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But the real question is why do feminists want marriage?
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The issue of same-sex marriage has sparked an impassioned debate. Asked if she would marry if she could, this author takes a long hard look at the institution and herself.

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Ms. goes behind the hype of assisted reproductive technologies.
When it comes to fertility treatments, gender makes all the difference.

Her immediate family fled Germany before being swept up in the Holocaust, but they forever mourned the loved ones who didn't survive and the life they'd once shared.

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BORN: August 3, 1967, Harare, Zimbabwe
RESIDES: Marondera, Zimbabwe
ACTIVIST: Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ)

Tsitsi tiripano never intended to become an icon of Zimbabwe's gay rights movement. In fact, she learned the word "lesbian" only after she fled a forced marriage, and her father, who arranged it, took away her two sons. Initially, for Tiripano, who she loved wasn't a political issue. But in 1993, she became the first black woman to join Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), then a virtually all-white and all-male organization, which is now mostly black and the nation's only gay activist group. Through her dogged determination to be herself, this 32-year-old woman with a seventh-grade education has become an international spokesperson and role model in a country where the president considers homosexuality a white man's disease.

Racial tensions were brewing in Zimbabwe long before its liberation from Britain in 1980. Whites make up less than 2 percent of the 11.2 million people yet own more than two thirds of the fertile farmland, and this colonialist legacy stokes the mutual distrust between blacks and whites. Predictably, Tiripano's community frowned on her decision to join the predominantly white GALZ. "People said, 'Are you mad?'" she remembers. "They thought I wanted money from white people." In GALZ, however, Tiripano finally found a refuge after years of harassment from family and strangers alike. The group's weekly parties provided an alternative to the nightclubs and bars where gays were routinely disparaged, and she relished new friendships. But then her private life became public and Tiripano unwittingly became an activist.

President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler since independence, launched a vicious homophobic campaign when his government banned GALZ from Zimbabwe's International Book Fair in 1995. Calling homosexuals "sodomites and perverts," Mugabe declared gays had "no rights at all." The following year, GALZ's application to participate in the fair was again rejected, prompting the group to take the government to court. GALZ won, and Tiripano attended the book fair, distributing GALZ pamphlets even as the government filed an appeal. While there, a throng of students pelted her and a colleague with fruit, then destroyed their stand as the police passively looked on. The next day, her photograph accompanied newspaper reports of the incident, and Tiripano was "outed." When she returned home to Marondera, an hour from the capital of Harare, another angry mob met her, waving placards and clenched fists. Tiripano was forced to retreat to the capital until the furor settled, but she soon emerged on the world stage as GALZ's most prominent ambassador, representing it at international gay rights conferences and Amnesty International-sponsored tours. Tsitsi Tiripano is a pseudonym she chose in order to speak freely and have her words published without having to worry about Mugabe's government tracing the stories and retaliating. Tiripano uses it still, because it is how she is known internationally, though she no longer hides her real name, Poliyana Mangwiro. Sitting in Amnesty International's New York headquarters last March, the day before a three-week speaking tour in 11 U.S. cities, she translates the pseudonym in a soft, confident voice. "Tsitsi means 'mercy,' tiripano means 'we're here.'" She pauses. "Everyone must have mercy with gays and lesbians because we're here."

Tiripano grew up the oldest of four children in a small Shona village in Manicaland, a northern Zimbabwean province. The Shona, who make up 71 percent of Zimbabwe's population, practice polygamy and value women for their ability to procreate. Tiripano never went past the seventh grade because her father refused to pay the tuition, saying that girls are not worth the investment. "A woman's wealth depends on her husband," she explains. In 1982, at 15, Tiripano became the second wife to a man 40 years her senior. She shudders remembering. "My father came into my room one morning and said, 'You no longer live here. Go stay with Mr. Shamu.'" Despite her protests he was unyielding: "That's where you belong now. You must go today."

Tiripano cried for many reasons, but leaving her girlfriend brought the most tears. "We met during the liberation in 1979. We were comrades and stayed in the same barracks. And then we started kissing . . ." She interrupts the sentence with a big laugh. "I was so jealous--I didn't want other girls to come near her." At that point, Tiripano didn't know what being gay meant. "There's a Shona word, ngochani, which means 'gay.' I remember wondering, what does an ngochani look like? He must stay in the mountains."

During her first year of marriage, Tiripano gave birth to a son but considered sex with her husband a loathsome chore, one she often refused. "I was more interested in my husband's first wife!" she says, smiling. "All the time, I was pushing to sleep with her." Her husband complained to Tiripano's father, who forced her to see a traditional healer. "If you don't want to have sex with your husband," she says, "they think something is wrong and take you to be cured." The healer had her bathe in an herbal mixture, as if, she says, "I could wash [my lesbianism] away."

Tiripano wasn't "cured," and so, pregnant with her second son, she fled to Breaside, a small town near Harare, where she stayed with a friend and sold vegetables to feed her family. Two years later, her father tracked her down and demanded that she return to her husband. When she refused, he took the boys, a prerogative sanctioned by patriarchal customs. "He thought I would teach them to be gay," she sighs. Ironically, Tiripano didn't even know the word "lesbian" until she met a drag queen and his boyfriend in 1988 while living in Harare. "I told them that my partner was a woman, and they said, 'So you're a lesbian?'" They gave Tiripano a GALZ pamphlet and, she says, "My head popped. I said, 'You mean, there are women like me?'"

From 1995 to 1997, GALZ members were constantly harassed by the police, politicians, and the public. State-run newspapers refused to carry GALZ ads yet published letters from readers who denounced homosexuality as immoral. Zimbabwe's Catholic Church fanned the antigay fires when the bishop's newsletter referred to homosexuality as a "disorder." Tiripano, an ex-Catholic, rolls her eyes at that. "I used to go to church," she says, "but when they said, 'Homosexuality is condemned by God,' I said, 'Fuck off,' and stayed home."

A newly politicized Tiripano did, however, want to join activist organizations beyond GALZ, but she encountered homophobia there, too. "Other NGOs said we [GALZ members] should go to the psychiatric unit to be cured," she says. Even Amnesty had trouble finding backing in the region. Tor Olsen, Amnesty's London-based researcher for southern Africa, explains, "Political partners were saying, 'We support the issues, but not publicly. It'll damage our image.'" Tiripano has since joined Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), a pan-African women's rights network. But here, too, her sexuality has become an issue. GALZ Program Manager Keith Goddard says, "Tsitsi participates every year as a black lesbian in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. But when she tries to sell GALZ T-shirts and put up a stand with GALZ literature, she's told she can't because it will fall foul with the government."

Despite the obvious hardships, many positive things emerged from the 1996 book fair. Amnesty International named Tiripano one of 50 Human Rights Defenders in 1998. International accounts of the book fair helped Tiripano's first girlfriend, now living in Australia, contact her for the first time since they were separated almost 20 years ago. And Tiripano's sons, now 16 and 18, are beginning to understand their mother. Even though Tiripano was able to reconnect with her sons (and her father) in 1988, it was only after the 1996 book fair that she and her children could honestly discuss her sexual identity. "They asked so many questions," Tiripano says. "'Mom, what's a lesbian?' 'Why do the police want to put you in jail?' 'Did you steal something?' It took me time to explain. One day, they finally asked, 'Is Auntie Zandele [Tiripano's girlfriend of four years] gay, too?'"

Tiripano has received thousands of letters of support from all around the world. GALZ has also benefited from her exposure. An Internet fund-raising campaign allowed the group to open a center in Harare that offers counseling, legal services, an HIV/AIDS support group, and a hot line. The weekly Friday night parties, which began as a social refuge, are now fund-raisers for political programs. Membership, currently 320 strong, is mushrooming, and its impact is rippling into Zimbabwe's heterosexual community. "Last week, a couple came to support their son because he was gay," Tiripano says, amazed. Even more stunning, Tiripano's husband joined GALZ in January. "He told me he is joining GALZ because he supported our tremendous work and appreciated the support we have given his wife," recalls Goddard. Tiripano was flabbergasted. She has remained married to her husband for the sake of the boys, because he pays their tuition. But she can't say when, or why, he had a change of heart.

Tiripano does know, however, that things are getting better for gays in Zimbabwe. Last year GALZ became a member of the National Constitutional Assembly, which was formed by NGOs that lobbied successfully for a new constitution to be voted on by the people, not only parliament. GALZ later submitted a request to the Constitutional Commission--400 Mugabe appointees--to include a sexual orientation clause. Though its request was rejected, GALZ's campaign was covered on state television and radio for the first time. The increased awareness can be felt on the streets. "If Zandele and I are walking," Tiripano says, "people used to whisper 'lesbians,' 'ngochani.'" She hisses the words as if they burn her lips. "But now, they aren't saying anything."

Despite the progress, lesbians and gays are certainly not home free. In 1998, as Mugabe's popularity hit rock bottom, he launched a new witch-hunt. The state-run papers published stories about homosexuals raping men at gunpoint and claimed GALZ was a front for a brothel, which incited public rage. Several GALZ members were harassed, blackmailed, and arrested. Tiripano is unfazed. "If Mugabe shouts, it doesn't change me to become straight," she says. "I've been through too much."

When not traveling, she's at the new GALZ center in Harare at least twice a week, counseling people who are coming to terms with their sexuality, as well as those living with HIV/AIDS. But most important, Tiripano is an inspiration. Goddard explains, "She stood up and said, 'I'm a black lesbian, and I'm not ashamed. I have children, and I'm married, but this is my identity.'"

Liz Welch is a freelance writer living in New York City.


Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009