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Harare - A Zimbabwean teacher who came out as gay quit his job after receiving death threats, sparking an online petition supporting him which had received 1,500 signatures by Friday.

Neal Hovelmeier, who taught for 15 years at St John's College, a posh Harare school, came out to students last week, hoping it would help curb homophobia at the school.

Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe. Hovelmeier's decision came after the school authorities encouraged him to do so following news that a local newspaper was planning to out him. 

In a letter sent to parents on Thursday, Hovelmeier said he understood that the announcement "has caused grievous and deep concern to a section of our community."

He said he had "no idea of the force of anger and resentment such a declaration would make" but added he respected people with strong views based on custom, tradition and religion.

"I have been in receipt of death threats as well as threats of physical danger to myself and my pets," he revealed in the two-page letter.

He said he had been told that a legal challenge was being launched to remove him from the school.

"For my own sense of integrity, I will not submit myself to a sham trial or investigation ...It is for this reason, and with a very heavy heart, that I have come to realise that my current position as deputy headmaster is now untenable and I hereby tender my resignation with immediate effect".

The school, which last week came out in support of the teacher, refused comment. 

Former Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe was known for his crusades against homosexuality and in 2010 he called gays "worse than pigs and dogs" and "wayward". 

An online petition in support of Hovelmeier was launched on Thursday and by Friday afternoon it had attracted over 1,500 signatures.

"Let’s get Mr Hov back where he belongs and as a Zimbabwean community make the change that desperately needs to happen. #weacceptyou," it said.

Discrimination against homosexuality is widespread across the African continent.

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