AMH is an independent media house free from political ties or outside influence. We have four newspapers: The Zimbabwe Independent, a business weekly published every Friday, The Standard, a weekly published every Sunday, and Southern and NewsDay, our daily newspapers. Each has an online edition.

TikTok activism: how queer Zimbabweans use social media to show love and fight hate

Opinion & Analysis
IN Zimbabwe, there is a long held public view that queerness is “unAfrican” and was imported to Africa from the West. Even though numerous studies have proven this not to be true, reiteration of this lie by the State has led many to believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people cannot be Zimbabwean.

IN Zimbabwe, there is a long held public view that queerness is “unAfrican” and was imported to Africa from the West. Even though numerous studies have proven this not to be true, reiteration of this lie by the State has led many to believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people cannot be Zimbabwean.

Robert Mugabe, the country’s first president, was infamous for his homophobic rhetoric. He often compared gender and sexual minorities to pigs and dogs. Such homophobic utterances reduced the spaces where LGBTIQ+ people could live and express themselves without fear.

In Zimbabwe, same-sex relationships are prohibited and those suspected of engaging in same-sex intimacy can be fined or jailed for up to a year. As a result, queer love is often made fun of, despised or ignored hence queer couples cannot openly express their love.

With public spaces increasingly being closed, LGBTIQ+ people in Zimbabwe have been forced to find alternative avenues to express themselves and to forge communities. This has led to increased visibility in alternative online spaces. These spaces represent a powerful act of resistance, a way for queer Zimbabweans to claim their right to exist and express themselves.

As scholars of queer studies, we examine in our research how LGBTIQ+ Zimbabweans use social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to imagine new ways of being visible.

For six months, we studied six TikTok accounts within a broader netnography, a research approach where online communities are studied. The six accounts represent diverse forms of queer embodiment. They characterise Zimbabwe’s ethnic, linguistic and class diversity.

Our study focused on how content creators use TikTok for activism, challenging homophobia and defying long held ideas about identities. Their voices, amplified by TikTok, are important in rethinking queerness in this southern African country.

Social media for change

As with movements like #MeToo, LGBTIQ+ individuals have used digital technologies to organise and advocate social change. Social media platforms have served as spaces for them to connect, share their stories, create communities and push for their rights.

In Zimbabwe, queer individuals use social media to assert their belonging in the nation by combining the national flag with the LGBTIQ+ symbol of the rainbow flag, symbolising their identity and struggles. Through hashtags like #ThisFlagIsOursToo, they mobilise for the inclusion of queer people in the national narrative.

Although it does not have as many users as Facebook and YouTube, we focused on TikTok because of its unique characteristics. Unlike other platforms, TikTok’s algorithm prioritises engagement over follower count, allowing even new creators to find a wide audience. This is important for a marginalised community seeking connection. This accessibility makes it a powerful tool for self-expression and community building within the LGBTIQ+ community.

Prosexy, for example, is a popular TikTok creator who uses the rainbow flag in their posts. Their content challenges traditional gender norms as Prosexy embraces both masculine and feminine elements in their appearance. Their posts, accompanied by hashtags like #hotgayinzimbabwe and rainbow emojis, assert their presence in Zimbabwe and reject the notion that the country is exclusively heterosexual. By sharing content from Zimbabwe and openly expressing their identity, Prosexy advocates for the recognition and acceptance of queer people in the nation.

Queer love as resistance

Some Zimbabweans on social media are showing their love for each other proudly and publicly. They think this can change how people see queer love in Zimbabwe. It is like they’re sending love letters to the world, saying that queer love is just as important and beautiful as any other kind of love.

Another TikTok user, Mamo, and her partner often share videos of their romantic moments. They kiss, hold hands and go on dates, showing that love knows no boundaries. They even dress up in traditional African clothes, showing that queer love is part of Zimbabwean culture too.

Seeing queer love on social media is important because it helps to make it normal. When social media personalities like Tatelicious, a transgender woman, share their love stories, it shows that queer people are just like everyone else. At first, people were mean to her online, but now she has a lot of followers who support her and her partner.

Even though some people still react badly towards LGBTIQ+ love on social media, it is a way for queer Zimbabweans to speak up and be heard. Their social media posts are not just for fun — they are a way to fight back against discrimination and show the world that queer love is powerful and important.

Creating safe spaces

We found that social media platforms not only serve as tools for activism but also provide safe spaces for LGBTIQ+ individuals to express themselves freely. Online communities offer support, validation and resources to those who may face rejection and discrimination in their offline lives.

In the absence of spaces in the real everyday world where LGBTIQ+ people can openly and freely discuss such issues, virtual spaces become pivotal in affording avenues where topical issues can be discussed. These virtual spaces allow queer Zimbabweans to connect with others who share similar experiences and find a sense of belonging.

The limits of social media

Despite the benefits of social media like TikTok, it’s important to acknowledge that it can also perpetuate discrimination and violence. Queer content creators often face harassment, cyberbullying and abuse in the comments sections of their posts, which can have a negative impact on their mental health. While online spaces offer a degree of physical safety, they also present challenges in combating homophobia and ensuring a supportive environment for all users.

Yet it is clear from our study that technology and online communities have provided a lifeline for many LGBTIQ+ Zimbabweans, offering them a platform to connect and share their experiences. Social media has created alternative spaces of belonging and solidarity. These spaces transcend geographical limitations and provide an escape from homophobia and threats of violence in the real world.

  • Gibson Ncube is a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University while Princess Sibanda is a postdoctoral researcher, University of Fort Hare, South Africa

Related Topics