Neal Hovelmeier (Pic: Facebook)
A heroic teacher has caused a firestorm in Zimbabwe after he came out as gay to his students at a top Harare private school.
Neal Hovelmeier is the deputy head of the sixth form at the prestigious St John’s College, which was previously attended by Robert Mugabe’s sons.
According to local media, Hovelmeier stood up in assembly and told the all-boys school that he is gay, reportedly to cheers from the students.
In a letter to parents on Friday, the teacher confirmed his coming out. He said that while he’d always been am “intensely private” individual, he’d become aware that some gay students had experienced “an environment of intolerance, intimidation and homophobia” at the school.
“I have 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 environment for students who may identity as being gay or bisexual to truly flourish and feel accepted,” Hovelmeier wrote.
He explained that in order to deal with the issue he felt he had to be “fully and open and transparent about it myself.”
Hovelmeier continued: “I also believe that it is integral to my own sense of integrity and professionalism that I deal with all students and stakeholders in an open and transparent manner.”
He added: “My only regret is that I did not make this disclosure earlier.”
The school’s headmaster, Cav C. Trinci, and deputy headmaster, A Sakala, also sent a letter to parents, firmly backing Hovelmeier’s coming out and his character. “He is a man of complete integrity and whose record, over many years at this fine College of ours, is unimpeachable,” said the officials.
The headmasters also affirmed the school’s commitment to providing a safe and caring environment for “ALL persons, regardless of race, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, abilities or disabilities or any other real or perceived ‘difference’.”
Chester Samba, director of LGBTQ rights group GALZ, applauded Hovelmeier. “It must have been a very difficult decision for him to make and for that l have huge respect for him,” Samba told MambaOnline.
“Instead of judging and castigating him, he needs all the support right now. It is not easy for professionals to come out in extremely homophobic societies like Zimbabwe.
“I think his biggest challenge began the moment he came out and for that I respect his bravery in setting an example for others that might be in similar situations or circumstances,” said Samba.
Zimbabwe has been a traditionally hostile country for LGBTQ people. Under homophobic former President Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule, members of Zimbabwe’s LGBTQ community were subjected to ongoing abuse and crackdowns.
The country’s 2013 Constitution bans same-sex marriage but does otherwise provide protections of civil liberties and human rights, at least in theory. Laws criminalising homosexuality, with penalties of up to three years in jail, remain on the statute books and have yet to be challenged in court as unconstitutional.