First, the good news: Tiwonge and Steven have been pardoned! (Warning on link for misgendering.) Although psychological violence continues to be done to Tiwonge via misgendering, and their life is likely to continue to be hard, I am glad that these two are being spared, and I wish them well.
Now to my topic, which is not so much about them as about the conversation we in the West are having about them:
Tiwonge Chimbalanga is a woman. (Whether she’s a trans woman or an intersex woman or a woman according to her own cultural ideas that Western thought is not capable of understanding is irrelevant to this particular conversation: she is a woman, and that is all we need to know here.) Steven Monjeza is a man. Therefore, calling them a “gay couple” (much less “Malawi’s first openly gay couple”) is both inaccurate and highly offensive.
I’ve been seeing a lot of commentary, on Twitter (with its limitations on characters) especially, calling them, therefore, a “straight couple”.
I have a problem with this.
Acknowledging that Western1 ideas of sexuality and gender are not universal and therefore are likely to be inadequate to conceptualize or express this couple’s reality, how we talk about them reflects on us. And the language of “gay couple” and “straight couple” doesn’t reflect very well.
Our best information on Steven, from his own words, is this: “I have never had sexual feelings for ladies, but I had them with Tiwo”2. To Western understanding, this implies either asexuality or homo/bisexuality3 — which is to say, not straight. And as a not-straight person, I really, really hate being referred to as being part of a “straight couple”. It’s not a matter of denying the reality or privilege of my relationship, or wanting to score “queer points”, but that it feels wrong, and, intentionally or not, erases my identity.
The problem is that we use the same words for orientation as for relationships. Unquestionably I am a part of a woman/man couple, and I have abundant privilege therefore — but I am not straight, my relationship is not the same as it would be if all parties were straight, and I do not, as “straight relationship” implies, have straight privilege. We need a way to talk about relationships which does not by implication of orientation erase the identities of people like me, like Steven — for never is there a “bisexual couple”, or a “pansexual relationship” or a “queer relationship” (unless the genders of one or more participants is understood to be “queer”, or outside the binary). No where in “straight couple” or “gay couple” do we allow for anyone who does not fit neatly into the gender binary, for that matter4.
None of the alternatives I’ve encountered have seemed satisfactory. My so-far favorite — male/female/mixed relationship — is a step up, but still highly problematic in that it assumes binary gender, and would lump together relationships involving people with nonbinary genders (who do not, generally, receive societal approval and relationship privilege) with binary woman/man relationships (who do).
What I want are new words, words which allow us to describe the ways in which some relationships are privileged above others5 but which do not state or imply anything about the orientations of the people involved, which do not assume one man and one woman as the default (nor casts them as diametrically opposed, as does “opposite-sex couple”), which acknowledge that man and woman are not the only genders possible.
Given the beautiful complexity of humanity, I’m not sure that entirely unproblematic language is possible, but I am completely convinced we can do better than this. We have to.
- “Western” itself being a problematic expression, but generally understood to refer to white-dominated, Western-European(-descended) societies, such as the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, etc. ↩
- New York Times, Feb 13 2010 ↩
- Given that a man can be gay — as a rule or in general attracted to men, or having the identity of such — and still fall in love with a woman. ↩
- Which is to say, someone who is neither a man nor a woman (trans men and women can fit as neatly into the binary as can cis men and women). ↩
- For if, as has been suggested, we simply only ever say “couple” or “partners”, we lose the ability to identify the relationships that are marginalized in society — the “colorblind” theory as applied to relationships. ↩