HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — And the winner is ... Ezmerald Kim Kardashian.
That was the stage name for a young man who won the title of Miss Jacaranda at a drag queen pageant in Zimbabwe. He refused to give his real name because he feared for his safety in a country whose president has described homosexuals as "worse than pigs and dogs."
The pageant, one of the biggest gay and lesbian events in Zimbabwe, was held discreetly last weekend in an isolated farmhouse on a forest-shrouded hilltop on the outskirts of Harare, the capital.
It was the finale of the annual ZimPride week, in which homosexuals held low-key events, including a film-screening and a launch of "Out in Zimbabwe: Narratives of Zimbabwean LGBTI Youth," a book on experiences of young people coming out about their sexuality to families and society. The events were publicized by word of mouth and messaging on social media.
Sodomy is a crime in Zimbabwe, punishable by at least seven years in prison. President Robert Mugabe has said gays should be castrated. However, there were no police raids on any of this year's gay pride events; gay activists say it is not an offense to dress in drag, a common feature in the nation's amateur theater productions. Despite anti-gay policy, attacks on people in same-sex relationships are few and isolated to occasional pub brawls.
Some gays speculate that Mugabe, in power for decades, has harshly criticized gays to win popular support and is not intent on enforcing the sodomy law rigorously even though his government exercises tight control over society.
The beauty show on the weekend was named after the purple-flowered jacaranda tree that blossoms at this time of year in Zimbabwe and some other countries in southern Africa. The 17-year-old winner, borrowing the name of the American reality TV star, wore a long, shimmering, purple dress and beat eight other contestants, many wearing makeup, high heels, skimpy beach wear and sequined dresses. Dozens of spectators cheered and whistled at the catwalk.
"I want you all to be proud of who you are, regardless of what anyone thinks about us," pageant organizer Sam Matsipure told contestants.
Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, or GALZ, the group that organized the event said it wanted to celebrate its pride week with a street parade, as in other countries, but feared prosecution or even violence.
The farmhouse provided a safe haven for the young men who vied for the pageant crown, chatting in the dressing room while stuffing rolled socks in each other's bras.
They said the pageant was a way of expressing a femininity that they keep in check while in public.
"Events like these raise my sense of self-worth in a country that hates us," said one participant who goes by the name Coco DaDiva.
In 1996, the GALZ group's first exhibit of literature about homosexuality, safe sex and human rights at the annual Harare International Book Fair was trashed by members of Mugabe's political party, forcing the group to abandon public displays.
It was at the book fair that Mugabe denounced gays as "worse than pigs and dogs" and declared that homosexuals "don't have any rights at all."
Neighboring South Africa gives full rights to homosexuals, including same-sex marriage, while many other African countries continue to prosecute homosexuals for criminal offenses.