Discover more from Open Secrets
Out and About in Zambia
Of many scary things that have happened to me, this has by far been the scariest.
I was dressed in my sneakers, shorts, and fanny pack; the only thing missing was a handmade placard because I’d made a last-minute decision to attend the Lusaka Women’s March 2023. I tried to think of a good alternative for a placard; it needed to speak volumes about both my identity and the violence women face in this country. I spotted a tiny rainbow flag on my dressing room table and grabbed that.
As a queer woman who has been raped and threatened with rape, what better article would represent me other than a rainbow flag? I was a little anxious about it but I told myself it was only a tiny flag. My intentions were simple: to march for all women, including women like me.
And so I showed up. I marched. I sang. I chanted. I danced. It was magical.
We screamed slogans like “It’s a dress, not a yes” and “My body, my choice” and my personal favorite, “Keep your laws off my body.”
I spotted a few other people with flags; they made me feel like I was not alone, like I was seen.
The energy was electric. Hundreds of women and allies marched across great east road of Lusaka, taking a stance and expressing how exhausted and tired we were of experiencing sexual gender-based violence (SGBV).
Everyone was taking and posting tons of pictures and videos, eager to let the whole world know why we were marching.
In less than 24 hours, what was meant to be highlighted and seen as a Women’s March against SGBV was twisted and painted as a Pride March by the Zambian tabloids. My heart hurt; everyone knows how, other than alcohol and football, one other thing that unites Zambians is homophobia. Post after post went up in different media sources spreading misinformation about the events of the previous day. None of these “credible journalists” were fact checking or reporting on the true nature of the event.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
I have been outed to my family, threatened by randoms of the internet, and have received fake screenshots saying the police are investigating me, but nothing can beat the range of emotions I felt seeing my face plastered on a public figure’s social media accounts holding a rainbow flag.
I live in Zambia, a beautiful landlocked country in the southern part of Africa, vast in minerals and natural resources, occupied by mostly friendly people. It sounds peaceful but, in my reality, I cannot wait to leave this country because I’m tired of feeling unsafe and being treated like a third-class citizen.
I belong to a minority group that is constantly used as a tool for political gain or simply a hot topic to stir things up when people are bored. The inference is always the same, every day: We stand for human rights but not for the LGBT community, we are one Zambia, one nation, minus the LGBT community, we should allow people to be themselves so they can be happy except…do you get it now?
The people here do not accept anything to do with the LGBTQI+ community. Some of this attitude stems from ignorance. I don’t entirely blame them because a lot of people in my country are illiterate, but what I cannot stand is when people use religion, biology, culture, or legality to defend their stance.
A person will say being gay is a sin. But how can a religion that prides itself on the foundation of love equate loving another human being—yes, even of the same sex—with a sin? The religious aspect upsets me even more because the Christians in this country cherry-pick which parts of the Bible they will follow and which parts they will ignore.
My country people are promiscuous; we fornicate and commit adultery. We are also a bunch of functioning alcoholics, but there are no laws policing individuals’ sexual appetites outside of marriage, nor how we slowly poison our bodies week in, week out with alcohol and shisha. It’s also common knowledge how the people in power constantly steal from us and how we are so quick to throw in money for a “drink” or “lunch” when we are caught on the wrong end of the law. All these wrongs in the eyes of religion, and yet the same forgiveness is never given to anyone who identifies as LGBT or speaks out for LGBT people.
A person will say it’s unnatural and wrong to have sex that way. But why are you so concerned with how another person has sex, with what they do with their own body? Why does it only matter when it is two gay people, while heterosexual people privately enjoy having sex the way they want to, even in that very same “unnatural” way.
The person will further argue that it is an abomination because LGBT people cannot procreate. This reveals their lack of intelligence because whatever your sexual orientation, unless you have reproductive issues, you can procreate. Sex may be important for reproduction, but it’s also simply an act of pleasure. Not all heterosexual people have sex to reproduce; if they did why would we need condoms, the pill or abortion? Why should the LGBT community carry the burden of procreation when they can reproduce if they want to?
A person will say homosexuality isn’t part of our culture. It’s “unAfrican.” But what basis of Africanism do people use to justify that people living in Africa, born African and from African descent, do not qualify to be African simply because they love differently? The history of our continent and this country point to the fact that queer people have existed and been accepted as an important part of our culture for centuries. But you know what they say about Africans: “If you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book.” True African culture has always been diverse, inclusive and promoted acceptance, but we don’t know that because we never want to read, research or unlearn anything. We believe whatever we have been taught is the truth.
A person will say it’s illegal to be gay in Zambia. This is a common misconception because our laws only point to sexual acts being illegal. Nothing in our penal code or constitution speaks to the criminalization of anyone who identifies as queer, but people will still quote a specific statute to defend their stance. The homophobic law we cling to so tightly was brought here by the British. If you look at the map showing where LGBT people are criminalized in Africa, you’ll notice the common denominator is that most of them are British colonies. If only Zambia gained her independence after the British repealed the law that speaks to “sex against the order of nature,” maybe then we wouldn’t be here.
A person, if they aren’t able to express their thoughts well enough or realize you may have raised accurate points, will resort to slanderous, hurtful insults, words that make you hate yourself and question your existence. Some things they say make you too afraid to step out into the world and be your authentic self. So badly you find yourself hiding parts of your identity that deserve to be free.
I’ve seen many situations were queer people settle down with straight people just to be accepted. Some still mess around on the down low, while others opt to eventually divorce because the lies consume them. In some cases, people take their own lives. We preach mental health matters, but we watch and sometimes laugh as we see homophobes drag anyone different on social media, hiding behind their keypads and keyboards, saying the most hateful things. Even if they wouldn’t act on what they say, their hate can be felt through the screen and is enough to fuel someone else brave enough to resort to violence.
The hatred doesn’t end with words. There is fuel and there are flames. Some people will find you and hurt you, either with direct physical infliction of pain, or coming through your job or means of survival, just to see you suffer. All this simply for being different.
They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. I believe I experienced something similar. Thoughts raced through my mind: Would my family would turn a blind eye to everything, ostracize me for embarrassing them publicly, or offer comfort and support? I thought of the implications at work: Would they treat me differently or accuse me of tarnishing their brand and let me go? I thought of my partner: Did I put her at higher risk, especially since she’s less straight passing than me? I thought of the raging homophobia growing in the country. Would I have a target on my back? Would the death threats and rape threats become more real?
Of many scary things that have happened to me, this has by far been the scariest.
Katherine King is a black feminist and activist in Zambia who fights for LGBTQI rights and women empowerment. She believes in standing up for what is right and refuses to condone any form of discrimination. She uses her social media platforms to enlighten people on the struggles of LGBTQI persons in Zambia, most of which come from a personal perspective. She recently ventured into writing. Apart from her full-time job, she volunteers at various non-profit organizations.
Open Secrets is a reader-supported publication for memorable, revealing personal essays. To receive new posts, support our work, and help us continue to publish, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.