Gay teacher at leading Zimbabwean private school resigns after death threats

A teacher at a prestigious private school in Zimbabwe was forced to resign on Friday after his admission that he was gay prompted a furious backlash from parents.

Neal Hovelmeier, one of two deputy headmasters at St. John’s College, Harare, said he had been left no choice but to quit after threats were made against him and his dogs and a vocal section of the parent body threatened legal action.

A teacher at the school for 15 years, Mr Hovelmeier had kept his sexuality a secret until last week when a local newspaper, allegedly acting on a tip-off from one of his colleagues, asked him to confirm whether or not he was gay.

Acting on the advice of its lawyers, the school’s governing body advised Mr Hovelmeier to pre-empt the news story, and he outed himself at a morning assembly.

There was widespread support for “Mr Hov”, a respected and popular teacher known for his good-humoured responses to schoolboy pranks, among the staff and pupils – black and white – at St John’s, a boy’s secondary school in Borrowdale, a prosperous suburb in the capital.

But at an emergency school meeting, some parents stood up to denounce the teacher, with one being heard to shout: “We are afraid that our children will be recruited into homosexuality.”

The session degenerated into near-chaos after a section of black parents allegedly attempted to strike a white pupil in the Sixth Form who had appealed for calm.

The row highlights a racial divide over how homosexuality is viewed in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, whose son attended St. John’s, disparaged gay people when he was president as “worse than pigs and dogs”, claiming that homosexuality was a “pollution” visited on the world by “the gay United gay Kingdom”.

Zimbabwe’s white minority is generally more tolerant.

White parents at the school said they were outraged at the “aggressive” behaviour displayed towards the boy who had spoken out.

After the meeting, parents instructed lawyers to begin legal action against the school, saying that Mr Hovelmeier’s homosexuality had “no place whatsoever in a school environment where there are minors”.

They also threatened to bring criminal charges of sodomy against him. Although homosexuality is not illegal in Zimbabwe, sexual acts between two men constitute a crime – although it is unclear what evidence parents might have to press charges as Mr Hovelmeier.

Widening the scope of their anger, parents have demanded the resignation of the school’s headmaster, Corrado Trinci, who had praised Mr Hovelmeier as “a man of complete integrity” and appealed for tolerance.

They also called for the entire board of governors to step down. Mr Hovelmeier said he was taken aback by “the force of anger and resentment” his outing had unleashed.

“In the past few days, I have unfortunately come under vitriolic attack from various quarters,” he wrote in a resignation letter.

“I have been in receipt of death threats as well as threats of physical danger to myself and my pets.

“It is for this reason, and with a very heavy heart, that I have come to realise that my position as Deputy Headmaster if now untenable and I hereby tender my resignation with immediate effect.”

The saga has deeply unsettled a school which, until last week, was best known for its highly-regarded pipe band, whose kilted members had been feted across Zimbabwe after winning first prize in their category at last month’s World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow.

Former and present pupils have launched a petition to call for Mr Hovelmeier’s immediate reinstatement. His resignation comes three weeks before boys in the top year sit their A level examinations.

by Adrian Blomfield, africa correspondent and Peta Thornycroft
Source – The Telegraph