For male sex workers in Zimbabwe, discrimination and abuse are the norm

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This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Takunda Munashe, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was only 13 when he started selling sex to men in Mtapa, a high-density suburb of Gweru, Zimbabwe.

“It is not like I was forced into sex work. It was just this teenager excitement of having fun,” Munashe, now 29, said. “The challenge for me, as young as I was, was not being able to negotiate for safe sex. I was living in a small town, and I was not empowered enough to seek medical care. How would I approach the nurses and tell them that I was suffering from a sexually transmitted infection? I would let it heal by itself.”

When Munashe’s parents discovered he was dating men in 2011, they forced him into an arranged marriage with a woman. When that marriage failed, he was forced into another.

“Being born to African parents, they were in denial. They got very angry and blamed their separation for what they termed my ‘abnormal behavior’. I was taken to prophets, traditional healers, anything you can think of, but that did not change me,” he said.

Munashe sired three children from his marriages before accepting his reality and moving on.

“I decided that I was not being honest with my life, and I left to live the person that I am, that is being gay. My parents, I think they have just given up,” he said.

With three children to support and no job, Munashe went back into sex work.

“Sometimes I visit nightclubs to get clients, but most of the time I operate via my mobile. Some of my clients just call if they want sex. I also meet my clients online. With years of experience, I don’t run out of ways to attract my clients. Depending on the type of client, I take home between $40 and $150 per day,” Munashe said.

According to the most recent World Bank data from 2011, 72 percent of Zimbabwe’s then 14 million people lived below the poverty line. In 2016, the average Zimbabwean lived on just $1.03 per day for food according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency.

Despite a decent income, Munashe’s job still comes with many risks.

“You have not graduated into sex work if you are not raped,” Munashe said of what he has come to consider a terrible inevitability for male sex workers in Zimbabwe. “We are also attacked by female prostitutes, as we will be competing for the same clients. Police also harass us and take our money, and because we are male sex workers having sex with men, we are not protected like the female sex workers, because same-sex sexual activity is taboo in this country. It can get one arrested.”

Under Section 73 of Zimbabwe’s Criminal Code, it is illegal for two people of the same sex to kiss or have sex.

Munashe chairs Male Sex Workers in Zimbabwe, an advocacy group that helps economically disadvantaged men who have sex with men. Zimbabwe Sex Workers Alliance and Rainbow Leaders also cater for local male sex workers’ rights and health needs.

“The main challenge gay sex workers face in Zimbabwe is mostly health issues: the ability to negotiate for safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and accessing health services,” said Chester Samba, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). “The attitude of nurses at public institutions is a cause of concern. Some bring a bible and throw it over their laps. The gay sex workers or men who have sex with men also face challenges of extortion, with some they have entered into a relationship hoping to get money out of it if they expose them.”

Former President Robert Mugabe was a fierce critic of homosexuality and known for making homophobic statements, once describing gay people as “worse than pigs and dogs.”

Samba said he hopes Zimbabwe’s new president Emmerson Mnangagwa and his government will refrain from villainizing LGBTQI people.

“In 2017 we recorded quite a number of cases of harassment and intimidation on our members. We just hope that as the election gets closer, various organizations, churches included, will not take advantage and incite violence and intimidation against the LGBTQI community,” Samba said.

Zimbabwe is slated to hold a general election before September this year. In previous elections, politicians have targeted sexual and gender minorities with hate speech, using them as scapegoats to advance populist agendas.

A new crop of self-proclaimed prophets is doing the same, promising impoverished Zimbabweans financial miracles in exchange for steep tithes.

“These days, you find [prophets] are given so much space on radio and television programs and websites where they also have conversations of ‘converting’ LGBTQI people,” Samba said. “Our members have found traditional churches like Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, among others more comfortable than some [Evangelical] churches because you don’t find them shouting at the pulpit about LGBTQI issues.”

Munashe belongs to a popular Pentecostal church and says he goes to church nearly every Sunday.

“I see God in me, and I love myself. People have to accept and love me the way I am, because that is me. I am not going to change,” he said.

Wongai Zhangazha is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

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