HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Its 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Loud music plays in a bar in the city center. People dance.
Nono, 21, texts on his phone. He sits on the right side of the bar, where LGBT people tend to gather. Nono is gay and has been a sex worker since he was 16 years old, and he asked that his full name not be used because his work is illegal. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has pushed him to offer his services to women as well as men, he says.
“At times, you get a male willing to pay less and a female willing to pay more, so in the end [I] will choose to go with the person with more money,” he says. “I am a sex worker and I put my feelings aside.”
When he’s with women, he says, he thinks of things that help him “make it work.” Not every male sex worker can do that, he says. Most of his clients are referred to him from other men who don’t have the expertise to sell sex to women, he says.
Customers are strapped for cash, too, Nono says. Some pay by buying him groceries with their credit cards.
Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed in recent years, with extreme poverty rising substantially, according to the World Bank. The economy is expected to grow by less than half a percent this year.
But as men like Nono try to earn money through the world’s oldest profession, they risk being prosecuted for sodomy, which his illegal here. It’s also illegal to solicit sex, but the combination of being both gay and a sex worker makes men in that profession especially vulnerable.
Chesterfield Samba, the director of GALZ, an LGBT advocacy organization, says more men began to acknowledge that they are sex workers about two years ago. The organization doesn’t have any data on the men who are engaged in sex work because it’s largely a new development, he says. It’s not clear why more men are coming forward, he says, but factors might include awareness of GALZ and increased poverty or a need for support.
“Male sex workers are not a visible community, and it’s challenging to make appropriate interventions for them,” Samba says. “But we continue to work with those that are visible in trying to understand the terrain in which they operate from.”
Takunda Tsano, 28, says he’s been a sex worker since he was 14 years old.
“When I was in school, a friend of mine who was already a sex worker said, ‘Why can’t we use men to our own advantage? Why don’t you sell sex to them, and before the end of the week you will have your own phone?’” Tsano recalls.
Tsano married when he was 23 because his family pressured him to, but his wife didn’t know that he is gay. She left him, he says, because he couldn’t get a job to help provide for his son.
“She was the only one who was working,” he says.
To earn money, he reentered the sex trade.
The male sex worker industry is growing, Tsano says, in part because there are so few jobs available.
Nono and Tsano both say male sex workers face serious challenges.
“It’s a cutthroat business that we are in,” Nono says. “Female sex workers complain that we steal their clients, but you fight for your space.”
Tsano says he’s leading an effort to help other male sex workers form peer support groups so they can look out for one another. The network will focus on providing legal services and other help for male sex workers, he says.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.