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Nell English Walks Tall For Zimbabwe’s LGBTQI+ Community – literally!

When a deputy headmaster at one of Zimbabwe’s top schools recently came out as gay, he faced a backlash that revealed a deep-seated homophobia. One Zimbabwean decided to stand up – and out – in support of the LGBTQI+ community in general and GALZ in particular.

In case you missed the story that made international headlines in September 2018, Dr Neal Hovelmeier, a deputy headmaster at one of Zimbabwe’s private schools, came out as gay.

According to the Zimbabwe Constitution of 2013, same-gender marriage is illegal. The nation’s Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act criminalises sexual relations between men. This is the case whether the sexual act is consensual or forced. While the Act does not criminalise sexual relations between women, it does mention that forcing oneself onto another woman or a child is a punishable offence.

With there being no specific clauses that afford protection to LGBTQI+ people, it is no surprise that the community continues to face a myriad of challenges in various spheres of their lives. From being harassed or ridiculed at health centres, the LGBTQI+ community continues to endure unfair discrimination, with no recourse to the courts for justice.

Research undertaken by digital rights expert Koliwe Majama also revealed that this marginalised community faces an intolerance, both online and offline, that makes it hard for them to freely engage with others while being their authentic selves.

Following his coming out, Hovelmeier received death threats even as he was put under pressure from some of the school’s stakeholders to resign. This unfortunate event brought to light the gravity and extent of queerphobia in Zimbabwe. It also opened up a platform for the nation to have the uncomfortable conversation about sexuality.

On the other hand, however, this event spurred some people to show their support for Zimbabwe’s LGBTQI+ community in various ways.

I caught up with Nell English, who is based in Poblenou, Barcelona. On 1 December, Nell walked across that city in support of the LGBTQI+ community in Zimbabwe. And she did so on stilts!

Joyline Maenzanise: Firstly, thank you for helping raise funds for GALZ [Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, an organisation that advocates for an open, free and democratic society in Zimbabwe]. What made you decide to do this?

Nell English: It has been a long time coming. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I was blissfully unaware of the situation faced by the LGBTQI+ community in my own country. It was only later that I realised how the peace I had taken for granted had been brutally denied my brothers and sisters who didn´t fall within the majority. I have many gay friends whose stoic and brave outlook is incredible, given how much they have had to fight for basic rights in recent years.

I was spurred to take action when I heard the story of Neal Hovelmeier, the former deputy headmaster at St John´s College in Harare, who came out before the student and teacher body in a courageous act, putting himself in the spotlight to inspire any individuals suffering in silence. The reaction he received from the parental union and the vicious death threats in cowardly anonymous letters was appalling. I thought the least I could do was try and raise some money and awareness, which is how I came across GALZ.

Picture supplied

JM: Why did you specifically choose to walk on stilts?

NE: Two years ago, I ran from Harare to Victoria Falls in a fundraiser for mental health, another area in sore need. I would have loved to do another big run, this time 1 000 km, but I had a baby earlier this year and I don´t have time to train anymore!

So, I decided to do something different, for those people who feel different. I thought, some crazy idea outside of the box would attract attention and get people thinking about LGBTQI+ rights in Zimbabwe. Fun runs, sponsored walks and marathons are great, but in today´s world, which is saturated with events and campaigns, I needed to really stand out – and stand tall for LGBTQI+ rights!

JM: Have you walked on stilts before?

NE: Once, for about 10 seconds, when I was 14 years old! I loved it, but this was the first time I properly tried.

JM: How did you prepare for your walk?

NE: I did little to prepare, to be honest. Between having a small baby, a job and injuring myself when I was rock climbing just before the walk was scheduled, I only had time for two practice walks. I walked 2kms on both occasions to prepare the muscles I was going to have to use.

Luckily, having a crawling baby keeps you on your feet and fit! I was slightly concerned about my upper body muscles, as I would have to support my weight with the stilts. Rock climbing was good preparation for that. In the end, any endurance is mind over matter!

Read: Deputy head of top Zimbabwe school comes out

JM: On your Twitter profile, you said you walked across Barcelona. Exactly (or approximately) how much distance did you cover?

NE: I wanted to walk 10km, but in the end we did 12km!

JM: Please take us through the Saturday walk. Did anyone else join you? Did you encounter any challenges? Did you take breaks?

NE: We left at 10.30 am, and we were on the go for nine hours! Mostly I was walking slowly on the stilts, although we stopped a couple of times, once to eat. I also had to breastfeed our baby.

My boyfriend and baby joined me for the whole thing, so a huge thanks for their support. With another fundraising individual by my side, and a pushchair to attract even more attention, we made a legitimate charity event. Alone, I would have been a lone madwoman careening on stilts through Barcelona! I spent the week before the walk purchasing supplies: a rainbow flag, colour bombs so that I would end up being rainbow coloured too, and a charity bucket to receive donations.

Picture supplied.

Our route began from our home in the neighbourhood of Poblenou. We walked along the beaches of Barcelona, passing the Casino and famous nightclubs, expensive restaurants, before going through the neighbourhood of Barceloneta, passing el Born, along Passeig de Colon to the iconic statue of Christopher Columbus. From here, we turned right to go all the way up Las Ramblas, the famous tree-lined boulevard connecting the port to Placa Catalonia, the central square of Barcelona.

This was very hard, because Las Ramblas is the busiest street in Barcelona. As you can imagine, it was tricky navigating through crowds of tourists, walking on a pair of stilts! It did give me a great view though!

From the central square of Placa Catalonia, we walked through Placa Urquinaona to the beautiful Arc de Triomf. On my stilts I went through the triumphal archway, down to Parc Cuitadella and back through the neighbourhood of Poblenou to the starting point.

This was the most challenging part; I was exhausted. Our baby was now screaming (she was so good, lasting for a long time in her pushchair, but she got understandably fed up by the ninth hour!). I managed to walk steadily for most of the way but in those last couple of kilometers, I kept stumbling. I even fell off the stilts and onto a restaurant chair. Luckily it was empty!

Read: Zimbabwean teachers’ union partners with LGBTQI+ rights group on anti-homophobia campaign in schools

I was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt with the Zimbabwean flag and the rainbow flag, representing the LGBTQI+ community, around my shoulders. My boyfriend, who was at my side throughout, wore a large Zimbabwean flag that ran down his back from his shoulders to his feet. I think we raised many eyebrows and lots of awareness!

To the people who approached us and asked questions, I explained the cause and told them about the good work GALZ is doing in Zimbabwe and how much further the whole continent of Africa needed to go in terms of LGBTQI+ rights.

We also decorated the rainbow flag with information about GALZ and key social media tags. Many people took photos and filmed me from behind, so I am hoping they are doing some detective work and looking up this inspirational organisation!

JM: Lastly, what message would you like to send to the people of Zimbabwe regarding their attitude to the LGBTQI+ community? 

NE: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To those who mask their homophobia behind the Bible, this is Luke 6:31. We fear what we don´t understand. Try and put yourself in the position of someone on the edge, isolated, fearful and misunderstood. Imagine how you would like people to treat you. Gay, straight, lesbian, bi – who cares? LGBTQI – the acronym is getting longer but, ironically, instead of adding letters we should just all be “U” – “universal”. 

I hope that Zimbabwe changes its attitude towards the LGBTQI+ community. I believe in my country, and in the integrity and big hearts of the people. Let´s set the example and make Zimbabwe proud!

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