By Gift Phiri
The deputy head of one of the country’s most sought-after top private schools, St John’s College in Harare, has ignited a perfect storm in a society well-known for its homophobic tendencies after he publicly revealed to students that he is gay.
The elite institution comprises two all-boys wings — St John’s Preparatory School and St John’s College — both of which are independent day schools located in the leafy capital city suburb of Borrowdale.
Neal Hovelmeier — the second-in-charge of the private school’s senior wing — told cheering students yesterday that he had been inspired to come out of the shadows and to openly declare his sexual orientation by the learners.
His coming out, which followed media enquiries about his sexual orientation earlier this week — after frenzied speculation and a flurry of complaints from some parents — received mixed responses from the school’s stakeholders.
After addressing students in the school’s packed hall yesterday, Hovelmeier later released a press statement confirming that he was indeed proudly gay.
Although Zimbabwe’s current Constitution still prohibits same-sex marriage, it is silent on gay relations.
Some parents who spoke to the Daily News yesterday praised Hovelmeier’s “honesty” in the matter — adding that it had also sent a powerful message “of acceptance and hope” to students who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
However, other parents who oppose gay rights were left fuming, saying “homosexuality should not be a subject of discussion in the nation’s schools”.
Some parents also said that they were now fearful of the potential of their children either being introduced to homosexuality or suffering abuse.
A statement that was later issued by the school’s headmaster Cav Trinci and his deputy A Sakala supported Hovelmeier.
“This morning an extraordinary, plenary assembly was called at the college. At this assembly, a statement was delivered by one of our members of staff … Hovelmeier, of impeccable credentials.
“He is a man of complete integrity and whose record, over many years at this fine college of ours, is unimpeachable.
“It suffices for … Sakala and I to say that this College Campus is a place where diversity is embraced and a safe and caring environment is provided for ALL persons regardless of race, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, abilities or disabilities or any other real or perceived difference,” the statement said.
“We both strongly believe that the majority of members of our community are made up of people of tolerance and people who are respectful of others, and progressive enough to embrace this diversity within our constituency,” it added.
While for many years homosexuality was a dismissable offence in schools, and gay educators were at pains to hide their sexual orientation, it has increasingly been tolerated and embraced in some schools.
In his statement, Hovelmeier, said: “This morning, with the support of the headmaster … Trinci, fellow deputy headmaster, … Sakala, and the chairman of the board of governors, … Msipa, I made an address to the students and faculty in which I made a declaration of my sexuality.
“I have always been an intensely private individual but in recent years as I have discharged my duties as head of 6th Form, I have become increasingly aware that a number of former students who gain the confidence after school to pursue their chosen orientation have reported back to me experiencing an environment of intolerance, intimidation and homophobia while they were at school”.
He added that he “felt increasingly troubled by the fact that we as an institution have never openly dealt with trying to curb homophobic behaviour and, equally, failed to provide a safe learning experience for students who may identify as being gay or bisexual to truly flourish and feel accepted”.
“I simply feel and believe that as an educator, I will be able to better address and advance this issue if I am prepared to be fully open and transparent about it myself.
“I also believe that it is integral to my own sense of personal integrity and professionalism that I deal with all students and stakeholders in an open and transparent manner. My only regret is that I did not make this disclosure earlier. I can assure you that at all times, I will continue to discharge my duties with the levels of professionalism I have endeavoured at all times to uphold,” Hovelmeier said.
“I have been very heartened and grateful for the truly overwhelming levels of support shown to me by students and staff alike, even in the short time since I addressed the school this morning,” he added.
But some of the parents who called the Daily News were apoplectic with fury, with a few of them saying that they planned to confront the school and to protest what had happened.
“This is simply unacceptable and they (the school) didn’t consult us on this outrage. They should be hanging their heads in shame for such a thing,” one of the parents said.
“We have always suspected that he is gay … This is not good considering that this is an all-boys school. I can’t accept this,” another parent said.
Yet another miffed parent said: “In my biblical beliefs, they can go straight to hell”.
Interestingly, many of the students at the school appeared to have embraced Hovelmeier, as well as the school’s tolerance towards homosexuality.
One of the students said if any of their parents attempted “to roll back the school’s policy of tolerance, we will embark on a peaceful counter-protest”.
Another student was even more robust in his response, saying the parents who were opposed to Hovelmeier were “backward-thinking” and that their message of intolerance was “a disgrace”.
The St John’s College developments come as Zimbabwe’s gays and lesbians have recently welcomed the possibility of the ruling Zanu PF finally embracing gay rights.
Gays and Lesbians Association (Galz) director Chester Samba told a news conference two months ago that his organisation had approached top Zanu PF officials whom he claimed understood them better than the country’s former leader, Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe used to characterise homosexuality as “un-African”, a practice he believed was unnatural and “degrades human dignity” — asserting further that “there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs”.
Zimbabwe’s first post-independence president Canaan Banana was accused of being a homosexual, and was eventually jailed for sodomy.
Banana, a former Methodist minister who died in November 2003, was found guilty in 1999 of 11 counts of sodomy and abusing his power to sexually assault and carry out “unnatural acts” with men, most of whom were among his presidential staff.
However, Banana insisted until he passed on that he was not a homosexual, saying that the accusations against him were part of a “malicious vendetta” to destroy him. Daily News