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Gay rights no longer a fringe issue

Rights of homosexuals are being debated in every corner of the world.

A participant in Northern Ireland's Gay Pride parade poses for photographers at the start of the days festivities in Belfast, Aug. 1, 2009. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

BOSTON — I was standing within a few feet of Robert Mugabe when he launched a vicious attack on Zimbabwe’s gays.

Mugabe’s hateful vitriol, in which he denigrated gays as “worse than pigs and dogs,” became one of the defining issues of his repressive rule. Before that moment I questioned whether gay rights were a crucial issue for a developing democracy like Zimbabwe. It was then that I learned that gay rights were a litmus test for human rights everywhere.

Mugabe launched his bitter tirade at the opening of the 1995 Zimbabwe International Book Fair, where the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe set up a stand to distribute pamphlets for safe sex and counseling.

“I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals, who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and elsewhere in the world,” shouted an angry Mugabe, in front of a group of schoolchildren, who appeared confused by the president’s fury.

“Are you saying that gays have no legal rights?” I asked Mugabe after his speech.

“No, they have absolutely no rights in whatsoever,” said Mugabe, grabbing my arm for emphasis and shoving me. My head banged into the television camera behind me as Mugabe got into his Mercedes limousine and sped off. It was the start of Mugabe’s campaign against gays in which he denounced homosexuality as “un-African” and urged citizens to denounce gays to the police for arrest. Mugabe also promoted new anti-gay legislation.

Even then Mugabe was battling against declining popularity and many Zimbabwean analysts said he calculated that a crusade against gays would win him widespread popularity.

Mugabe’s youth militia burned down the stand of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) at the book fair, but overall the campaign fizzled. Zimbabwean society is conservative, but tolerant, and Mugabe failed to stir up popular anger.

An unexpected consequence was that Mugabe’s invective galvanized the country’s gays who, far from cowering in the closet, became more public and assertive. At first some Zimbabwean human rights groups were reluctant to champion the cause of gays, because many of their supporters were members of church groups. But soon almost all accepted that the country’s gays deserved the fundamental rights of all other citizens. Today the issue of gay rights is firmly in the Zimbabwe’s human rights camp.