By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Sept 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - President Robert Mugabe says people like Takunda Amina are "worse than dogs and pigs" - so daily life as a gay man in Zimbabwe was never going to be easy.
At 24, Amina has already been chased from his family home, forced to marry - twice - and fathered three children who ask him tough questions about sex and sexuality.
He has been vilified in the national press - snapped at a gay party - and rejected as a disgrace by his parents. Not even the best spiritual healers could 'cure' Amina of being gay.
"I'm a single father of three and a male sex worker," Amina told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He also chairs Male Sex Workers in Zimbabwe, a lobby group with 300 members that helps economically disadvantaged gay men.
Amina has no such need as he boasts a huge customer base and says he does not need to visit nightclubs or roam the streets for work; his clients simply phone him when they want sex.
On a good day, Amina said he makes $150, with most of his clients employed as business and legal executives.
Amina said he was forced to take up sex work as Zimbabwe's fractured economy had rendered so many young men jobless.
But prostitution is not without risks.
"At times, I get violent clients who refuse to pay me after giving them services, and others insist on unprotected sex, but I have learnt to let such clients go because I have to live on."
Amina was born in Kadoma, a mining town in Zimbabwe's Mashonaland west province, and knew as a young boy that he was attracted to other boys.
"I have always known that I was different, but I didn't really know that I was gay; at the age of 11, that's when I knew that I was attracted to other boys. At first I thought I was alone, but my other friends gave me a clear picture of who really I was - gay," Amina said.
It was in 2011 when his secret came out, after Amina's father caught his son and then-lover together at a party.
Spiritual healers were engaged in a desperate bid to change him and his sexuality.
"The more my family took me to prophets and traditional healers, the more gay I became. They (my family) thought I had a spiritual challenge," said Amina.
When photographs of Amina at a gay party appeared in the local press a year later, his father could take it no more.
Amina was thrown out of the family home in disgrace - a fate typical for many gays and lesbians in conservative Zimbabwe.
"Most families are not yet accepting siblings or children or other family members who are attracted to the same sex due to strong cultural and religious beliefs," Sylvester Nyamatendedza, of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, an organisation that advocates for equal rights.
The group launched 27 years ago with some 70 members. Now it has about 7,120, according to its director, Chesterfield Samba.
Researchers say Zimbabwe's media fuels homophobia, echoing Mugabe's belief that homosexuality "degrades human dignity. It's unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs."
Mugabe has characterised homosexuality as "un-African" and many journalists duly report gay stories with hostility.
"The state media in particular, which publishes stories of the anti-gay ruling party politicians often attacking and castigating gays, has made life miserable for gays and lesbians, who then consequently suffer at the hands of politicians' anti-gay rhetoric," said Mlondolozi Ndlovu, a researcher in media and society studies at Zimbabwe's Midlands State University.
Zimbabwe's 2013 constitution prohibits same-sex marriage but is silent on gay relations.
Laws criminalising homosexuality in Zimbabwe carry penalties of up to three years in jail, and police often arrest gays, then set them free without bringing charges.
Amina said his parents have backed off now he has had children, although they still ask when he will next wed.
"I tell them, my parents, that my children are still young and I will think of remarrying after they are grown up," said Amina, who rents an apartment with his boyfriend.
Fearing victimisation, they hide their sexuality, though he says it is harder to keep it secret from his young children, who watch cartoon gays and lesbians depicted on television.
"I have a good relationship with my children; I don't want my sexuality to affect them in any way. They do see some similarities of me on television and ask me questions, but I just give any excuse to brush them aside," Amina said.
As for the future, experts say much lies in the hands of Zimbabwe's powerful religious leaders.
"Inclusive and affirming faith leaders in Zimbabwe can open their congregants' minds to new and contextualised interpretations of the bible. This widespread belief that scripture is inherently homophobic doesn't hold up when you look at the text in its entirety and with an open mind," said Brian Pellot of Religion News and Religion News Foundation in South Africa, which tracks spiritual and ethical news worldwide.
For now, discrimination is the norm for men like Amina, in a nation where gays are compared unfavourably to farm animals.
"Every day is sad for me, but at the end of the day, I want to be treated like a citizen of this country - regardless of my sexuality," said Amina.
(Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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