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South African Gay Chef Cancels Zimbabwe Visit Amid Protests

FILE - People wave gay pride flagsfrom a double-decker bus during an annual Gay Pride march in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sept. 30, 2006. South Africa is seen as the most tolerant country on the African continent when it comes to LGBT rights.

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A trendy Zimbabwean restaurant has reopened but without an appearance by a South African gay celebrity following complaints by a group of conservative churches and ruling party members.

The cancellation of a visit by TV celebrity Somizi Mhlongo highlights the discrimination that members of the LGBTI community face “on a daily basis” in Zimbabwe where homophobia runs high, a rights group said Friday.

Members of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s youth wing and the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe vowed to block an appearance by Mhlongo. Owners of the restaurant have remained mum on the matter.

Mhlongo, who hosts gourmet restaurant events in South Africa and is a judge on the “Idols South Africa” TV show, announced he would not travel to Zimbabwe.

“The truth of the matter is that there are people in Zimbabwe who don’t want me to come based on my sexuality, they have made it clear,” he said in a post on Instagram. Instead he attended an event in neighboring Namibia on Thursday night.

Zimbabwe has a history of discriminating against and harassing LGBTI people, with former President Robert Mugabe once describing them as “worse than dogs and pigs” and saying they have no legal rights.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been less vocal against LGBTI people, but hostility from some sections of society remains.

The uproar involving Mhlongo “is not an isolated incident,” said Chester Samba, director of GALZ, an LGBTI rights group.

Discrimination “plays out in a plethora of ways,” he told The Associated Press on Friday.

Sometimes when LGBTI people report crimes such as theft and violence against them, “the police have responded by arresting them rather than the perpetrator — often in the hope of extracting financial gain from the victims by exploiting their fear of exposure,” said Samba.

Members of Zimbabwe's LGBTI community have also faced discrimination when trying to get vaccinated against COVID-19, he said. GALZ has worked to “support the vaccination drive by partnering health service providers to provide services in premises where our communities feel comfortable in accessing these without harassment,” he said.

Debate over the issue has been raging on social media in Zimbabwe. Some people accused the anti-LGBTI groups of hypocrisy by openly associating with religious groups that promote child marriages.

Sex between men is a crime in Zimbabwe that carries a sentence of up to a year in prison and the country's constitution bans same-sex marriages.