Erasing 76 Crime blog’s special correspondent in Zimbabwe checks in with Lionel Girezha, who since October 2011 has been awaiting trial on sodomy charges.
The Lionel Girezha story: ‘In limbo for my type of love’
He walks with a sturdy strut. Oblivious that this cold winter afternoon thrusts its devilish chill onto his skin, much of it bare. He cannot afford a jersey to warm himself. In fact, he can afford precious little. It has been nearly two years since he was declared persona non grata in his own country and blacklisted by several employers.
Those who sympathise with him are not brave enough to offer him a job that will put food on his lap. The food can never be on his table. He doesn’t own a table.
The grey clouds on this winter’s day seem to epitomise his life — a gloomy existence.
Ever since Lionel Girezha was attacked, arrested, harassed, imprisoned and dragged before the courts for having consensual sex with a partner he had met at a party, the young Zimbabwean man has been facing persecution as he waits for his legal nightmare to end. He doesn’t seem likely to wake up from that horror anytime soon.
“I had sex with the man I had negotiated consensual sex with and, because of some peeping Tom who reported us, we have been going through hell ever since then,” explains the rather calm 28-year-old.
Lionel and that partner, Ngonidzashe Chinya, 29, were brought before a “kangaroo court” convened by Ngonidzashe’s brothers, who interrogated them about what had happened. Then they were taken to the police and incarcerated for several days.
Zimbabwe is one of 76 countries that criminalise same-sex relationships with laws against homosexuality and sodomy. On paper, the law in Zimbabwe provides for up to a year in prison for homosexual activity, but in practice LGBTQI people are often charged with aggravated assault, even in cases of consensual sex, which typically results in prison sentences of seven to 10 years.
In Zimbabwe, a person’s sexual orientation, whether real or perceived, can bring on emotional and often physical attacks on anyone deemed to be pro-same-sex. In the meetings that drafted the country’s recently passed new constitution, the issue was so taboo that a provision outlawing same-sex relationships was not even up for discussion. Homophobia and victimisation are so closely linked that people who have differing views on political matters are often labelled homosexuals in order to have them stigmatised. Recently, several politicians, journalists and civil society activists have been labelled as homosexuals in order to silence them and to discredit their opinions.
Life in limbo
Currently facing sodomy charges, Lionel and Ngonidzashe have been stuck in limbo since their arrest on Oct. 20, 2011.
Lionel cannot go to a neighbouring country to restart his life and get a job away from Zimbabwe, where he has been blacklisted. If he ever just leaves the country, he will be accused of being a renegade from justice, further criminalised, jeopardising any chances of ever returning to see his family.
“Every week I have to report to the police at least once to prove that I have not skipped bail. It is a tedious exercise. I do not have money nor food and my life has always been in danger,” he says.
He is trained as a graphic designer, but he has no work.
“I often go for days without food and have little to wear in the form of clothes since I haven’t been working for close to two years now. There is little hope of me getting any job until the matter is finalised,” he says, his head hanging low and his eyes staring emptily into the horizon. “I’m in limbo for my type of love.”
His fall from grace could not have been more poignant and painful.
Before his arrest, Lionel had contracted with several individuals and companies for his services as a graphic designer. This put food on the table for him and he could afford his rentals and a decent meal. He had clean fresh clothes on his back and a home to return to at the end of the day.
“I could even go out with friends and enjoy myself. Even when I did not get regular jobs I was also hired as a driver by public transport operators and could supplement my earnings,” Lionel recalls. Those earnings were not the stuff that dreams were made of, but they gave him a comfortable life while he made plans for pursuing graphic design, the career of his passion.
“As soon as this story broke, nobody wanted to hire me. People wanted nothing to do with me. If anybody is brave enough to want to give me a job, they get labelled as ‘gay loving’ and people would rather not have that unwanted attention,” he says.
“Before the dark days came Lionel had clean fresh clothes on his back and a home to come back to at the end of the days. Today, those are nowhere near his reach and as things stand, things are only getting worse.
Forced to move for safety
He has been harassed and has had to move away from his home in Mbare, a poor black suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare. In Mbare, it would be a death-inviting sin to express tolerance of homosexuality, never mind identify as one.
He had to move in with relatives in a neighbourhood where he is not easily recognisable. Even there, he has to spend endless hours locked indoors.
“We were attacked several times by a militia group in Mbare when we were supposed to attend a court session. Several lawyers bailed on us when they were threatened against representing us. My life has been in danger ever since,” he says.
“With every day the case is not finalised, it’s another day of uncertainty that lies ahead for me,” he says.
His eyes water. Teary like marbles dipped in oil. Yet he doesn’t drop a tear. Weeping would do nothing to change his circumstances.
He has had several offers of help from “well-wishers,” but nothing has ever come through.
The sparse clothes he is wearing are testament to a life of struggle.
Two types of prison
Like Nelson Mandela, the man who fought the struggle for racial equality in neighbouring South Africa, Lionel is in a prison of sorts. But in Lionel’s case, it is own kind that are torturing him. His own people. People who share his background and his homeland. But not his sexual orientation.
They torture him for consensually loving someone of the same sex. A victimless crime. No crime at all, really. Loving differently.
Mandela was confined to a little island. For Lionel, the whole country has been turned into his version of Robben Island. A prisoner in his own nation.
“I have no friends. Even those who sympathise with me run off from the contagion effect. They are scared for their own lives and safety,” he confesses. The chilly breeze intensifies.
One time when he and Ngonidzashe went to court, they ended up the subjects of a further arrest warrant.
“Boys from the militia group from Mbare called Chipangano — believed to be aligned to the ruling party — had come and threatened to beat us up for being gay. We were in danger and had no choice but to run away, and even the court officials saw that, but we went on to have an arrest warrant issued against us.” The warrant was eventually cancelled.
The media has not been helpful, sensationalising any issue linked with any homosexual activity and embellishing facts to push sales.
“The story appeared in the papers and also alleged that the gay pair had fled justice, portraying us as being renegades, but we had attended and had been threatened. The whole environment is unsafe. Those in the media who give fair treatment to issues regarding LGBTQI issues are themselves persecuted and most usually silenced, so we have few allies in the media,” he says.
His next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 9, but his case keeps getting postponed. With every postponement comes a sad reminder that he is stuck in this dark present and cannot move forward to restart his shattered life. No date for a trial has been set.
“If only I can get a little bit of help just to get by. I cannot even afford a dollar to get online and keep people around the world updated on my safety. I cannot even get food on the table every day. I need food and clothing and there are one or two people who are helping me as well as an organisation [name withheld to protect it from persecution] that is following my well-being, but I am in a bad place financially and emotionally. I just want this nightmare to end,” he says.
As the sun sets on a private little space where Lionel’s interview was held surreptitiously — away from the prying eyes of the state’s agents — it signals the start of yet another uneasy night for Lionel. A night when he doesn’t know what he will eat. A night when he is uncertain what the morrow will bring.
- Zimbabwe: Mugabe seeks life in prison for homosexuals (76crimes.com)
- 21 in prison for being gay, 16 more awaiting trial (sendson04.wordpress.com)