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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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?'"