Zimbabwe's beleaguered gays got a boost from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who voiced his support for gay rights.
Gay rights should be enshrined in a new constitution for Zimbabwe, said Tsvangirai, in an interview with the BBC.
He said that gay rights are a "human right" that conservative Zimbabweans should respect.
This is a dramatic reversal for Tsvangirai. Last year, Tsvangirai joined President Robert Mugabe in condemning homosexuality.
But in the new interview he staked out a new position in which he opposed Mugabe. By speaking up in favor of gay rights Tsvangirai is aligning himself with Zimbabwe's human rights community.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change has been in a controversial power sharing government with Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party since the controversial elections of 2008, which Tsvangirai's MDC won in the first round but was forced into a second round by Mugabe's blatant vote rigging. After a vicious round of violence in which scores of MDC supporters were killed, Tsvangirai boycotted the runoff election and Mugabe claimed victory.
Regional leaders forced Tsvangirai to join a power sharing government with Mugabe. The coalition has brought a level of stability to Zimbabwe, which Mugabe's Zanu-PF has enjoyed but which Tsvangirai's MDC has not benefited from nearly as much. MDC leaders are still beaten up by Mugabe's youth militia and arrested and jailed on spurious charges.
The power-sharing between the two parties was supposed to lead to political reforms ahead of next year's elections. So far those reforms have not been made. Mugabe calls virtually all the shots in the government, wields virtually all the power and leaves Tsvangirai and others to do the work to make things function.
Zimbabwe is in the process of drafting a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum ahead of the elections.
Homosexual acts are currently illegal in Zimbabwe, as in most African countries where many people view homosexuality as un-Christian and un-African.
Tsvangirai said there is a "very strong cultural feeling" against homosexuality in Zimbabwe, but he said he would defend gay rights if he became president.
"It's a very controversial subject in my part of the world. My attitude is that I hope the constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation, for as long as it does not interfere with anybody," said Tsvangirai.
"To me, it's a human right," he said.
Zimbabwe's long-time leader Robert Mugabe — a practising Catholic — has a longstanding antagonism against gays, denying that they have any rights whatsoever. In 1994 Mugabe said gays were "worse than pigs and dogs," sparking international condemnation.
Tsvangirai earlier said gay rights was not up for discussion in Zimbabwe. "I totally agree with the president," he said in March 2010.
Tsvangirai's dramatic change suggests that he is now courting votes from Zimbabwe's more liberal, educated parts of society. Also he is hoping to maintain support from the human rights community. He now wants Zimbabwe to adopt a liberal policy, similar to that of neighboring South Africa.
He will face strong resistance from Mugabe, who will exploit Tsvangirai's U-turn to try to drum up support for himself in the run-up to the election, correspondents say.
The two parties have not yet agreed on political and security reforms to guarantee a free and fair poll. Nor has a draft of a new constitution been agreed upon. Several public meetings on a constitution have been disrupted by angry Zanu-PF demonstrators.
Tsvangirai, by endorsing gay rights, is staking his ground as a supporter of a new, liberal constitution and of offering Zimbabweans a real choice in policies.