On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members. According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”
The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.
Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:
“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation. I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice. It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”
And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As Iwrote later,
The response was instant. The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters. “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.
Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.
I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.
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