Nigel: Young. Zimbabwean. Gay.

Nigel James has been living in South Africa since 2014, living on his own and working in Johannesburg. An independent and hardworking soul, Nigel relishes in the fast-paced life there, but he still follows events going on in Zimbabwe, with a particular investment in the resurgence of citizen movements. Despite this desire to contribute, Nigel hasn’t been back to Zimbabwe in three years. And there’s two very good reasons why.

“There’s nothing there (Zimbabwe) for me anymore.”

When the #ThisFlag movement first started, and successive movements followed, Nigel was ready to roll up his sleeves and do whatever he could to do his civic duty, but now, his passion for it has waned. “If I was to go to Harare right now to protest, people are primarily going to judge me,” he explains. Nigel adds that he doesn’t believe that if citizens’ movement succeeds that they will continue to fight for gay rights. “We could get involved, but we’d still be marginalised. We’re always going to be at the bottom of the food chain (when it comes to social justice). They’ll boo us, even though we fight for them and with them.”

Nigel’s experiences with social movements speak to the reality of his life in Zimbabwe. It’s no secret that Zimbabwe is not exactly warm and welcoming when it comes to sexuality. With gay men and lesbians publicly referred to as “pigs and dogs”, to derogatory remarks on social media when the issue of gay rights is raised, homosexuality still remains a taboo subject. For Nigel, the stigma around his sexuality began when he was 6 years old. Although it wasn’t too difficult or hurtful for him at that stage, he was already aware that people would treat him as an other.

It was when he started high school that things got really bad for him. Attending an all-boys school that prides itself in and encourages a culture of hyper-masculinity, Nigel still found others like him, and together they formed a safe haven of sorts. “We always had little ways of finding each other, we had our own little cliques.” However, Nigel’s first real encounter with homophobia came when he was in Form 2. The high school rumour mill kicked into high gear after Nigel and a few other students were called into the prefects’ lounge for questioning. While his peers waited for him outside the prefects room with bats and pieces of broken glass, Nigel remained safe in the prefects lounge, unaware that the situation could get ugly at any moment. He needed prefects to escort him safely to the car park so that he could go home. He was advised by his headmaster not to go to school for a few days, for his own safety.

“There were certain things I couldn’t do anymore because of the stigma.”

From that incident, Nigel says, things got much worse for him. “Going to assembly was a nightmare for me. People would shout offensive things. It was really bad there for some time.” However, there were still moments where he got support from classmates and teachers. He recalls a particular incident where an older student interrupted a maths lesson, jumping into the classroom, pointing at Nigel and screaming “faggot” before running out. The maths teacher immediately ordered that the offender be chased down and punished. It was moments like this that helped Nigel through the rougher periods of high school, and by Form Four, the homophobia had toned down significantly.  However, the stigma still lingered. “There were certain things I couldn’t do anymore because of the stigma: I used to play rugby in Form 1 but I couldn’t anymore.”

It got easier as he got older, and Nigel has no regrets leaving Zimbabwe. Does he still consider Zimbabwe home, and would he return to this home if he had the chance? The answer is a solid no. “Some of us can’t go back and invest there (Zimbabwe) because we are judged. There’s really no winning either way.” For Nigel, decriminalising homosexuality is a start, but it means nothing if people’s attitudes and perceptions stay the same.

However, homophobia is not the primary reason for Nigel’s decision not to come back home.

“We need younger leaders, people who are in touch, people who have drive and hunger.”

The economic situation in Zimbabwe is first and foremost in his mind. “It’s (the economy) going to take years of fixing,” he says, and there’s nothing that would motivate him to return home if things don’t change, and for him, it starts from the top. “There needs to be a change with people in power. We need younger leaders, people who are in touch, people who have the drive and hunger.” Nigel’s biggest problem with Zimbabwe is not the homophobia, but the economy. As a young and energetic citizen, he wants to be in a country where he can grow, achieve, and make a name for himself. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe cannot give him the means to fulfill his plans. “It doesn’t matter if they legalise gay marriage tomorrow, if the economy isn’t fixed, no one’s going to want to move there.”

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