“We Cannot Work In Isolation”

LGBTIQ+ have been greatly affected by the pandemic. How we, as a community organization, still manage to continue supporting our people. By Michelle Ruhonde and Mayita Tamangani.

Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) is an association which provides manifold interventions and perspectives for the LGBTIQ+ community in Zimbabwe. The GALZ Headquarter is situated in Harare. Together with GALZ’ three other centres, it is claimed to be “a vital safe haven where members can […] express themselves freely”. From here all day-to-day running of the association’s programs of activities takes place.” Basically everyone is invited to a GALZ membership, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, sexual orientation or nationality – the only requirement is adult age. Among the organization of social events, e.g. Zimbabwe Pride’s famous Jacaranda Queen Drag Pageant, GALZ provides juridical support and both medical and psychosocial health care. All services are oriented to the different needs of the LGBTQI+ community.

Nowadays, GALZ is recognized as an advocacy actor in the fight for the communities’ rights. Though, this recognition was achieved under hard conditions: Today, GALZ’ work is situated in the Post-Mugabe era. Mugabe himself – who ruled from 1980 until 2017’s military coup – was at the forefront of homophobic harassment and political instrumentalisation of gender identities. Intensified attacks against the LGBTIQ+ communities and members of GALZ included intimidation, beating and arbitrary arrests.

When Covid-19 came, police used the lockdown also as a pretext for repression against political opponents. This selective execution of lockdown measures continued. In the beginning of January 2021, a new lockdown started. Its restrictions are still maintained. A dusk-to-dawn curfew restricts mobility within cities. Mobility between cities is forbidden.

Lockdown violence

During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, social mobilization and human mobility was cut through the prevention measures. Issues of LGBTIQ+ people coming back from neighbouring countries, like Mozambique, were reported to us. Anyone who comes back is forced in quarantine sites. These centres bear often very unhygienic conditions and many people get infected in there. Especially for trans*women the lack of privacy and the crowded conditions are very challenging.

Another problem regarding mobility restrictions within the country tackled the trans* men who are in the process of transformation – as their photo in their national ID cards often mismatches their current physical appearance. It became difficult whenever they were moving from A to B – as police had put up many check points

At once, the lockdown caused economic violence: Due to the lockdown, especially people with small income jobs lost their employments. People working in the informal sector were prohibited from executing their income generation. Many members got unemployed.We had raising issues of hunger. As GALZ, we had to close down all four centres temporarily.

#PhysicalDistancing #SocialCloseness

During the first lockdown it was very difficult to access our members – as it came as a surprise. It became difficult to meet our members or to distribute protective equipment for the prevention of Covid infections or condoms. We also noticed a rise in psychological stress.

Socially, we had to bring people together again. It was quite difficult because of the fact that we were working from home. As a team, we got to a point where we said, “Okay, now that we cannot meet physically, we have to search for other ways of connection.” What we did, was to build up creative social media groups and to buy communication credits and data for members who could not afford it. The creation of digital affinity groups was an intervention to reach out to the community and at the same time stabilize the community within. It was so helpful in terms of knowing how they are doing: If they have food. If they have any income. Also emotionally it mattered to get in touch again.

At first, our counsellors also provided counselling over the phone 24/7. But not all members do have mobile phones. Especially those who live in distant areas which are hard to reach, often do not have mobile devices. This made it even more difficult to reach them during the first two or three months of the lockdown – until we were able to move ourselves.

When the lockdown restriction were lifted up a bit, we reassigned our three vehicles to the task of reaching out: They became our Covid public response team vehicles. GALZ’ counsellors were able to also get to the hard-to-reach areas. They went from door to door, wearing their personal protective equipment. This made people feel more comfortable and it allowed a significant improvement of assistance, which was badly needed: For most of our members who need an ongoing medical treatment it was not possible to get their medication. Either clinics were not accessible to them or the mere travel to seek services was a problem. With the Covid response team we managed to bring members to the nearest clinics. Still, receiving medical treatment for the queer population is always difficult – either due to prejudices of the medical staff or to the special needs of the community. With the ongoing pandemic it got even worse. In the end, we had to come up with having a community clinic: based in our Headquarter.

The pandemic urges us to invent new strategies

The second lockdown came from April to May. It was rather an imposture of extra measures that were added to the perpetuated lockdown, lasting from March. In May, though, we were better prepared: We made sure that we could get to our community members and they could come to the GALZ centre. We also worked along with the public response teams from the Wilkins hospital, which is one of the main Covid-19 treatment centres. Police was less strict when our own teams were with the Wilkins hospital’s public response teams, regarding travel letters or ID card issues. But then with the army it became even more difficult in the second lockdown: They didn’t mind whether you were in a Covid response car or not. They would make you stop anyway.

The pandemic really urged us to invent new strategies: it rendered the safe social space impossible which we had created for our members during years. We had to think it over and over again, find a combination of online and offline support, find means to get along with the police and military, deal with the families and communities. This was a tough time.

Growing mental health issues

 “Lockdown” means also “lock in”: We had to deal with issues of gender based violence within the home where many of our members were locked in – within homophobic families, within homophobic communities. You know, when you have a homophobic family and you're stuck with the family during the lockdown – and you have lost your job due to the lockdown and you do not generate income anymore: They turn on you. They direct their anger against you.

Due to this, we absolutely had to be able to help our members – also psychologically. All of our counsellors were on call 24/7. If anyone was in severe need, we have the drivers, the officers, the counsellors available to drive to their homes. Because some members were either locked in or else thrown out from homes, we tried to talk to parents and make them understand their children.

In such a case, we look especially for close relatives who understand our member’s sexual orientation or who can simply be empathic. We go back to that family member and ask if they could speak to the mother or the father. And help to reconcile the family.

Our Psychosocial Work: A systemic approach

We explicitly link psychosocial support and counselling to the issue of labour and economical security: You are less likely to be evicted, if you are an income generator. And even if this happens, a person is more likely to have the means to be economically and socially independent. No matter if you’re queer or straight: family support is extremely important for the survival of younger Zimbabweans. Also prior to the pandemic we had issues of members being kept away from home, just because of their sexual orientation. In many cases, family members who are discovered to be lesbian, gay or bisexual, are evicted from home.

It all happens because the coming out process is not only a coming out for us alone, but also for our parents. This is why we have done a lot of sensitization work, such as “parents and friends and allies of GALZ workshops”: We invite parents. We invite friends. We invite allies of GALZ scholars… We invite them all to share their experiences, how they feel and what it has been like for them.

For example, Michelle’s own mother goes into families with the assistance of counsellors. She can share her own story as a mother: “Your child is like this, but also my child is like this. And you have to understand, that it is a coming out process as well for you and me.” Because our parents are enrooted in culture and often are also religious. Often, families with queer children are stigmatized within their communities. We then address the communities’ religious leaders to sensitize their people.  It's always about building relationships.

Why speaking of “feminism” does not automatically create alliances

For us, our perspective on feminism is that it must mean to end the cultural norms that suppress the LGBTIQ+ community, not only those that supress only women. “Feminism” should not only mean to put an end to a patriarchal society. Seen through that lenses, we have decided to work with all genders and to address and educate both men and women. So it’s not just a perspective of women on “how to be feminist”.

Contrary to our approach to feminism, we have been contacted by members who made the unpleasant experience that feminism has only and exclusively been reclaimed by cis-women. Sometimes they demand that feminism should be a fight that is only fought by women being against either the patriarchal system or sometimes it is even against men as “a whole”. And for GALZ it’s important to say: “No! Feminism has to be about gender equity.” We need to promote that equity between all genders. And how do we do that? Rather than labelling our work as “queer feminist” we focus on the fight against patriarchal oppression. We fight for the LGBTIQ+ rights. And for gender equity as a whole.

Sensitization of Police and Politicians

For us, it has always been crucial not to work all alone. We decided that we should connect with the people that we know, people who have been working with GALZ or who have come to our offices. If you have friends within the police, we talk to them: They can go to the top officials, ask them to get in contact with GALZ and sensitize them on LGBTIQ+ issues.

We first targeted a police station that is close to our office: We invited them into our space and had a conservation with them. It doesn't have to be a one-way discussion. On the one hand we show them we are available. On the other hand we try to understand where they are coming from: Why do they feel queer sexuality and gender identity is a taboo? What makes them not to understand the LGBTIQ+ realities?

With policy makers it is sometimes especially difficult. First, some of them actually come with their homophobic minds and are totally opposed to the whole issue of LGBTIQ+ rights. Yet, we try to talk to them and to understand, “where is your homophobia coming from?” That helps us making the parliamentarians understand that we are still human beings at the end of the day. Second, sometimes they are part of the government for a long time. So besides their personal cultural and religious beliefs, political values come into play. They are mindful not to say the “wrong things” – as these could be quoted in public or it might be problematic when it goes to the high office. Even when you reach them one time, in other times they will tell you, “we don't want this to end up in the newspapers”.

So in some cases, it was difficult. But anyhow, it's always about building relationships: We cannot work in isolation. As GALZ, we have to rely on a lot on allies.

Published: 25. February 2021

Donate Now!