Friday, May 21, 2010

Marriage in Malawi a Gay Issue?

Tiwonge (l) wears a traditional female skirt and top.

Dominating much of the world's human rights blogs in the past few days is the horrific story out of Malawi involving two [men], Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who were engaged to be married but were summarily imprisoned and sentenced to 14-years hard labor. It's been repeatedly mentioned as the newest proof of a virulent wave of homophobia which is sweeping much of sub-Saharan Africa. Celebrities such as Madonna (who, in a much publicized story, adopted a child from that country) have weighed in on the case. She stated on her web site, "I am shocked and saddened by the decision made by the Malawian court, which sent two innocent men to prison." In sources from the New York Times to Ms. Magazine, this case has been presented as gay rights issue and how the rights of same-sex couples have been attacked.

The story which initially appeared in the
Blantyre newspaper, The Nation

What few of the articles have brought up (at least seriously) is that Tiwonge Chimbalanga (which is a female name) identifies and worked as a domestic, as a woman in the capital city of Blantyre. In the Times of London Ms. Chimbalanga is described as, "defiant, dressed in a blouse and describing himself as a woman." In the New York Times article, Ms. Chimbalanga's employer, Jean Kamphale, [Mr.] Chimbalanga’s boss at a Blantyre lodge, testified, "she accepted 'Auntie Tiwo' as a woman and assigned her cooking and cleaning chores. But after the article in The Nation (the top Malawian newspaper) appeared, she made her employee disrobe and refused to let him stop until he was naked from the waist down and 'that’s where the cat was let out of the bag.' " No mention is made in any of the news sources quoting Ms. Kamphale how demeaning such an examination would have been.

What's disturbing is how papers like the NY Times clearly identify Chimbalanga as female-identifying, as in, "Tiwonge Chimbalanga looked like a man but said he was a woman. [He] helped with the cooking and dressed in feminine wraparound skirts" but then continues to use male pronouns throughout the rest of the story. Not only does this degender Ms. Chimbalanga, but continues to throw a standard of degendering on all African women as looking somehow masculine.

The Times does note how she was humiliated in court because of her gender identity. After she contracted malaria while incarcerated, she appeared in court while extremely ill:
As [Mr.] Chimbalanga fell to the floor and began to vomit, spectators mocked [him.]“Auntie Tiwo is pregnant,” some called out.[ Mr.] Chimbalanga was led away, only to return with a mop and pail to clean up the mess.

The couple being taken to court. Ms. Chimbalanga
was not permitted to wear the traditional
female head scarf.

Human Rights doesn't equal accurate gendering
After they were arrested, Human Rights Watch reports that, "[Ms.] Chimbalanga was subjected to a medical examination, without consent, at Queen Elizabeth hospital on January 6, 2010, with the aim of establishing whether Chimbalanga had had sexual relations with males and to establish Chimbalanga's gender." They were ultimately charged under sections 153 ("unnatural offences") and 156 ("indecent practices between males"). Often expressed are concerns about how this conviction will drive men to have same-sex partners on the "down low" thereby encouraging the spread of AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa. Prof. Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund states, “The criminalization of individuals based on their sexual orientation is not just a human rights issue - it also undermines investment in HIV and AIDS as it drives sexual behavior underground and creates an environment where HIV can more easily spread.”

The H word not the T word
It is true a conviction like this will only oppress gay men even more to have sexual relations "on the down low" and that Malawi has one of the highest rates of seropositivity in Southern Africa (and therefore, the world). Yes, they were convicted under statutes which were meant to punish same-sex couples. But for mainstream publications (and many gay blogs) to ignore the gender identity of Ms. Chimbalanga is, in its own way, equally horrific. Nowhere is the term "transphobia" even mentioned. In this misgendering, it greatly resembles the story in the New York Times about the 1999 murder of soldier Barry Winchell, which completely ignored his girlfriend Calpernia Addams' gender identity and presentation as a woman, and characterized it as a case of homophobia because Winchell was in a "same sex relationship." Many high profile gay organization were only too happy to follow suit and identify Winchell and Addams as a gay couple to suit their organizing and fund-raising needs.

At a demonstration against the conviction in
Capetown, gay activists continued to refer
to the couple as 'two men' despite trans
groups' participation in the event.

Um... two 'individuals'
Some sources, like Amnesty International, have 'skirted' around the issue of Ms. Chimbalanga's gender identity by using the phrase "perceived same sex relationship," yet continue to use "men" when talking about the couple:
The couple were beaten while in police custody. Amnesty International considers both men prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for their perceived consensual same sex relationship, and has urged the Malawian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the couple.
This case deals with human rights issues, attacks on people who are perceived as men who have sex with other men and, especially, recognition of gender identity and expression. It's important to note how Ms. Chimbalanga is regularly taunted in the press and on the street in Malawi as "Auntie Tiwo," as though her identity is a joke.

That Ms. Chimbalanga doesn't look female enough for the NY Times' standard is irrelevant. Last time I looked Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, doesn't have health or transition services for trans people. What's happening to this couple is horrific enough without the repeated misgendering and mischaracterization of this case going on in the western media. If we're going to be rightly concerned about homophobia and attacks against same-sex couples in countries like Malawi and Uganda, then why isn't the media bothering to examine the lives of trans people in Africa which the sad story of the injustice against Ms. Chimbalanga and Mr. Monjeza actually concerns.

* This is a link to a video which shows some of the atmosphere around the courthouse and some interviews with Malawi and Brit human rights activists.


  1. fantastic article. The referral to them both as men is disgusting. If they called a cisgendered woman a man then there'd be an uproar, a wave of apologies etc. but because she's transgender it's ok to call her a man. How ridiculous. I hope that Tiwonge and Steven get released and I hope that they're given asylum in a country that might actually accept them for who they are.
    Their sentence truly saddens me.

  2. The fact is, the people persecuting this couple are not sophisicated enough to sort through PC labels like transphobia. All they know is that these two men are two biological men. THey need to explore their homophobia first, then let them learn about trans-phopbia.

  3. Thom, my essay is not about how people in Malawi are misgendering her, it's about western media, and gay blogs doing the same here. I am not expecting a sudden revolution of trans-related gender awareness in Malawi, but I am expecting sources like the New York Times, The Times of London and Queerty to display more understanding, compassion and accuracy for a person who is very clearly female identified. And believe it or not, no one is required to accept gay people first and then and only then can they accept trans people. Surprise, surprise, it doesn't even always work that way in this country.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this, and for opening my eyes. I was fooled by the media sources you listed (and Madonna, unfortunately). Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. sorry to leave this as a comment but i can't find an email.....

    *would you be interested:a trans group blog idea w toni d and a group of others(see link for the blog & format) *

    wanted to ask you about contributing
    to this new blog.
    we want good writers (with a goal towards a bilerico stle format),
    and the goal is to get as big as
    can contribute as little or much as you want.if you could let toni
    or i know of any interest, it would be great.
    this cafe didn’t fly before, we are going to do a big push now.
    with alot of “publicity”.
    i hope you might be available.
    thanks very much.

    sincerely, javier
    (w/ toni d)


    it is going up NEW,
    she owns this space for now.
    and we are going to be putting links all over.
    the goal is a bilerico style site eventually w/tg and gq etc voices
    only, linked up on big web pages for traffic.

    from toni:
    “Pictures, videos (flash and otherwise), files, etc. What it can’t
    do right now I can add. It is a full featured blog”

    if you have interest or questions,you can contact us.
    the goal is to be as political as we want, as controversial as we
    want,and to be completly moderated for NO flaming, degendering,
    etc etc.
    anyone reasonable can comment.but that along with anything
    else is open to discussion, and we will be trying for a great experiance for all contributers,
    so we want no discomfort for anyone!

    this is toni’

    your ideas are what we want i think.

  6. @Javier an advertisement on this thread feels highly insensitive and anappropriate even f you had had the editing skills to make it short and punchy.

    @Gina thank you for all this extra and sadly harrowing detail. Far from ignoring the gender issue it seems to have increased the humiliation and violence Tiwonge Chimbalanga was subjected to, as in 'girly gay' or 'fake woman' or whatever.

    Am posting a link to this article on Facebook, with full attribution of course. Love to you and more power to you and all struggling for these basic human rights.

  7. sorry.
    but there is no email listed.
    this is not an advert, it is an invitation,
    and it was directed at the blog owner not you. respectfully.
    and as to my editing skills,
    at 4am i'm lucky it was in english.
    if there are no contact emails, there aren't alot of options.
    but you have a great day now.

  8. Gina...thanks for adding the details to this sadly familiar meme of Gay,Inc. misgendering transpeople for their own purposes.

  9. It's crucial that transgender people worldwide are not misrepresented or misgendered by media, but it is inexcusable for blogs originating in the US to misgender transfolk or contribute to misunderstandings.

    Great post. It's articles like yours that helps set people straight.

  10. Hi Javier, if you look at the "about me - View my complete profile" my email address is there. Ciao!

  11. Max Kano in response to "Media Coverage Of Malawi Convictions Erases Chimbalanga’s Identity As A Woman" by Bridgette P.LaVictoire:

  12. In response to "Media Coverage Of Malawi Convictions Erases Chimbalanga’s Identity As A Woman" by Bridgette P. LaVictoire (Date: 05.21.10)

    Media sources
    First source: "Media Coverage Of Malawi Convictions Erases Chimbalanga’s Identity As A Woman" by Bridgette P. LaVictoire (Date: 05/21/10)

    Second source: "Madonna: the Malawian Court’s Decision to Jail a Gay Couple" by Madonna (Date: 05.21.10)

    Response by Max Kano:
    (Date: 05.25.10)

    I do believe that no matter on the “story” it is first of all about the right to love. Equality through ability for one human being to openly love another (with no boundaries of sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality or social class) and bind together in marriage (after all we do have symbolical values in any society and marriage has very similar meaning in all societies).

    The reason why the gender identity details caught my eye is because, media is clearly bias in its representation of any events related to LGBT all over the world. According to my “mind notes” while following various situations one way or another involving LGBT in different countries all over the world one pattern seems to be present, that can be visually shown as LG(B) & T. L and G involving events are covered in the media, especially in the countries where it is legal and tolerated – the coverage is done with passion leaning in a more convenient way depending on political, economical , social times and situations relevance to them. “B” tags along and acts as “icing on a media cake” where it can be appropriately placed and turned. Now “T” is more of an “and” group, that is not often openly mentioned. Well, ok… media is a well known tool, as well as the strategies on the way the world (world order) should operate and how to achieve, and balance, navigate the achieved… are not really anything new.

    Coming back strictly to the subject at hand… if the details regarding the gender identity of one member of a couple are true… Before people become “we” – so called couple, every person at one time had that time when he/she was only an “I” an independent person (as much as it is possible as we all live in society in depend one way or another on the surrounding) and they had to find him/her self, build a direction to follow in order to have some sort of life path, etc. As probably everyone at list ones had faced challenges and had to fight “bloody” battles to succeed or survive: to take away from a person what they had built and maybe started to share with another human being (in this case being in love and being a couple) is to take away that persons dignity, to strip her or him from everything that had been fought for and carefully placed together. If the details are facts then… To treat a human being like that – to cross his, peaceful and loving life path that was put together step by step is cruel and a terrible thing to do… in this I believe something more was taking away – dignity of a woman (transgendered or not), not only in her country she was not accepted and all the ways she was able to connect with herself, her nature and possibly her body, the way she has to live her live might have became shattered (which I would think highly likely)… the media in other country (more accepting country and as some see from overseas - the “dream”) did not really acknowledge her identity as a woman. I believe cannot be called stripping a woman (again transgendered or not) – a human being from her dignity, lacking to show respect through providing bias information on this matter.

  13. That was indeed a tragic story. It is simply not excusable for the western media to misgender the unfortunate transwoman. I think the world instantly needs extremely high education related to sexuality and gender issues before things go too awry for many other transgendered people. We are witnessing suicides regularly.
    Please wake up , media!!

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Sexuality is a serious problem. Dex education must be given to every individual of a nation.The best way to get sex education is to visit Love and sex...for more information visit

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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