Neal Hovelmeier (Pic: Facebook)
What was meant to be an affirming and landmark moment for LGBTIQ people in Zimbabwe has ended in abuse and hate, forcing a teacher to resign after 15 years of exemplary service.
St John’s College teacher Neal Hovelmeier has had to grovel and resign after facing death threats and calls for him to be charged under Zimbabwe’s anti-homosexuality laws.
Last week, Hovelmeier bravely came out to his students at the prestigious Harare school as a powerful statement against bullying and homophobia. Sadly, he himself became the subject of intimidation and widespread homophobic social media attacks.
In a resignation letter to parents on Friday, the teacher thanked those who had supported him since his announcement. At the same time, he admitted, “I had no idea of the force of anger and resentment such a deceleration would make.”
Perhaps faced with no choice, Hovelmeier humiliatingly apologised for “any distress I have caused and the manner in which I acted. I ask for forgiveness and understanding for the magnitude of this insult.”
He went on to reveal that in the past few days “I have unfortunately come under vitriolic attacks… and have been in receipt of death threats as well as threats of physical danger to myself and my pets.
“It has been made very clear to me that certain stakeholders are not prepared under any circumstances to have me remain in my position at St. John, to the extent that they have launched legal challenges, made ultimatums and vowed under any and all circumstances to see me dismissed, even by means of intimidation and the manufacture of fabricated evidence against me.”
He added: “For my own sense of integrity, I will not submit myself to a sham trial… the outcome of which would have already been determined regardless of actual circumstances.”
“It is for this reason and with a very heavy heart, that I have come to realise that my current position as deputy headmaster is now untenable and I hereby tender my resignation with immediate effect,” said Hovelmeier.
“I am an intensely private person and I ask now for the peace to move on in my life in a manner which is free from persecution and which is fair for all citizens.”
After coming out to his students at an assembly last week, Hovelmeier explained that he’d done this in order to “curb homophobic behaviour” and to help ensure “a safe learning environment for students who may identity as being gay or bisexual…”
His actions were initially supported by the school’s headmaster, but the school board soon after came under intense pressure to resign. It’s been reported that an emergency meeting about the issue between furious parents and school officials on Monday degenerated into shouting and almost came to blows.
In a ZimLive poll on Twitter, 52 percent of more than 6,500 respondents, said that they would not be happy “with Hovelmeier teaching your son”. Thirty-six percent said they would, while 12 percent were ‘undecided’.
The furore has shown how far Zimbabwe still has to go when it comes to accepting basic LGBTIQ equality, and highlights the hate that members of this community face. Chester Samba, director of LGBTIQ rights group GALZ, agrees. He told MambaOnline: “I think this backlash is a sad reminder of the very low levels of tolerance that exist in Zimbabwean society.”
Zimbabwe’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.