Online communities, safe spaces for LGBTI persons

Online communities, safe spaces for LGBTI persons

Date: May 15, 2020
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By Andile Tshuma

Bulawayo, 30 April: While freedom of movement has often been taken for granted, people are starting to appreciate small things about life in the era of lockdowns.

The raging covid-19 has forced countries to effect lockdowns which have seen people being confined to their homes. While the move to confine people to homes in an attempt to avert the spread of the virus, confinement has begun to exhibit its own evils such as Gender based violence, intimate partner violence, suicides, stress and depression among others.

Multiple groups in society are vulnerable in such situations and confinement makes matters worse, due to their different demographics.

With lockdowns in place, people are cut off from support structures and forced to remain under lockdown in hostile spaces.

In Zimbabwe, the LGBTIQ community is particularly in trouble as LGBTIQ relationships and marriages are outlawed. Even when all things are normal, the LGBTI Community faces a plethora of challenges in the country, but with the lockdowns brought about by Covid-19, life gets much more unbearable.

When people are confined tampers flare, fights can get violent but not everyone can rush to the police and get help. Being in that relationship is criminalised in itself. When there is lockdown, options are limited.

It therefore becomes a challenge for the LGBTIQ community to get help when they need it. Domestic violence is not limited to heterosexual relationships and can affect individuals of all sexual orientations and genders. Within the LGBTIQ community, intimate partner violence occurs at a rate equal to or even higher than that of the heterosexual community, but is just less reported.

One of the most traumatic experiences in life can be encountered at the hands of loved ones and many people are unfortunate to have to endure insults, beatings or even rape from the people they love.

Intimate partner violence continues to plague society although numerous efforts have been made to rid society of the vice. While a lot of resources and platforms are available for heterosexual couples to seek help when they encounter Gender-Based Violence, very few places in Zimbabwe are LGBTIQ-friendly considering homosexuality is generally frowned upon in various sectors of society.

While a recent landmark ruling by Justice Francis Bere on the rights of transgender people in the country has raised hope of a possible dialogue on minority rights in the country, access to places of safety and counselling remain limited for some victims of violence, due to issues including orientation, and the Covid-19 situation has worsened matter as LGBTI people are not able to access safe spaces.

The queer community in Zimbabwe has long been resilient and has had a distinctive ability to thrive even under the moist challenging circumstances.

When people call these vital helplines, they are look for a sympathetic ear, a non-judgemental listener and such services are important especially if someone is in the presence of hostile housemates.

Although LGBTIQ organisations’ offices and other friendly centres were closed as they were not granted the essential service status to remain operational during the covid-19 period, communities still needed support and support lines needed to keep running if not more than ever. As people go back to work in the first week of May maybe LGBTI organisations will also open.

Regional Coordinator of the Gays and Lesbians Zimbabwe (GALZ) Teddy Munyimani in an interview said efforts were being made to bridge the communication gap between members during the lockdown.

“Some members of the LGBTI Community stay with hostile family members and communities, therefore being locked down in such living arrangements presents challenges in its own,” said Munyimani.

Cain from Nketa suburb in Bulawayo said spending the day at home was a challenge due to the homophobic nature of his family and said his only source of joy was the digital platforms where he said he felt safe as a gay man.

“I had gotten used to the life of just going home to sleep. I spend the day, with friends, at the park or at a library or at the studio. I don’t have enough money to afford an apartment of my own, so I still stay with my family. I came out to them about my sexual orientation hoping that they will accept me as I am but it has been years and they just cannot accept it. Some days are better than others. When my mother decides, she dies nit eve leave food fir me and most if the times when she is on that mood, I cannot even sit and watch television with everyone else in the house. I just have to go to my room and sleep,’ said Cain.

One survivor of intimate partner violence who identified himself only as Sean from Bulawayo said the move to take counselling and helpline sessions online by GALZ during the lockdown had been helpful as he had gotten help following a violent encounter with his boyfriend.

“I have been fighting with my boyfriend. He thinks I am bisexual and does not want me to have any female friends. So, since we have been spending a lot of time together indoors, I have been talking to my female friends a lot and that has not been going down well with hi to a point when he assaulted me at some point. I sought the intervention of GALZ and got counselling online. they also reached out to my partner and while things are nit yet at their best, we are definitely way better and GALZ officers have been checking on us and it has been helpful,” said Sean.

Lina, a lesbian woman who has had to move to cheaper accommodation in townships said she lives with the daily threat of ‘corrective rape’ as her community feels she is possessed and can be saved by sexual encounter with a man, and says the lockdown situation has made it worse.

“I spend my evenings after work in the club, and would go to the flat most if the time to sleep. Rentals went up and I had to move to cheaper accommodation in the township. I am not free. The youths have threatened to assault me. The men say I behave like a man because I have not been in bed with a real man and such sexual threats made me fear staying in this place. Having to be here 24/7 is not helping. I have to share the same shops, go to the same vendors for vegetables and I cannot escape inti my safe world on the other side of town. It is not easy,” they said.

“I always have to keep my guard. Being confined sucks as my family does not know about my other identity yet so its 24 hours of pretending to be something I am not. Sitting all day listening to their hate speech about LGBTI people they see on TV is depressing. But I find solace in the online LGBTI community which sometimes helps me temporarily forget the realities of my existence,” she said.

Due to discrimination and inequality, LGBTI people are significantly more susceptible to mental health issues.

Moving back into unsafe spaces and staying fir long periods of time where they have to retreat to their shells, go back inti the closet and stay there for weeks on end, or months, or rather indefinitely as they are f8rced to be share the same living spaces with hostile family members.

They endure the loss of being able to socialise with supportive queer friendly friends and allies.

Digital spaces have become a lifeline for the LGBTI community, particularly the youth and advocacy and peer outreach work are taking place online now more than ever before.

GALZ director Chester Samba in a statement said their organisation had commit itself to availing services to members and described the services as crucial and critical to the wellbeing of members.

“Sadly, we have recorded and responded to a number if cases around the country of intimate partner violence, gender based violence, homophobia. with members having been locked at homes where their being is not affirmed, is mentally troubling people and unfortunately the restrictions limit them from accessing safe spaces. Interventions put in place to ensure members are safe during lockdown,’ said Samba.

Samba said efforts were also being made to counter fake news around Covid19 with factual information for the benefit of members and the generality of communities.

“Considering this as very distressful time, where misinformation has taken over the space, we have in place constantly updated accurate information through various virtual platforms. In addition we have in place hotline which members can use in case of distress and a rapid response team to intervene according on case by case basis. Our qualified professional counsellors are available to offer telephone related counselling sessions which are equally as good as physical sessions,” said Samba.

In an interview recently, Munyimani said it was important for people to realise that intimate partner violence was not synonymous with heterosexual relationships but cut across all forms of relations.

“Violence in same sex relationships is caused by the same factors as those in heterosexual relationships. Power, patriarchy, substance abuse, a nature of violence, finances, insecurity and other issues are causes of violence and conflict in same sex relationships just like they are present in heterosexual relationships,” said Munyimani.

Munyimani said stigma and blackmail continued to plague same sex relationships, which has worsened with the threat of Covid-19.

“Some people have been chased out of their rented homes after property owners discovered that they were same sex couples. So the stigma is a factor that really can cause a rift in couples, especially when one wants to keep the relationship a secret while the other wants to be open about it. We have hotlines and counselling services which our members can and are making use of,” said Munyimani.

Andile Tshuma is a journalist from Zimbabwe. This story is part of the GL News sevice , Gender and COVID 19 news series.


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