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Deputy head of top Zimbabwe school comes out

In a possible first for Zimbabwe, a top teacher has gone public regarding his sexual orientation in an attempt to foster a safe space for learners of all sexual orientations.

On 21 September 2018, Dr Neal Hovelmeier, the deputy headmaster at St John’s College, one of the affluent high schools in Zimbabwe, came out to staff and students. In a letter written to the school regarding his bold move, the deputy head says:

“…I have become increasingly aware that a number of former students who gain the confidence after school to pursue their chosen orientation have reported back to me experiencing an environment of intolerance and homophobia while they were at school. I have felt increasingly troubled by the fact that we, as an institution, have never openly dealt with trying to curb homophobic behaviour and, equally, failed to provide a safe learning experience for students who may identify as gay or bisexual to truly flourish and feel accepted.

I simply feel and believe that as an educator, I will be able to better address and advance this issue if I am prepared to be fully open and transparent about it myself…”

In a letter of support written by the headmaster and another deputy, the leaders reminded the school that,

“…The college campus is a place where diversity is embraced, and a safe and caring environment is provided for ALL persons regardless of race, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, abilities or disabilities or any other real or perceived difference.”

This happened a few weeks after the secretary-general of the Progressive Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe, Raymond Majongwe, tweeted about how the union intended to engage GALZ, an association for LGBTQI+ rights in Zimbabwe, and chart ways to create a safe learning environment for LGBTQI+ students.

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

Unsurprisingly, the bold step taken by the school elicited many intolerant responses – including some very disturbing accusations – from several Zimbabweans. Even some religious institutions, which should know better than to try and remove what they believe is a speck of dust in another person’s eye when they ignore the logs in their own, have slammed the deputy head. It is rather interesting to note how many remember what the Bible says when the issue of homosexuality is discussed, but when bribery, sexual abuse, domestic violence or adultery is brought to the fore, the silence from these institutions is deafening. Again, it is disconcerting how many religious people seem to forget that while it is their Constitutional right to hold to their religious beliefs, they have no right to expect everyone else to live by them as well. Many also seem to forget that our culture is not homogenous. It evolves as we evolve and become more capable of identifying and interrogating certain cultural aspects that are divisive and impinge on the human rights of specific groups of people. 

“Society has better things to deal with, like the cholera outbreak.”

“People should not expose children to their private lives.”

“Why did those boys go to HIM about their ‘sexual problems’?”

“What did he do to those boys?”

“We must respect societal norms.”

These are just some of the many disheartening responses that show how misunderstood issues of sexuality are by our society. They serve to highlight the importance of the step taken by Dr Hovelmeier.

Foundations of (cis)heteronormativity in all spheres of society need to be shaken continuously

One of the ways in which this is done is when people make the brave decision to live their truth. Living in hiding will only serve to strengthen the hold heteronormativity has on the way society functions. Of course, being open about one’s sexuality is as much a risk as it is liberating. It can be said that receiving support is a privilege, because that is not the reality for the majority of LGBTQI+ people in Zimbabwe. This is why no one should ever be pressurised into coming out about their sexuality. Still, society needs to know that LGBTQI+ people exist. Society needs to know we exist – at school, at work, and yes, even at church.

Sadly, for many people, the risks of coming out far outweigh the freedom it grants them. The fact that the Constitution of Zimbabwe does not accord protection to the marginalised LGBTQI+ community compounds the risks of being open about one’s sexuality.

File picture: Homosexuality is criminalised in many parts of Africa, and LGBTI people struggle to imagine a life of visibility and freedom.  Photo: lazyllama/Shutterstock

While unclear on same-gender relationships, the Constitution of Zimbabwe outlaws same-gender marriages. The nation’s Criminal Law and Codification and Reform Act goes on to criminalise sexual relations between men. According to this Act, “any male person who, with the consent of another male person, knowingly performs with that other person anal sexual intercourse, or any act involving physical contact other than anal sexual intercourse that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act, shall be guilty of sodomy and liable to a fine up to or exceeding level fourteen or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or both”. Where women are concerned, the same Act only prohibits forced intimacy between affected parties.

Section 66 on Sexual Crimes and Crimes Against Morality stipulates that

“Any person who, being a female person,

  1. has sexual intercourse with or commits upon a male person any other act involving the penetration of any part of the male person’s body or of her own body; or
  2. (ii) commits upon a female person any act involving the penetration of any part of the other female person’s body or of her own body;

with indecent intent and knowing that the other person has not consented to it or realising that there is a real risk or possibility that the other person may not have consented to it, shall be guilty of aggravated indecent assault and liable to the same penalty as is provided for rape.”

Section 67 goes on to add that “any female person who commits upon a female person any act involving physical contact that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act, other than any act involving the penetration of any part of the other female person’s body or of her own body; with indecent intent and knowing that the other person has not consented to it or realising that there is a real risk or possibility that the other person may not have consented to it, shall be guilty of indecent assault and liable to a fine not exceeding level seven or imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years or both.”

Even though the Supreme Law of the Land includes clauses on fair treatment for all, regardless of age, race, religion, sex, and so on, it is silent in instances of (unfair) discrimination on the grounds of one’s sexual orientation.

It is all these instances, coupled with the anti-gay rhetoric from leaders such as Cde Robert Mugabe, that make the environment hostile and unsafe for LGBTQI+ folks. And, if one’s introduction to any trait that defies (cis)heteronormativity is that it is sinful, immoral, symptomatic of a mental illness or unAfrican, it is no wonder that many resort to bottling that part of their identity. And that is unhealthy because living a double life can take its emotional toll on an individual. 

In line with the teacher union’s intentions of making institutions safe for LGBTQI+ students, Dr Hovelmeier’s move proves to be a step in the right direction. Coupled with the commendable reaction from the school authorities, this will make it easier for the school to confront queerphobia and for any LGBTQI+ students to be themselves, without fear of any harassment. Embracing diversity will also make it easier for the institutions to ensure that their curriculum is inclusive and affirming.

The erasure of LGBTQI+ issues from any curriculum that includes learnings on sexuality only exacerbates the struggle faced by LGBTQI+ students.

Learning institutions do not operate in a vacuum. People with different beliefs come together in that setting and those beliefs influence how they relate to one another. Those beliefs are often translated into policies informing how such institutions are run. Some of those beliefs permeate the curriculum and are thus further reinforced in the developing minds of students. Our beliefs around human difference and our beliefs around sexuality are not exempted. It is careless, therefore, for anyone to suggest that people who come out as gay in schools, should “keep their private lives away from children”. As a matter of fact, it is ignorant since students already have classes in which they discuss such issues. It is only unfortunate that it has been the norm that such discussions around sex and sexuality have focused only on heterosexuality.

File picture. Swazi Pride. Photo: Dane Armstrong

The erasure of LGBTQI+ issues from any curriculum that includes learnings on sexuality only exacerbates the struggle faced by LGBTQI+ students. The foundations of heteronormativity are only strengthened, and harassment of any students based on their real or perceived sexuality may even continue unabated. In fact, it may even be encouraged through the overt expression, by teachers or authority figures, of intolerant beliefs around same gender relationships.

A teacher living their truth is them sending a message to children struggling with their sexuality that they are not alone.

Therefore, a teacher coming out about their sexuality is so important because it shakes those foundations. A teacher living their truth is them challenging society to evaluate the way we think about sexuality and to re-evaluate what we teach children about the feelings they may be experiencing. A teacher living their truth is them sending a message to children struggling with their sexuality that they are not alone and there is someone who will understand their struggle should they ever need someone to confide in. Any LGBTQI+ individual will tell you what a world of difference it makes having a non-judgemental person to turn to for support in a society that continues to condemn our existence. That person, whether they are queer or not, becomes a much-needed safe space.

Being gay does not mean that the deputy head will be preying on the young boys at St John’s College, as some respondents have intimated. Doing so would be tantamount to paedophilia, which has no correlation, in any way, with homosexuality. After all, sexual orientation involves the romantic, emotional and/or sexual attraction between consenting adults, not children.

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