With the ongoing interest in Uganda’s state-sponsored homophobia and a bill in the country that would make homosexual acts punishable by death, there’s been more press than usual about sexuality throughout the African continent. Uganda has been getting most of the ink, but the fact remains that 37 countries in Africa have a variety of laws against homosexuality.
Early this week a story broke about a “gay male couple” in Malawi who have both been found guilty of “unnatural acts” and “gross indecency” and sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. This story has been in development since December, when Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were arrested in their home after a public engagement party celebrating their union.
Gay rights and human rights groups all over the world have issued statements condemning the Malawian court system and speaking out against punishing people for their sexual orientation.
The only problem with this, as the razor-sharp blog Questioning Transphobia pointed out yesterday, is that Tiwonge Chimbalanga identifies as female. Both the mainstream press and gay rights groups have consistently erased this fact from their statements. Several newspapers have quoted Tiwonge as saying, “I’d rather remain in prison than to be released into a world where I am kept away from Steven.” However Gender DynamiX, a South African organization that promotes freedom of expression of gender identity and advocates for the rights of transgender, transsexual, and gender non-conforming people, has the full quote: “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.”
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This video was filmed by Gender DynamiX this week at a protest this week in Cape Town, South Africa. In it, activists describe the scene and clearly state that Tiwonge is a transgender woman, not a gay man.
The New York Times, in an article they published in February about the case, gives a little context to her identity but then completely disregards it:
Tiwonge Chimbalanga looked like a man but said he was a woman. He helped with the cooking and dressed in feminine wraparound skirts. Steven Monjeza was a quiet, sullen man often intoxicated on sorghum beer. He said he had never been happy until he finally met the right companion.
The mainstream media is notorious for misgendering trans people; when trans women are written about, they are described as being “men dressed as women” and referred to persistently as “he.” And although many gay rights groups include the letter “T” in their acronyms and claim to be inclusive of diversity in gender identity, they don’t hesitate to blatantly disregard gender identity when it serves their purpose of arguing for “equality” in the treatment of gays.
This is a multilayered issue: clearly, trans and gay rights activists within Africa are identifying Tiwonge as a trans woman and see her conviction as transphobic state violence and injustice. However, mainstream international press and gay rights groups are coopting the story to fit into their concept of the fight for marriage equality. The resulting coverage both silences trans women and ignores the voices and identities of Africans.