Heteronormativity is an intimate word in conversations around gender and sexuality. Its concept, advanced by social theorist Michael Warner in the early ‘90s, refers to the heterosexual experience being positioned as the only “normal” way to be or live. When that happens, it renders any experience that doesn’t fit into that box as “other”.
Linguistical experts contend that “othering” is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the “normal” or favoured group. It is largely driven by politicians, opinion-leaders and the media, as opposed to personal contact.
Throughout history, it is distinct that elites and political opportunists have stimulated social cleavages and appealed to group-based identities to advance their agendas, accumulate political power and preserve their hang on it. People don’t just figure out on their own that collectively they need to be afraid of another group, the experts argue. Leadership plays a critical role. Often people who have been living with one another for years are made to feel suddenly that those differences have become threatening. Thus, “othering” is used to divide and dehumanise groups, and capture and reshape government and institutions. Those behind it use it as a weapon to manipulate and keep “people” away from “knowing” those that they are “othering”.
In “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging”, John A. Powell and Stephen Menendian noted that “othering” does not only encompass the many expressions of prejudice on the basis of group identities but provides a clarifying frame that reveals a set of common processes and conditions that propagate group-based inequality and marginality.
“We define “othering” as a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone.”
With particular respect to sexual liberation, orientation and personal expression, “othering” create processes of exclusion and dehumanisation to those who do not identify within the heteronormative template and limits the options available to them. It enforces the gender binary and its accompanying stereotypes, for instance; heterosexual men are expected to perform their gender particularly, being strong and muscly, emotions in check, and unlikely to explore a greater range of emotions that may be deemed too feminal lest they are thought of as “not a real man”.
In countries with extreme “moral climates”, this “othering” can also take the form of violence – often state-sanctioned – imprisonment and even death penalties.
But what about the flip side of this binary: homonormativity?
Wretchedly, Warner’s template asks anybody who identifies as LGBTQIA+ to ascribe to heterosexual social expectations. They must show themselves to be “just like straight people” to gain access to the same or similar rights and social privileges. These include, for example, the right to be themselves, marry and enjoy spousal benefits. Failure to fit in this norm results in one getting shut out of social spaces and their issues don’t receive the same amount of attention when it comes to advocacy work or lobbying. Their rights and needs are ignored or deemed not significant enough to be championed.
This can be extremely dangerous, too. Hate crimes against this group are looked over by society. Human Rights Watch reports have established that LGBTQIA+ people are susceptible to both physical and sexual violence and many live in chronic dread. They are taunted, threatened, fired from their jobs, thrown out of their homes, or worse: beaten, stoned, raped, or killed.
Amid all these hate crimes and prejudices, and as dispiriting as world events may seem, a good thing is taking place. Elsewhere, humanity is making terrific progress toward tolerance, inclusion, and equality as people have realised that we are living in a period of dramatic social change and unprecedented openness in human history. While progress will at times come slowly and painfully in other areas across the globe, there is a rapid celebration and appreciation of diversity among humanity, regardless of what sexual orientation they identify with. People who were wontedly intolerant of routinely misunderstood groups of people are now more than ever marching toward a more inclusive society while taming their baser impulses and steadying their fears.
In Harare, one such platform working to provide spaces and venues where diverse sexual perspectives, cultures and convictions are accepted, appreciated and celebrated, and where it is actually OK for anybody to be themselves is the Harare Queers, largely referred to as HQ. A brainchild of Kazz Douie, Tinoashira Peter Govinda and one named Jordan, the consortium is a cumulative of queer bodies seeking to redefine the socio-political climate for queers in Zimbabwe, through events and discussions that unapologetically celebrate queerness.
Launched recently at an event hosted by The Undomesticated Podcast — a talk show that offers a platform for women empowerment discussions and marginalised groups narratives, —, and sponsored by Moto Republik, it was pellucid from the discourses that the collective has a hefty job to do if ever it wants to build a safe haven for its enthusiasts.
The Zimbabwean Constitution and other sundry laws enforce the common-law provisions that sanction against sodomy and limit the types of legal relationships LGBTQIA+ people can enter into, despite an active queer scene across the country.
In 1990 the LGBT rights group, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was formed, with one of its main goals being to assist people with HIV and AIDS. Alas, the apparent tolerance towards the minority community lasted until 1995 when the then-president Robert Mugabe reportedly uttered some extreme comments when he came across a GALZ stall at an Internation Book Fair in Harare. This ushered in a period of active government campaigns against homosexual men and women, among these, was the arrest of Zimbabwe’s first president Canaan Banana in 1996, on charges of sodomy and indecent assault. The trial was very public, and Canaan was eventually found guilty, but his wife later maintained that whilst Canaan was gay, the charges had been politically motivated.
Meanwhile, Mugabe’s homophobic rhetoric continued unabated. In 2006, the government passed a “sexual deviancy” law that criminalised any actions “perceived as homosexual” – in theory making it a criminal offence for two people of the same sex to hold hands or kiss. Penalties included fines and up to ten years in prison.
A gleam of hope, however, loomed when Robert Mugabe was toppled from power in 2017, although the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has made it clear that changing the country’s laws on same-sex activity is not on his agenda.
“Those people who want it are the people who should canvass for it, but it’s not my duty to campaign for this. In our constitution it is banned — and it is my duty to obey my constitution,” he told CNN in January 2018.
However, he has refrained from any of the fiery anti-LGBT rhetoric of his predecessor and his desire for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth suggests that he’s likely to take a more liberal stance.
On paper, the Southern African country can seem like a wintry country for queer people, but for the most part politicians’ stance have been found to be little more than an appeal to a rural, traditional base of supporters, than to be any genuine “moral policing”, for a lack of a better phrase.
It is against such a milieu that has led to the emergence of queer-friendly spaces like the Harare Queers, where diversity and the “otherness” in all of us is recognised and lauded as an essential binding agent to the greater life experience. Funky, creative, cautious and poised to reshape the queer experience beyond the prevailing “Sex, Drugs, and Disco” homosexual narrative, the collective strives toward a safe lacuna where the full circle of human qualities is regarded with respect and where the particular gifts of every community member are dignified by conscious recognition.
Unlike the quotidian self-pitying and lonesome scenes most people probably associate eccentricity with; here humanity relates to each other, smiles and showers each other with positive compliments for whom they are.
“God, she’s so beautiful!” I overheard one lady saying out loud at the launch staring at another girl.
Looking around at the event, there was something for anyone, could it be painting, food, music, dance, friendship desks and networking opportunities.
Positive messages and conversations were floating around, with various definitions of what queerness means. To some, being queer is power; it is the difference; you don’t want to be stuck in any label; it means refusing to be defined…no matter what people perceive, you feel the need to be you.
To others, it is beauty in variety, revolutionary, expressiveness, bravery in owning your damn self, while some feel it is authentic and defiant beauty so pure and rare it cannot be defined or contained.
“Queerness is contagious, unique, unclassified pride. It is more like a political statement. That deserves to be celebrated. The strength we have is to be celebrated,” wrote one on a public board that was erected at the venue.
Another definition indicated that queerness is not limited to the LGBTQIA+ community but that it is embracing a higher power that even gives heterosexual people the freedom to choose who and how they would like to appear.
Speaking during a panel discussion at the launch, initiator Kazz Douie said it was requisite to celebrate queerness because it is magnificent.
“For years now, queers have been victimised and there is need to be celebrated. Queerness is something beautiful. Why not celebrate that? We don’t get to celebrate who we really are too often.”
Tinoashira Peter Govinda echoed the same sentiments when he said that the LGBTQIA+ community should celebrate their healthy as opposed to longstanding theories that seem to suggest that homoeroticism is all about “chem/slam sex” parties, where people get high on drugs and having sex with scores of partners, and ending up re-fuelling epidemics of HIV & AIDS.
“As queer people, we should celebrate our healthy, despite the hugely accepted theories that queers are about HIV and STIs,” he said.
Jordan, a funky model who loves to refer to herself as a “unicorn”, said that queer people must celebrate their maverickism.
“We’ve queers who are game-changers, church leaders, great creatives, and doctors. It’s part of a bigger narrative,” she said.
“We have to celebrate queerness because we get to choose our families, who we really love and the energy we love around us. We celebrate our sexual liberation. We can’t be told who to marry; how many kids one should have. We make our own rules. We are the unsung heroes of humanity. We set trends,” she added.
Other discussions that took place at the launch were what makes a safe space for queer people and ways that the queer community can effectively organise themselves.
On safe spaces, the harmony was that in a state that sanctions against people’s sexual orientations, safe spaces were non-existent and that it was something that needs to be worked on collectively. One particular participant (name withheld) submitted that the safest space can be created by oneself, with another saying everyone’s definition of safe space is different and that it is a state of mind.
“We can’t have that for everyone. No safe space, it’s basically where you can manage, the people that you can comfy around in your differences. A queer safe space is what I can do for myself. Beyond me, I can’t really do much,” said another.
Also raised during the panel engagement was the question of elitism in established LGBTQ movements in Zimbabwe. Whereas one would have thought that any etch minority group fighting for equality for all should be as inclusive as they come, local queer groups — who at the moment count up to 18 — were found guilty of lumping together other colours of the rainbow when they should recognise sizeable differences between them.
From the flow, it was clear that most of these syndicates still perpetuate the class-inflected nature of gay identity. Their idea of homosexuality is the outcome of the century-long process; external social control forces radiating from the imperatives of reform capitalism combined with gender anxieties in middle-class communities to privilege middle-class gay people and middle-class understandings of same-sex desire. Anyone who exists outside these strata is left out.
“It is a very sad case. Queer organisations are targeting gays and lesbians only and our movements are so elitist. You need to have a degree, be a doctor or be something of importance to belong,”
ranted one participant, who claimed to have been a member of a top LGBT union in the country.
Some proposed that local queer groups, if they are really grassroots movements as they claim to be, good-intentioned and are keen to provide safe spaces for their aficionados, needed to improvise their communication plan. They must go beyond the interwebs or else they will shut out those who are not on the internet.
It appears the Harare Queers are ahead of this criticism as they are open to anybody joining them.
“Our understanding of what queer is different. Queer movements should include everyone. HQ is a collective and we can look after ourselves, one another…We’re not vying for donor money. We want to champion for our people,” said Kazz.
She said as HQ they have introduced a mail list that will see them reaching out to their members privately.
While the group seems to have hit the ground running, only time will tell if it will be able to go beyond its launch and stand the test of time.