Blackmail, death threats and abuse: Being LGBTIQ at work in Zimbabwe

Can employers be pushed to take action on discrimination, even if the state will not?

Rally for LGBT rights in Zimbabwe outside the 2015 Commonwealth Summit in London.

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Photo: Flickr/Alisdare Hickson. CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved.

For years, Tamiso Maye* had worked diligently at her job in Zimbabwe’s media and marketing industry. “My superiors were happy with my work”, she told me. But then a colleague discovered that she was attracted to other women, and decided to blackmail her, demanding a huge sum of money in exchange for her silence.

When Maye refused to pay this bribe, the colleague disclosed her sexuality to their employer. From that point, “people started treating me differently”, Maye said, recalling this time. “This was showing on their awkward expressions on their faces whenever they’d see me, with some disassociating themselves from me”.

She told me she lost her job not long after this, for reasons that she still believes were to do with her sexuality – even though she had denied being a lesbian, and has continued doing so since. Several years later, she says she’s still out of work.

In Zimbabwe, homosexuality has been criminalised under a so-called ‘sexual deviancy’ law; same-sex marriage is specifically prohibited under the constitution; and transgender identities are not legally recognised. Maye’s is not the only story of an LGBTIQ person who’s faced discrimination at work in this context.

Last year, a high school college deputy headmaster in Harare, the country’s capital, paid dearly for coming out to his students. Amid a fierce backlash from parents and the media, including death threats, he resigned from his job. “I had no idea of the force of anger and resentment such a declaration would make”, he said.

“I had no idea of the force of anger and resentment such a declaration would make”

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At the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zimbabwe’s president Emerson Mnangagwa was asked whether he would protect LGBTIQ rights. “In our constitution it [homosexuality] is banned – and it is my duty to obey my constitution”, he responded. But, he added: “those people who want it are the people who should canvass for it”.

Indeed, rights activists have been pushing politicians and businesses to act against discrimination – noting that Zimbabwe’s constitution also requires this and states that “government at every level must endeavor to secure full employment” and the “removal of restrictions that unnecessarily inhibit or prevent people from working”.

Last summer, the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) human rights group met ruling ZANU-PF officials for the first such encounter between national politicians and the LGBTIQ community. The group’s president Chester Samba told me it reflected a more open attitude to that of the previous president, Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2017, once called LGBTIQ activists “worse than dogs and pigs” and declared, at the United Nations in 2015: “We are not gay!” Casting homosexuality as un-African, he was also criticised for using gay people as a scapegoat to distract citizens from Zimbabwe’s economic problems.

Since his fall from head office, rights activists have been cautiously optimistic about the prospects of change from the new government. Though it is not the only powerful actor accountable for the discrimination – and blackmail, death threats and unfair dismisals – that LGBTIQ people face on the job in Zimbabwe.

“The state it is not the only powerful actor accountable for the discrimination – and blackmail, death threats and unfair dismisals – that LGBTIQ people face on the job in Zimbabwe”

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Can employers be moved to take action on these issues, even if the state will not? International institutions, including the United Nations, explicitly state the need for businesses to “promote a culture of respect and equality in the workplace”.

In Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, Alessandrabree Chacha, a 27 year-old trans woman suggested that some employers have bucked the trend and fostered more inclusive workplaces. She said she had “an uplifting work experience in the corporate environment” because in her case “management welcomed me and treated me as an equal”.

Teveshan Kuni, director of the South African LGBT and Management Forum steering committee, pointed me to a Workplace Equality Index launched last year in his country which evaluates companies’ practices on diversity and inclusion and highlights initiatives like LGBTIQ-targeted recruiting events as positive steps.

In Zimbabwe, GALZ told me they are also reaching out to corporations to encourage them to enforce non-discrimination policies within their organisations. The group’s programme manager Samuel Matsikure said that the context is changing with the government’s push to attract foreign investment and big Western businesses.

But he described steep challenges. Even if employers do not explicitly fire someone for their sexual identity, for example, they can make the workplace unbearable for an LGBTIQ person, he said, as they hope that segregation, low pay and bad working conditions may encourage that employee to ‘choose’ to leave.

Some conservative Christian bosses also appeal to their personal faith as an excuse for outright and open discrimination against LGBTIQ workers, Matsikure added.

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Trade unions can also play a role in defending LGBTIQ employment rightsin some contexts. But the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) umbrella body, has yet to make a clear statement in support of LGBTIQ rights.

“The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) umbrella body, has yet to make a clear statement in support of LGBTIQ rights”

ZCTU’s president Peter Mutasa told me that this topic was discussed at the 2018 International Labour Conference in Geneva. But, he said, they are still consulting with their membership in Zimbabwe on the matter.

“As a union in order for us to come up with a policy position we go back to our structures at grassroots and do consultations on the issue”, he said. “We can only come up with a position when our structures have decided on the course to take”.

Meanwhile, LGBTIQ women are “a minority within a minority”, said Mayita

Tamangani, GALZ gender officer, with their voices among the most marginalised.

This is exacerbated by foreign aid-funded programmes – a major sector in Zimbabwe’s economy – she added, as they tend to focus on issues such as “HIV/AIDS and men who have sex with men” while “neglecting [the] political and economic participation” of LGBTIQ people, particularly women.

* Names have been changed to protect identities. This article is part of a series on women’s rights and economic justice from 50.50 and AWID, featuring stories on the impacts of extractive industries and corporate power, and the importance of tax justice for the rights of women, trans and gender non-conforming people.

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