A gay Zimbabwean teacher who was forced to resign from his job after coming out at school said on Friday he fears the debate could cause a fresh backlash against LGBT+ people in the country.
Neal Hovelmeier hoped to open a discussion about tolerance and acceptance, but said the furious backlash from parents and commenters may have left gay students feeling even more afraid to reveal their sexuality.
“In the immediate aftermath I felt very, very positive … I felt it could possibly be a defining moment actually for our school system,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Zimbabwe.
“What I’m saddened to realise is that the country is not in a space where they feel this a discussion that can be tolerated yet.” Zimbabwe considers sex between men an “indecent act“ punishable with a prison term and gay marriage is banned under the 2013 constitution. Widely held conservative views mean that gay people face great stigma.
Hovelmeier created headlines last week when he revealed his sexuality to students during an assembly at the private boys’ school St John’s College in Harare after being told that a newspaper was threatening to ‘out’ him without his consent. Within days he announced he was resigning from the school after an outcry from some parents which he said left his position “untenable“.
A spokesman for St John’s College declined to comment. Hovelmeier said he had hoped to create a space to acknowledge gay students in the Zimbabwean school system who are forced to “live in the shadows” due to a lack of acceptance. “It’s definitely a national issue at schools,” he said.
“There’s very much a machismo environment where boys are encouraged to be very masculine and anything that differs remotely from that social norm is often viewed with a sense of derision.” Although he said there had been a “sense of relief” from many pupils after the assembly, he later realised some parents were not willing to accept an openly gay teacher.
The “strong voices” opposing him probably also left many LGBT+ students feeling they should “be more cautious” about revealing their sexuality, he said. “I am quite apologetic for any offence I have caused but at the same time I believe it is time in this country to have a debate,” he said.
Chester Samba, director of the GALZ association of LGBT+ people in Zimbabwe, said the incident reflected the discrimination many faced.
“It’s an indication of the sad reality that Zimbabwe still has a very low tolerance level when it comes to issues of any minorities,” he said. “There’s a culture of silence [in schools] when it comes to issues of sexual minorities. It’s a difficult environment.”
Hovelmeier has called for schools to include diversity awareness in lessons to help students recognise and accept differences including race, religion and sexuality.
“I am quite astounded to see in this day and age a story of a man coming out at school can cause so much discussion,” he added.
“So if that is a springboard for any kind of further progression on the issue it could be a positive thing.”