Alex Blaze

On Malawi: If they were most gay men people wouldn't care either

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 25, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: justice, LGBT, Malawi, media coverage, steven, tiwonge, transgender

The story of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, the couple in Malawi sentenced to 14 years hard labor last week, hasn't gotten much attention on Bilerico. The only post I remember - and that Google can find - is this Homotextual from this weekend that was just a quote from Madonna. That's it.

The focus of this blog is the US, even though we do at times post about happenings outside the US. File it under "you can't do everything well," and, with limited knowledge of foreign political systems, and non-Western thought systems, it's just not something that this crowd is likely to take on.

But now part of the story has morphed into a story on the way Western media is presenting this couple: are they a gay male couple, as media reports present uncritically, or are they a cis/trans heterosexual couple, as some people are pointing out? Tiwonge identifies as a woman:

Mr Chimbalanga, however, remained defiant. Dressed in a blouse and describing himself as a woman, he said that they became engaged after "my darling, Steven, proposed love to me and we agreed to get married".

Unlike Mr Monjeza, he refused to accept that he had broken any law. "Which laws? I am a woman, I can do what a woman can do," he said. "I love Steven for what he is, he doesn't give me money. In fact, I do everything for him, but love is love."

But prison is prison. "They beat us up here," said Mr Chimbalanga. "Why? Why beating us? We have done no wrong. If they say we have broken laws, why not let the courts judge us?"

Reluctant to accept that his relationship was over, he said: "Well, he is the one who proposed to me. I still love him though. Love is between two people, the third one is a spoiler. The police is the spoiler here."

But, as Jim Burroway puts it, just because she identifies as a woman doesn't mean she identifies as a woman in the way a transsexual woman in the West would:

It turns out that in many traditional cultures, it may be more acceptable for women to take on what westerners perceive as "masculine" traits, and for men to take on what westerners would label more "feminine" traits. Which means that many of the external peripheral markers that we use to understand the contours of our masculinity or femininity become less important in many traditional cultures. But in these non-western cultures, gender roles -- what men and women do as opposed to who they are -- are considered much more important in defining what is a man and what is a woman. Against that realty, our understanding of gay/straight/transgender/whatever has only a passing relevance.

And this research appears to confirm a trend that I have noticed in my own reading of LGBT narratives from Africa. I've noticed that some men in particular appear to shift quite easily back and forth between masculine and feminine gender identities, and that these shifts appear to mark an identification of gender roles, whether that role may be the role someone takes in an intimate setting, or a broader role in a community or society. I've seen narratives where a man may take a woman's name, and then he later shifts back to his original male name with little apparent consternation or confusion to those around him. And where I've seen this happen, it has appeared to me to be a reflection of gender role more so than gender identity. These appear to be men who also sometimes see themselves as women, but with little apparent intention of seeing themselves as transgender. In other words, the identification appears to describe a role by taking on the cultural trappings of that role, but not a definitive declaration of a state of being as is generally the case among transgender people in the West. (Although, of course, it must be said that there really are transgender people in Africa, in precisely the same sense in which there are transgender people elsewhere in the world.)

So if I may, I would like to take three seconds to pat myself on the back for having avoided the term "gay" to describe Tiwonge. I wish others had been similarly careful. But I suppose I will now have to expose myself for a share of bricks being thrown my way for refusing to describe Tiwonge as transgender. I'm sorry, but I'm not fully convinced that "transgender" is an accurate description either, at least not until I hear it coming from Tiwonge himself or herself. I readily concede that if we must apply a Western term, transgender appears to be a much more accurate descriptor than gay. But in the interest of fuller accuracy, I will stick to the only description that Tiwonge provides, and the one I find to be the most accurate: Tiwonge identifies as a woman. And she does so according to her understanding of what it means to be a woman in the context of her culture. Until we hear otherwise from Tiwonge directly, there cannot be a more accurate description than that.

Interesting points all around. I'm not an expert here, so if someone is and wants to add to this conversation, feel free to in the comments.

Just as Tiwonge doesn't fit neatly into our Western "gay man" box, Steven wouldn't either. In fact, I'd say he's either bisexual or straight:

When it was suggested that he sounded apologetic and remorseful, however, he expressed his doubts about the wisdom of their historic confrontation with the conservative southern African state. "Well, I was drunk. I guess I wanted to be famous but I am now regretting. Prison life is no good. I realised we have broken the laws. I am calling this off. I am not crazy. I have another woman I intended to marry but I loved Tiwonge. I guess I should apologise to that other woman."

I suppose he may never have been attracted to the other woman, but we don't know that. All we know at this point is that he was going to marry one woman but then married another, a woman who he sees as a woman.

And, of course, in terms of right or wrong, none of these details matter. Whether this is a gay male couple or a cis/trans straight couple, their love shouldn't be punished. Moreover, I'd say 14 years hard labor is too harsh a sentence for any crime, whether it's something that should be a crime or not. The "hard labor" the Malawi court referred to in its sentence is likely to be harder labor than most of us could imagine, as prisons that engage in that punishment tend to make prisoners work over twelve hours a day in harsh conditions with poor nutrition and little water (the fact that so many articles on this couple say that they want to be sent money for food and that waves of communicable diseases sweep through the prison attest to that). It significantly shortens people's life-spans to the point where 14 years is effectively a death sentence.

Even if this wasn't the case of a loving couple, but instead a thieving couple or a drug-smuggling couple, this sentence is just too harsh.

But back in the discussion of Western media coverage, Autumn Sandeen makes the point that if this were interpreted as a trans story it likely wouldn't have gotten as much attention as it has in the West:

The Malawian couple has been charged and sentenced in relationship to having a homosexual relationship. The LGBT legacy and new media has picked up on the 14-year sentence based on the couple's relationship being declared homosexual by the judge who sentenced the couple. And let's be honest with ourselves -- I believe we can safely say that from past coverage by the LGBT press and LGBT blogosphere that this story would not have gained as much traction in LGBT media if this were considered a transgender or intersex story.

That's probably true that it wouldn't have gotten attention if it were seen as a trans story, but I also doubt this story would have gotten much attention if it read like a much more common gay story. Instead of a couple that publicly engaged and referred to themselves as married, let's imagine that these two had cruised for sex in a park, were caught fucking as police walked in on them, and were sent to jail. Would Western media be reporting about this? Would we be taking up their case? Doubtful - we barely even talk about people arrested for cruising in our own country.

Because that's really what makes this story ring more as a trans story than as a gay story - the fact that they were attempting marriage at such a young age. I don't know much about Malawi, but outside of the West there's little talk of two men marrying one another in the same way a straight couple would. My first instinct says that this is a case of a man who proposed to someone who he saw as a woman and a woman who accepted a proposal from a man, but of course I don't know this couple from Adam.

In that sense, it's hard to escape the fact that the West is imposing its own value system on this couple, and, more broadly, this country. We have particular hang ups and particular injustices that we're more fine with than others, and a story about a brave, young couple wanting to get married is more likely to pull at our heartstrings than two dudes caught with their pants down in a park.

Moreover, the number of times that it's been repeated that this couple is "innocent" (i.e., they didn't do anything that would be considered illegal in a civilized, Western nation, like cruising or drug smuggling or stealing) shows that our solidarity is based partly on an attempt to export our own system of justice than it is to stand up against needless human suffering. I'm not saying that our own system of justice is superior or inferior, but we should at least recognize that our level of care depends on how innocent we see the victims here and that both our need to find victims and how we define victimhood are specific to our own culture. We're not asking Malawi to treat all prisoners better but to adopt our own idea of what is and is not a crime and to treat anyone who is a criminal however they want (another American concept: if they're guilty of something, it's their own fault, so to hell with them).

I don't want people to care less about Tiwonge and Steven; on the contrary, we should start caring more about all the people who get put in prison and how they're treated there and reconsider whether they should be there or not. There are a whole lot of reasons - not just their identity as gay or trans or straight or bi - that this story caught the West's attention, and they're all worth examining.

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Burroway's comments are highly problematic to me. Yes, there are different cultures with differing ways of describing issues like gay/straight, gender, male/female, etc. But can we also agree there seem to be basic human characteristics we have as a species? If you read a story about a culture which varied greatly from your own, but a male person in that culture only had sex and sexual attraction with other men, would you characterize him as gay in your mind? Would you have a warning sign go off in your head if publications described him as straight (or even just ignored who he had sex with) because according to some people in that culture, there is no such thing as gay?

This is the situation trans people are in when discussing potentially trans identities/expressions across cultures. There is a set of criteria and behavior in this case: changes her name to a female name, wears women's clothes (except in court where it wasn't permitted), IDs as a woman to her employer, describes herself as a woman— things gay men typically don't do full time in a wide range of other cultures. Yet those facts are just tossed aside.

Yes, there are different ways of framing human identity and behavior in different cultures, but there is also oppression in other cultures. Just because a religion or a ruling hierarchy says "this person is third gender" or "this person is a man in a female role" doesn't necessarily mean that's how the person in question freely identifies. No, we don't want to put "western values" onto other cultures, but neither do we want to just dismiss what's basically global identities and phenomena because it's frowned upon in within a certain social structure. If there are gay people in every culture (which I agree there are) there are certain trans people in every culture and Tiwonge sure sounds like one.

basically global identities and phenomena

You have done the same thing you criticize. You have imposed a Western concept as a "global identity and pheomenon" -- what if people in other cultures when fully aware of what your Western meaning of these identities turned out NOT to be true and universal at all. Indeed what you take to be essentialist "givens" may not be at all. You are imposing not merely Western concepts, but you are erasing other people's own autonomy in defining reality for themselves.


Define "autonomy". Do you mean what the power structures of that country are? Structures which are likely highly oppressive to anyone out of the ordinary in the gender spectrum (or do you not believe there is some form of gender spectrum?) Do you mean what people are allowed to feel about themselves given some degree of freedom? I don't believe trans people have much autonomy in the US, much less in Malawi.

My question is... now come we evidently ARE allowed to define Chimbalanga as a gay male but we have to wait to define her as a trans woman? Has she specifically come out as a gay man and made a statement to that effect? Double standard?

I think the point is that we're not allowed to describe her as either. She will describe herself.


Ok, flat out, because I'm distracted:

Major assumption is that because we are western we cannot understand this issue.

No. There is no bye, no allowance here due to the "oops, it was all a mistake because of culture". People have been talking about this for a while now, and it's *still* being referred to that way.

Sorry. THis is still cis erasure of trans lives for cis purposes.

That's more important than the idiocy of cultural hegemony right now.

Tiwonge is Trans. She may not be Trans in a way that western people see it, but that doesn't mean that she's not trans.

Cultural understanding and awareness is *easy*. Then again, so is Trans stuff. And, in both cases, the major reporting in all of this have all come form places that have duly received tons of information on both.

THe problem is they don't pay attention when they are told.

Ah well.

Great piece, Alex. One of the more nuanced takes on these issues of identification that I've seen so far. So many fail to grasp the point and continue to argue about whether identifiable categories like "gay" and "trans" can be applied or not. I especially like the fact that you're not beating the same old "cultural imperialism" drum (even though it is, of course, still a problem in the LGBT community, which can only recognise "gay" if it comes wrapped in a rainbow flag and if it exists in a recognisable gay neighborhood).

I agree wholeheartedly with you on this:

"Moreover, the number of times that it's been repeated that this couple is "innocent" (i.e., they didn't do anything that would be considered illegal in a civilized, Western nation, like cruising or drug smuggling or stealing) shows that our solidarity is based partly on an attempt to export our own system of justice than it is to stand up against needless human suffering. ...We're not asking Malawi to treat all prisoners better but to adopt our own idea of what is and is not a crime and to treat anyone who is a criminal however they want (another American concept: if they're guilty of something, it's their own fault, so to hell with them)."

This comes up with cases of cruising, of "sex offenses," of sex work, of pornography etc. - some "crimes" cause an entire community to draw back instantly from those designated as criminals, without any questioning as to the nature of the so-called crime and even whether or not it is a crime, and without any attention to the issue of, you know, justice.

These are the options for how this story is reported:

1) The initial reports describe them as a heterosexual couple in which one is trans. The story doesn't get any traction and the couple is mostly forgotten by everyone except for the trans community.

2) They are described as a gay couple and the story receives widespread attention. Within the story Chimbalanga is described as having a trans gender expression.

Pick one.

LIke this one?:

I do actually agree with you that a transgender person getting thrown in jail would receive much less coverage, but it has nothing to do with their relationship being viewed as straight.

Okay, so we're okay with transgender being viewed as a sexual orientation?

It does actually have to do with the couple being described as straight. It gets more coverage if it's described as gay. Specifically, it's the "gay couple gets thrown in jail" that gets people's attention. Because people are starting to be sympathetic to gays.

People in Africa get thrown in jail everyday without being a story in the states. It's not that people won't pay attention to a transgender story because they don't care, but because they don't know what transgender is exactly. But they know what gay is.

The trans isn't erased by saying they're a gay couple. Chimbalanga is still described as transgender in the other stories.

Actually, she's described as a gay man in virtually all mainstream media including the news networks, The New York Times and the Times of London, by Amnesty International, by Peter Tatchell, and by Human Rights Watch... I would characterize that as trans erasure.

I believe much of this has to do with her not being viewed as "female looking" enough.

Yes, she gets more attention by being called a gay man, but I hope we're not at the stage of activism where we're just labeling people according to how political useful they are.

Trans is trans. She doesn't have to make a statement about her identity.

I don't know, Robyn. Trans isn't even trans here in the west - see all the damned HBSers and the constant eruptions in transgender vs transsexual minutia here. We often assume other cultures are the same as ours, but that's not true.

We have privilege here not living in a country that criminalizes homosexuality anymore. When homosexuality was criminalized in the US, sometimes one partner in a couple would present as the opposite sex so they could pass as a heterosexual couple. That was the gay version of stealth.

That homosexuality isn't illegal anymore is what allows us to make all these distinctions. I don't know that I'd call it a cultural difference. We just have more rights.

GR: Can you give concrete examples of this scenario... I would be curious. Yes, I know there were some female bodied people who lived as men (and I think it's very open to question whether they were actually gay or trans) I've never heard of the scenario you mention.

The only gay version of stealth I've ever known was gay people living on the down low and pretending to be heterosexual friends or housemates... not one person presenting as the other gender to mimic a straight couple. But I'd be interested in hearing actual examples since you've brought that up.

I thought it was widely known that butch/femme began as a method of stealth. That's why it gets so much crap for mimicking heterosexual couples.

Actually, butch/femme couples are still able to make out in public without getting bothered because they pass for a heterosexual couple.

And they are trans, just not transsexual. So there really doesn't have to be a question if they're gay or trans. They're both.

I recommend checking out the book "Stone Butch Blues."

Tiwonge said she is a woman.

If a man said he is a man and loves a man, would there be all this hand wringing about imposing Western cultural norms.

I think Box Turtle Bulletin's analysis, concentrating on the minutia, as referred to above, just plain misses the point.

There is a great deal of concern, in Canada at least, for the homophobia in Africa, much of it with an American connection.

There is a tradition in the West of ignoring those assigned male sex at birth when they say the sort of thing Tiwonge has said, and simply ascribe the birth biological assignment as the "truth."

There is an argument that declares not accepting what a person says, silences them--oppresses them.

There is another argument that declares refusing to accept what is at least a gendered, if not a sexed statement, such as Tiwonge has made, you are transphobic.

Certainly, it supports certain discourses in the West to erase any trans* connection to this story and make it one about homophobia and gay marriage.

And, frankly, the argument that says we should accept the identities imposed by others--such as the Malawi state--reeks of both oppression and transphobia.

All of these aspects are quite foreign to Bilerico, of course.

Congratulations, Alex, for having this piece published in HuffPo. I didn't know until I read it that they aren't really a gay couple.