within me, but I went ahead and got married. We had one child, but the marriage did not last. I was just forcing things just to please my parents.
I called it quits and followed my heart and since then I have been at peace with my spirit. Today, my 16-year-old son knows that I am a lesbian. He has so much respect for my partner and calls her mommy. I came out about my sexual orientation in 2015 and thankfully most of my family accepted me for who I am, but one of my brothers almost stabbed me. We still don’t talk to each other or see each other because of who I am and the decisions I have made in my life. He says I have put the family name to shame. I have forgiven my brother for that, but I won’t give in to his demands that I should leave my female partner and go back to my ex-husband. This is how God made me and I have no time for fighting who I am, fighting with myself. I cannot do that.
DUTCH AMBASSADOR TO ZIMBABWE CJERA SNELLER’S REMARKS
Addressing guests on the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) family fun day at her residence in Harare recently, the Netherlands Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Gera Sneller, emphasised the need to celebrate family in all its diversity and indicated that in April 2001, The Netherlands became the first nation to introduce marriage equality, which opened the avenue to same sex marriages.
IDAHOT is commemorated globally on the 17th of May. This year, in Zimbabwe, it was officially launched on 20th May and the theme was “Love makes a Family”. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities celebrated the day in Harare together with their loved ones- spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings, close friends and parents, in a bid to foster and strengthen families through love.
Officially opening the event, Ambassador Sneller said she was very excited about this year’s theme as it was about family.
“Today is about families: traditional families, modern families, all families. Most importantly, it’s about same sex couple being able to parent together, adopt children together. Marriage equality means same sex couples are fully recognised as just that,” she said.
She indicated that LGBTI people still face challenges as a result of their sexual orientation and preferences, not only in Zimbabwe, but in other nations across the world as well. She highlighted the importance of families sticking together and supporting those who have come out about their sexual orientation, to create an even stronger family bond.
“Here in Zimbabwe and in many other countries, including The Netherlands, LGBTI people and their families still face many challenges. Sometimes families fall apart when a family member comes out as gay. But very often, families face the challenges together and they come out stronger,” she said.
SAfAIDS media (SM) team recently attended the IDAHOT event at a location in Harare where people recognised sexual and gender diversity. Quite a number of the LGBTI community shared their life experiences for documentation purposes. Of note is a young man based in Harare who has been working as a male sex worker for years. This profession has come with both good and the bad, but Cool Candice (CC), as he prefers to be called, is determined to soar to greater heights and help other gay men who are involved in sex work in one way or another. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
SM: Who is Cool Candice? Can you tell us your journey of life?
CC: I am known by the name Candice in the LGBTI circles. I grew up in Gweru and everybody in my home area knew I was not heterosexual from a very young age. My journey has not been so easy. I realised I was gay very early on and a friend introduced me to male sex work when I was 14. At that time, it was tough and I did it for the money. So it became a habit for me.
SM: When did you open up to your family and or friends about your sexual orientation?
CC: My family has always known, everyone in my home area knew. It was no secret. For those who didn’t know, I identified those whom I can trust, that is my cousins and other close relatives and told them. When I told my father about it, he said he already knew but he set me a condition that I should give him at least four grandchildren so as not to put the family name to shame.
SM: Did you give in to your father’s demands? How was it being in a heterosexual relationship?
CC: It never worked out. I made two girls pregnant just about the same time and they each gave birth a few months apart. I later married another woman, but it didn’t last. I was unemployed and had no source of income. I later told my father I couldn’t continue living a lie and he had had the grandchildren that he had asked for so he had to let me be.
SM: After realising you couldn’t continue on that route anymore, what major decision did you make about your life?
CC: I decided to leave Gweru permanently and came to Harare where I started working as a full time sex worker. I used to fly to different parts of the country and outside Zimbabwe for sex and it paid me handsomely, so I was able to take care of my children back home.
SM: What challenges have you faced as a gay man and as a man selling sex to other men?
CC: My type of work is not as easy as it may sound. I have faced so many different challenges and the one that pains me the most happened just last year. I was interviewed on ZiFM Stereo where I talked about my work as a male sex worker. Later that night, I met a client who offered me a huge amount of money. He had heard me on radio earlier in the day. We drove to his house in his car and when we got there, I was shocked to see four other men already waiting for me. They pounced on me and took turns to sexually abuse me.
SM: Did you seek medical attention, counselling or report the case to the police after that assault?
CC: Reporting to the police was a non-starter, I did not want to risk being arrested for being gay. I went to the clinic and they ran some tests and that’s when I discovered I was HIV positive. And that I had contracted a sexually transmitted infection from the gang rape. This was a double blow for me.
SM: After knowing your HIV status, have you put any measures in place to prevent infecting your partners as well as to prevent yourself from getting re-infected?
CC: I am a full time sex worker so I cannot put my clients at risk, I use protection at all times. I also live a healthy lifestyle now.
SM: Apart from being prone to assault by other men, what other challenges do you face as a gay man selling sex to other men?
CC: As gay men, we have challenges accessing healthcare services. I once accompanied three gay men to a clinic in Milton Park. The trio were suffering from STIs. So instead of attending to them, the health professionals at the clinic jeered at us and poked fun at us because of our sexuality. We left without getting the help that we wanted. I then took my friends to a New Start Centre, where they were eventually attended to.
SM: What are your ambitions in life? Where do you see yourself ten years from now, Candice; Your future outlook?
CC: I have very high hopes in life and I am striving to look out for young male commercial sex workers and assist them with the information they need. These are key populations and when faced with challenges they usually don’t know where to turn to for help. I have joined hands with other male sex workers in Harare and we have formed an organisation. This aims at helping the men identify who they are, to know their rights as individuals, as well as to know where to get medical assistance without being stigmatised for who they are. I’ve been invited to attend a high profile training event for sex workers in Kenya next week and I hope this will equip me with the necessary skills to be able to assist my fellow gay men in Zimbabwe.
SM: Any words of advice to young men who sell sex?
CC: To my fellow gay men out there, you are not alone, we are here for you. We are establishing something for our own community and we are here to help each other.
AUNT BREE’S STORY
The recently held IDAHOT celebrations opened an avenue for SAfAIDS to be able to engage in in-depth discussions with members of the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community. We spoke to one individual who was born male but is now smoothly transitioning into being female. The 25 year-old, who prefers to be called Aunt Bree, says key populations are among the marginalised in Zimbabwe as evidenced by the stringent laws as well as society’s negative view of LGBTI people.
Aunt Bree identifies herself as female and says that although she was born male, she has always felt that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body. She says only God knows why He created individuals like her the way He did.
“God has a purpose, He created people like us so that we can help the world see that there’s hope for any situation,” she says.
Aunt Bree, who was orphaned at the age of nine, says her mother was her pillar of support because she knew from the onset, from the day that she gave birth to Bree that her child was different. She adds that though her guardians were so amazing, life was not that easy for her.
“My mother was the most amazing thing I’ve had in my life because she understood me better than anyone else. Even when I wanted to play with dolls, she would let me be; she never forced me to act, dress or speak like a boy because she knew I was born like that and she appreciated me that way She was my support system. My guardians too were awesome, but despite being surrounded by good people, I still faced challenges in my life. The church did not accept me. At one time they told my aunt that she had a burden in me and this pained me a lot. My own brother too, disowned me the day I disclosed to him that I was sexually attracted to other men. He told me he didn’t want anything to do with me. It still pains me to this day, but I have forgiven them (my brother and the church people) and I love them still,” Bree says, with tears welling in her eyes.
She says she hopes that one day people will have their eyes opened and be able to appreciate other people for who they are and appreciate that LGBTI people did not choose to be created that way.
MIRY CHARD’S STORY
Miry Chard, a beautiful woman in her late 40s, was one of the discussion panelists at the Family Fun Day during the 2017 IDAHOT celebrations. She shared her story with everyone and shared again with SAfAIDS for documentation.
Speaking to SAfAIDS on the sidelines of the panel discussions, Chard who was in the company of her one year-old grandson, said that for her, opening up to her family about her sexual orientation was not an easy feat because her family is homophobic.
“It’s not something that’s easy. It’s difficult, they don’t even understand and they are so judgmental,” she said.
She found it hard to open up to her children or siblings about her sensual relationship with the woman she stays with for fear of being labelled. She implored society to stop the stigma that is perpetuated on lesbians and other members of the LGBTI community.
“The struggle is not mine alone, if I disclose, it means my family is out of the closet too, they will face all sorts of stigma from society because of me, because of who I am.
“I think society should accept people for who they are. Society should have an understanding of these things for them to be able to embrace people like me,” she said.
“Society must first listen and understand the dynamics around being gay, being a lesbian or being trans so that our parents and other family members do not feel ashamed about us.”