No gaiety in Tsvangirai gay rights flip flop

Nov 7, 2011

MDC leader, current Prime Minister and possible future Zimbabwean president Morgan Tsvangirai has had a change of heart about gay rights. In 2010 he publicly supported President Robert Mugabe’s vocal anti-gay stance. Now he has expressed a defense not of the practice of homosexuality, but of the right of homosexuals to constitutional protections. In different circumstances Tsvangirai’s new position would have seemed a brave defense of an unpopular minority’s rights to civil protections all citizens should be able to count on. But the messy manner of Tsvangirai’s ‘coming out’ with his new stance has left egg all over his face, giving insight into the political smarts, or lack of them, of Zimbabwe’s aspiring next leader.

The very idea of homosexuality elicits revulsion in most Zimbabweans, but most also have a ‘live and let live attitude’ towards it, as long as they don’t have to confront it up close.

It was not necessary at all for Mugabe as head of state to make any comment about this issue. But having chosen to do so, the articulate Mugabe could have easily found a way to mention the reality that homosexuality is a deep social and cultural taboo in Zimbabwe, yet do so without being provocatively offensive. Mugabe going out of his way to characterize gays as ‘worse than dogs and pigs’ was therefore completely un-necessary, and was likely designed to further offend his many detractors in the Western world, which he most certainly did, giving them the one thousand and first reason to despise him.

At some point, Mugabe opponent Tsvangirai also found it necessary to make a pubic stance in general support of the president on the issue, though without Mugabe’s indelicate language. There was surprise that Tsvangirai would allow himself to publicly support his bitter political rival Mugabe on anything, but it was mild because both men were expressing the default, common and majority sentiment in Zimbabwe, though homosexuality has not been a major issue of discussion. Apart from Mugabe’s deliberate rough language, the anti-gay position the two men agreed on is not a controversial position in Zimbabwe, or in most of Africa.

Then Tsvangirai went to London recently, appeared on a BBC TV programme and expressed a more nuanced view on the issue when asked about it. He said he would support the incorporation of the right to choice of sexual orientation in the new Zimbabwean constitution in the making. What was widely seen as a marked shift on the issue sparked confusion, outrage and derision, at least in Zimbabwe, even if his new position may have played well in his host country for the interview.

Even by Zimbabwe’s conservative social and cultural standards, Tsvangirai’s newly expressed position might not have been negatively controversial for him if the context in which he made it had been different.

For the Zimbabwean media of all persuasions, the story that came out of the interview was some variation of, ‘Tsvangirai now supports homosexuality.’ This was unfair to him because that is expressly not what he said. What he did say was essentially: I don’t understand or support the gay lifestyle. I acknowledge my society considers it to be taboo. But I don’t believe that is reason to demonize gays or deny them the normal protections of the constitution.

But of course, as he should have known, this is not how many Zimbabweans ‘heard’ him. Apart from the blatant distortion of what he said by the herd-instinct Zim media, it was new and startling for Zimbabweans to hear any politician go out on a limb to express the view that taboo as the gay lifestyle might be, homosexuals not only should not suffer stigma for it, they should count on the normal protections of the constitution for their minority sexual orientation.

This is arguably the correct position for the leader of a modern society to take. ‘Modern’ not in the sense of homosexuality being considered ‘fashionable,’ which sometimes seems to be the driving factor in at least some Western societies. Instead, ‘modern’ in the sense of an unpopular orientation/view/lifestyle/etc by itself no longer being sufficient grounds for denial of normal citizens’ rights to homosexuals. Entitlement to constitutional protections should not depend on the popularity of a group of people or their views/practices, as long as those practices do not infringe on the rights of any one else.

If Tsvangirai’s newly enunciated position is ‘correct’ and appropriate for a modern society in 2011, how were the circumstances of his stating it un-propitious for him politically?

Given the emotive nature of the issue of homosexuality, he should have easily foreseen how his message would be interpreted, regardless of what he actually said. Stating a position he knew would be unpopular was bold, but he should have gone on to give the context/reason/explanation of the change in his position.

That would have avoided, or at least softened, the inevitable, entirely predictable charge of having flip-flopped on this issue. All politicians flip-flop to various extents and it is not always a failing, but this has frequently been pointed out, even by people close to him, as a particular weakness of Tsvangirai’s. A now famous, vicious characterization of him by his own party’s treasurer, Roy Bennett, (courtesy leaked US diplomatic cables) is that Tsvangirai takes the view of whoever he spoke to last.

His gay rights comments therefore prompted derisive charges of, ‘‘There he goes again, changing positions with the weather.’’ This is a damaging reputation for any politician to get, and Tsvangirai should be working assiduously to distance himself from it, rather than feeding it.

Then there is the issue that he stated his new position in London, England and on the British Broadcasting Corporation. Another dismissive charge often laid against him, with considerable effect, is that he is a ‘puppet’ of the West, and particularly of ex-colonial power Britain.    
Another fallout of where and how he made known his new position was then, ‘‘Uncle Tom is just being his usual subservient self; saying one thing at home and another when he goes to the country of his neo-colonial masters.’’

Tsvangirai and his MDC have been extremely and surprisingly careless in giving Mugabe and ZANU-PF opportunities to make this charge stick, as Tsvangirai admits in his recently published biography. It would not at all be surprising if ZANU-PF’s propaganda machinery is gearing up to use the confusion and surprise over Tsvangirai’s championing of gay rights against him in the upcoming election.

Then there is the additional issue that just days before Tsvangirai’s BBC interview, British Prime Minister David Cameron had said, “We want to see countries that receive our aid adhere to proper human rights, and that includes how people treat gay and lesbian people.” 

Africa is chronically, embarrassingly donor-dependent, and countries like the UK have their own reasons for keeping their aid programmes going even when making cuts everywhere else. But Cameron’s statement raised a storm of outrage in Africa.

The reaction of President Atta Mills of Ghana was fairly typical: ‘‘Cameron...does not have the right to direct other sovereign nations as to what they should do especially where their societal norms and ideals are different from those that exist" in Britain.

In going the other way, Tsvangirai, perhaps unintentionally and only coincidentally, also gave the impression of lining up with Cameron’s new gay rights-related aid thrust. It made Tsvangirai look like he was raising his hand up and saying,  ‘‘I’m not in power yet, but look at me Mr.Cameron: if and when I replace that anti-British homophobe Mugabe, my stance on gays will be fully in lockstep with yours; please go ahead and get ready to turn on the aid taps for me. If Mugabe is the bad guy, I am the good anti-Mugabe who will give you no trouble.’’

It is no secret that successive British administrations have hoped for years that Tsvangirai would replace Mugabe, and there is abundant evidence of open British support for the MDC. However, in terms of propaganda value at home and his standing in Africa, over the years the perception of Tsvangirai as firmly, slavishly in British pockets has probably contributed, amongst many other factors, to his failure to win more support from among those who eagerly look forward to Mugabe retiring from the political scene.

Tsvangirai has suffered from too often making it possible and easy for him to be depicted as the spineless African who is willing and eager to be a lapdog of the Westerners who despise Mugabe for a whole host of reasons; many of those reasons being also why Mugabe is revered in much of Africa.

Tsvangirai sought to calm the storm of controversy he had raised by his comments by issuing a clarifying statement ‘‘to put finality and closure to an issue that has been misinterpreted, the issue of the so-called gay rights.’’  

This is how he attempted to remind his audience of his heterosexual credentials: ‘‘My beliefs on this issue are a matter of public record. My beliefs manifest themselves in my practice. I am a Christian associated with the Methodist church. I am a father. I am a grandfather. I am a family man.’’

Of course this just served to fan the flames. For one, it was not Tsvangirai’s personal sexual orientation or his ‘practice’ that were in question and to be ‘defended’ as he did with these sentences, which sounded terribly defensive in a way that did nothing for his image.

Two, none of the social roles he mentioned as ‘manifesting’ his  ‘practice’ of heterosexuality are mutually exclusive with being gay, if that were the issue, which it isn’t.

The late ceremonial president Canaan Banana was involved in a particularly shocking  scandal in which one of his ‘victims’ claimed the trauma of homosexual abuse by Banana made him murder a colleague. Banana was not just ‘a Christian associated with the Methodist church’ ala Tsvangirai. He was a reverend of the church, and a prominent one at that. He was also ‘‘a father, a grandfather, a family man,’’ just like Tsvangirai. It therefore cringe-worthy and un-necessary for Tsvangirai to basically say, ‘Don’t have any doubts about my own sexual orientation because of my statement on gay rights.’

That was not the point of the heated discussion his original statement raised. Additionally, Banana’s example is just one of many showing that the social roles he mentions are neither here nor there in ‘manifesting’ whether someone is gay or straight, if that had been the issue of discussion.

By his invocations of his church of belonging, his being a father, etc, Tsvangirai seemed pitifully oblivious of how rattled he appeared by the criticism of his actually reasonable and defensible statement on gay rights, to the extent of ‘defending’ his heterosexuality, which no one had questioned anyway.

After the initial, embarrassing defensive floundering, Tsvangirai got back more on track by explaining, ‘‘What I refuse to do…is to persecute, to judge, to condemn and to vilify people for their own opinions. So while I may differ with them (homosexuals), as a Christian and as a social democrat, I refuse to throw a stone at them.’’

He couched his statement in the heavily religious language that seems to particularly appeal to Zimbabweans, complete with a smattering of Bible verses. The idea seemed to have been to say, ‘‘Now that I have firmly established my religious credentials, surely you can see that I couldn’t possibly be in support of homosexuality.’’

But of course that is ridiculous, as Banana’s example illustrates. It would have been better for Tsvangirai to have stayed clear of a defense that was so irrelevant, so needlessly personal to him, as well as simply intellectually full of holes. It simply served to call even further into question his reasoning and his political instincts.

All that Tsvangirai needed to do was expound further on one issue: that in a modern constitutional democracy such as that he hopes to lead in Zimbabwe some day, even people of minority ‘practice’ such as gays, as long as they do not fringe on the rights of others, are fully entitled to the same protections as any other citizens.

The twaddle about his brand of churchianity, his being a family man and a father and so forth was all irrelevant nonsense that was neither here nor there to the actually rather important constitutional issue that he brought up: social-cultural-religious sanction of a ‘practice’ do not exclude the ‘practitioners’ from the normal protections of citizenship. Constitutional protections should not be based on whether a group is liked by or ‘popular’ with the majority of the citizens. There are some protections that should transcend issues of popularity.

That is the important point that Tsvangirai had the opportunity to establish and explain. He would have then had the possibility of turning a pubic relations nightmare over perceived ‘support’ for  homosexuality into an important lesson of the importance of the protections of a constitution, especially for groups that would normally be vulnerable to majority prejudice and oppression.

If you must, go on socio-culturally hating the homosexuals, but your/anybody’s ill-feelings against them should not be grounds to deny them the rights of citizenship.  

That point might be startling to a lot of Zimbabwean ears but it is correct and defensible, though politically unpopular and more likely to create problems than to give an opportunity for Tsvangirai to establish himself as a ‘‘social democrat,’’ a term neither widely used nor much understood in Zimbabwean political discourse anyway. 

This is the point Tsvangirai started from before he got sidetracked into saying, ‘‘I am also heterosexual like most of you,’’ which is really beside the point.  

If he was hoping that he would be able to use an unpopular issue to boldly and far-sightedly lead his country to seeing the importance of constitutionally incorporating protections for minority groups/positions/‘practices,’ Tsvangirai flunked this test.

Rather than his attempted clarification bringing any ‘finality and closure’ to the issue, ZANU-PF’s election-time propaganda machinery may yet reprise Tsvangirai’s reasonable but overally poorly delivered position on gay rights, spinning it in such a way as to cause maximum damage to him.

‘Gay’ might mean both ‘homosexual’ as well as ‘happy, joyful,’ but there has clearly been no joy for Tsvangirai in his messy handling of the gay rights issue.


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