Malawi “Gay” Couple Pardoned, Ceding to U.N. & International Pressure (No Homo)

Something fantastic happened today! U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held a meeting with Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika today which led to wa Mutharika pardoning Steven Monjeza, 26, and 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who identifies as a woman although she is being treated by the Malawi justice system as a gay man. The couple had been sentenced to 14 years in prison and hard labor because in December they had a symbolic marriage ceremony as well as a little party a.k.a. “unnatural acts and gross indecency.” (Clearly this wedding is so much worse and no one has been imprisoned for that, so wtf.)

However wa Mutharika wants everyone to know that he only did it ’cause you made him do it, not ’cause he thinks gay is okay:

“These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws, however, as the head of state I hereby pardon them and therefore ask for their immediate release with no conditions,” wa Mutharika said after a meeting with Ban Ki-moon at State House.

“I have done this on humanitarian grounds but this does not mean that I support this,” he added.

The White House approves:

Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs says the White House was pleased to learn that Malawi’s president on Saturday pardoned a gay couple sentenced to 14 years in prison because of their sexual orientation.

Gibbs says in a statement that the men aren’t criminals and that their struggle isn’t unique. The statement urges an end to what it calls “the persecution and criminalization” of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The UK approves:

“Britain has a close and strong partnership with Malawi and it is in this spirit that we raised our concerns about these convictions with the government of Malawi.

“The UK believes that human rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Joseph Amon of Human Rights Watch says, “I hope that other leaders of African countries with anti-gay laws see that this is just not acceptable in the international community.”

Earlier this week the top U.N. AIDS official and head of an international donor organization had met with Mutharika to express concern that criminalizing homosexuality would impede their HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment efforts.

In addition to the international political community, several celebrities had spoken out against the ruling as well, including The L Word‘s Mia Kirshner, who has done human rights and AIDS education work in Malawi, and Madonna, who runs several orphanages in Malawi.

Undule Mwakasungura, executive director of the Malawai Center for Human Rights & Rehabilitation, had this to say when the sentence was initially handed down, “…the sentence is too harsh and unacceptable in two ways… the gay couple should not have been given a maximum of 14 years because this is not a serious offense… the whole process has not been fair to them in terms of their human rights.” The couple was also denied bail.

The imposition of ‘Western Values’ upon Africa (Malawai is among 37 African countries with anti-gay laws) is not without controversy even within the American LGBT community, but I think we can all agree that clearly this is an issue of Human Rights, not Human Values.

So let’s leave off here with  some words from Rev. Dr. Cindi Love (who we love) (you may know her from Soulforce, or from her appearance in All Aboard:Rosie’s Family Cruise, where Love performs commitment ceremonies) , speaking out last week against the ruling and calling for “no-strings-attached, full-court press of people of faith and people who express no particular faith — ethical and compassionate people — to stand in the gap for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Uganda”:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that ethics and compassion are universal. He says that they can occur without the foundation of a specific religion; indeed, for them to be embraced by a larger group of people, they must not be tied to any faith.

I love this vision of the world, one where we release our attachment to the particularities and attendant barriers of our faith traditions in order that compassion and ethical behavior can break through to the people who need them most. Compassion, no strings attached.


Editor’s Note: We realize these men are not necessarily “free,” per se. Their pardon obviously does nothing to stop the huge amount of homophobia and transphobia that we are certain they will encounter (and already have encountered). The Malawian president’s words make it clear that he took action not because of his beliefs but because of external pressure. But the fact that they were reprieved at all is cause for some fist pumping. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Editor’s Note #2: Hi it’s me again! Some intrepid commenters have informed us of the trans status of one half of this couple and how that has been overlooked/erased by the media. This was in no way our intent and we apologize for not saying so. This article from The Huffington Post by Alex Blaze summarizes the situation quite well and makes some valid points.

However, there’s a few important angles here. First, keep in mind that a lot of people in Malawi, and the justice system, make no distinction based on self-identified gender. The President of Malawai calls them “two gay boys,” they have been treated as two gay men by the country’s officials and prosecuted as such. And from a lot of the stories we’ve read, it sounds like the idea of “transgender” as we know it isn’t that prevalent or understood in Malawi.

Although it has been suggested that the media and even gay rights groups have made the trans identity invisible in order to fit the story into their mainstream-friendly agenda, that never really occurred to us — obvs, this is Autostraddle, we’ve never been like, “let’s erase the T you guys, then people will like us better and listen,” because that’s fucking absurd. No one should listen to anyone who tries to “erase the T.”

If we knew about this story (which is, of course, part of what’s up for debate) we would be talking about it regardless of if Tiwonge was a trans woman being treated as a gay man or if Tiwonge was a gay man who identified as a gay man. In no way was our oversight related to a desire to “hide” trans people, but to report based on what we (thought was) how the story was being told within the context of Malawi’s justice system.

However, we recognize that we made a mistake when doing so and it is important to note the doubly unjust situation happening here.

Because as we now know, Tiwonge Chimbalanga seems to self-identify quite strongly as a woman. The quote that has been often cited is:  “I am just a woman who loves my man. I’d rather remain in prison than to be released into a world where I am kept away from Steven.” Which is super sweet! While it might not matter officially in Malawi, it should mean something to the people reporting the story, including us. As many pundits and gay bloggers have pointed out, this is just one more example of trans invisibility. Obviously, it shouldn’t affect how people fight for this couple, because being persecuted for who you love is always wrong, and being persecuted for being a gay man when that isn’t even how you identify is ten times more f*cked up.

Thanks for pointing this out, readers! We’re sorry it wasn’t addressed sooner.

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  1. I don’t know how I feel about the ” I’m a free bitch baby”…maybe a lil too soon. But anyway I am ecstatic to hear this news.

  2. I feel very grateful that justice was served in case, but I have a little correction to make in the article. Tiwonge identifies as a woman and to classify her or her relationship as gay is simply untrue. This has been a fact that has been overlooked by all of the msm and even much of the gay press as well.

    Here’s one of the links from which I received this information:

    P.S. I love Autostraddle Keep up the good work!

  3. This may be the first time ever where the news was so good that the use of no homo didn’t make me mad. These two certainly have a long road ahead of them, but thankfully that road no longer includes prison. I pray that they stay safe from those who wish to do them harm.

  4. Regarding the argument that this is about imposing Western values on an African nation, the ironic thing is that the Malawi laws used against the couple were actually the colonial remains of the British anti-sodomy law Section 377, which had been imposed on the country while it was under British rule. The same is true of many other African nations, including Uganda and Senegal, that had once been under British or French rule (I am unsure if this also applies to former colonies of other European nations), and yet now such laws are classified as being distinctly African. Thus, while I understand the nervousness about potentially imposing “cultural imperialism,” and I even entertain such arguments in other contexts, I think it’s a particularly weak claim to make here.

    And I won’t even get started on how the laws used against the couple actually violate Malawi’s own constitution, as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi has ratified.

    On another note, I love it when the UN does something useful. It gives me hope.

    • that’s really interesting, thank you. i think the effects of european colonialism on africa’s present culture is totally overlooked in these cases (if it wasn’t for “things fall apart,” the us school system might forget it altogether), so thanks for pointing that out

      • Indeed, people do often forget that many of the government/legal systems in Africa today exist because they were installed by colonial powers (fun fact: the French abolished their own anti-sodomy/unnatural acts law in the late 1700s but kept it in their colonies as a form of social control). I actually read the post that you linked to and thought that there was a good point in there–cultural relativism does have its place in human rights discourse because it opens up the dialogue and ensures that human rights theories aren’t white-washed, patriarchal, and heterocentric–but it’s ridiculous to think that these laws sprang forth from African traditions and should thus be insulated from any meaningful criticism by the West, which, perhaps unfortunately, is home to the majority of human rights/social justice activists. That’s why the intrusion of the American evangelicals was so patently ridiculous and really showcases the hypocrisy of the “don’t impose your values on us!” argument. Never mind that often the reason such laws are enacted after self-determination has been achieved is because some politician wants to find a way to garner votes and/or seize greater control over the government (sound familiar?).

        (I should note that I’ve been researching this for quite a while, so I apologize if I’ve gotten a little too academic in my comments.)

        • sidenote it’s 5am, i’ve had vodka, should be asleep, but no it’s cool, actually, i didn’t want to sound like some uni asshat, but i did two huge projects on the impact and process and repercussions of colonialism in Africa (mostly stemming from like, enjoying vs naipaul and nadine gordimer and then getting really curious about why this shit was left out of my relatively liberal education altogether and why i had to CHOOSE the topic specifically as an independent project to learn about it ) and it honestly blew my mind how little I think we learn in the day-to-day about how much these rules that we now recoil at are rules SET UP BY WESTERN CULTURE. I have mixed feelings about that post too, although I really do respect Jasmyne and especially the work she’s done w/r/t Mitrice Richardson. Whether I agree with her points or not, it was interesting to think about. As this will also be, when I am awake, sober, and better able to process/comment. I mean I’m totes not an expert, or even a quasi-expert. But I feel you. Is what I’m saying.

          i wish we could all just be in school forever. there’s so much shit i want to learn.

          [note to self: delete/edit comment in the morning/afternoon?]

          • Haha, no need to delete or edit! Man, I wish I had had vodka at 5 a.m. last night, it would have made this morning much easier to deal with.

            Anyway, you’re totally right. Americans (and I’d venture to guess most Western Europeans) don’t learn about how all these governments and laws that they abhor and, in the majority of cases, look down on as backwards and primitive (I have actually read reports where people were referred to as savages) were actually set up by the West years ago. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people don’t even know that there were such things as colonies anyplace but the Americas! The crazy thing is that this is still going on everywhere; I’m originally from the “Second World,” aka the former communist countries in Eastern Europe, and the extent to which the U.S./Western Europe meddled after the collapse of communism in each respective country and then ran away the second shit started hitting the fan is insane. And of course Iraq and Afghanistan are excellent examples.

            And I agree re: Jasmyne and her post. While I don’t agree with the argument, intervention is strikingly easy, and sometimes there really does need to be someone in the room saying, “You don’t always know better” just to open that dialogue.

            Anyway, I’m not an expert or quasi-expert either! I just automatically jump into the fray when human rights are concerned since that’s something I happen to know a lot about/have a lot of experience with.

    • Thanks dypole for writing this. I think this argument can be largely applied to Western efforts of modernizing other countries. When people claim the specificity and diversity of cultures, I always think that in the West we were doing exactly the same things that these other “particular” cultures are now doing; only tens of years or centuries ago. So the specificity is time-related; and basically means “let us stay backward”.

      • I’ve encountered the argument more in situations where people try to justify the violation of basic human rights by stating that you can’t change the culture of some non-Western country. I realize that human rights work must be sensitive to local traditions and customs, a principle I apply in my own work, but when it means that women are being stoned to death after a sham “court” has found them guilty of adultery, or a family’s legal title to land is taken away from them because they are indigenous and therefore unimportant to the ruling dictatorship, or two individuals are subjected to medical and psychological experiments and imprisoned just because of who they love, I find it exceedingly dangerous to blindly accept the arguments made by critics of cultural imperialism and proponents of cultural relativism.

        • Can I keep quoting you? Cause I’ve already quoted on my tumblr.

          I am working on a broad organizational review of UNESCO atm, and I recently spoke with the Director of the Gender Equality Division in Paris. In brief, they’re all for cultural diversity and everything, but when it comes to things like, for example, Female Genital Mutilation they will put a firm halt.

          I am still shocked by her recollection that at UNESCO meetings 20 years ago, African women would come and complain that the word “mutilation” had a negative acceptation that FGM did not deserve; on the contrary, FGM was a precious tradition that allowed women to gain social respect and a respected social position through a good marriage…. I am still shivering at the thought.

          Women’s oppression is oppression, everywhere, and we in the West know that well from centuries of continued practice.

  5. God it would be nice to see at least ONE cis gay publication get the facts straight on this. How many fucking times does Tiwonge have to scream that SHE is a WOMAN before people start listening?

    • i was just about to leave a comment asking about this! i have only read one article (i forget where) that refered to her as “identifying as a woman” and did not call them a gay couple. it is (bad but?)interesting that this is being left out, i would love to hear people’s thoughts about why even lgbtqetc blogs and things are reporting as they are.

      • Well, the information isn’t widely disseminated, mostly because of the MSM, so how are other blogs supposed to know unless they stumble upon one of the articles that gets it right?

        • Well, for one thing, it’s being shouted from the mountaintops of most trans-friendly net spaces. I would have expected Autostraddle writers to have picked up on it days ago.

          • Hey guys! This has been addressed in our second editors’ note. As Dina pointed out, most of the mainstream articles you read about the issue ignore the trans aspect. So if you are reporting straight from those, you end up repeating their biases. Some of our staff has been aware of the trans aspect for a while now, but those of us who hadn’t followed as closely were not as informed. Thanks everyone for bringing it to our attention!

          • + Hi! I’m the editor of Autostradle and I’m sorry I’m a little late to the game on this one. We’re sorry!

            + Firstly, I think we can all blame Jenny Schecter for this one, right? I mean, we all remember how Jenny felt about Max’s transition and how horrible and transphobic she was towards him in Season Six which made us really pissed off, and then she wrote this thing for HuffPo where she called them a gay couple. I am normally on Team Jenny, but sometimes girlfriend does not make sense.

            + Our May 25th daily fix included a Womanist Musings’ story about how the couple had been misidentified as a gay couple (Dan Savage Does Not Have the Solution to Homophobia in Malawi)

            + my thoughts on why this was left out? I think it’s because we got our information from the following sources, which we thought were reliable:
            – The United Nations
            – The U.S Government
            – The Malawai Center for Human Rights & Rehabilitation
            – Human Rights Watch
            – The New York Times
            – Reuters
            – The Huffington Post
            – Madonna

            So although we had read that she identified as a woman, we made the incorrect assumption that the language employed by all the aforementioned sources was being used deliberately because that is how they are being treated in the eyes of the law of Malawi. As she wrote in the editorial note, because we don’t actively attempt to make trans people invisible, AT ALL, we clearly weren’t paying enough attention to actively making transpeople visible.

            + That was our error, and thank you for calling us out on it. As y’all know we’re still a all-volunteer-operated website learning the journalistic ropes as we go along, and we apologize for the mistakes we make along the way.

          • I saw on the twitter feed that Riese got like 3 hours of sleep last night so, you know, that probably didn’t help either.

            Anyway, despite the slip I still think Autostraddle has plenty of journalistic integrity. Look at all of these clarifications.

          • it’s true! i’m aiming for like 4 hours tonight. so tomorrow should be bangin’.

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