Malawi Couple Jailed: This Is a Woman’s Issue

Trigger warning for descriptions of misgendering, violence, and degrading situations.

Here are the basics of the story, from Questioning Transphobia:

Today [20 May 2010], Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, whom the media calls “Malawi’s first openly gay couple” even though Tiwonge identifies as a woman and her partner as her husband, were given a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison with hard labour after being convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts.

This is being reported everywhere as a “gay issue” — and to be sure, any group purporting to care about LGBTQIA1 rights (which is to say human rights) should damn well care about what’s happening to these two people — but what this is, among other things, is a woman’s issue.

It is a woman, sent to a men’s jail, who:

…arrived in court noticeably ill. [Her] lawyers said [she] had contracted malaria in the hideously overcrowded jail, though the defendant later blamed guards for trying to beat [her] into a confession.

(Pronouns corrected, quote from New York Times, Feb 13 2010)

It is a woman who was made to strip completely in front of her employer:

Jean Kamphale, [Ms] Chimbalanga’s boss at a Blantyre lodge, testified that she accepted “Auntie Tiwo” as a woman and assigned her cooking and cleaning chores. But after the article in The Nation appeared, she made her employee disrobe and refused to let [her] stop until [she] was naked from the waist down…

(Pronouns corrected, bolding added2)

It is a woman who not only has been arrested, beaten, had her partner renounce his love for her, and sentenced to hard labor, but has been consistently misgendered by news media, both mainstream and “alternative” (trigger warnings on both those links). Even when she is quoted as saying “I am a complete woman”, writers continue to use inappropriate language and gender, to declare her given name “real” rather than the name she lives with daily, to misrepresent her gender and her sexuality.

Some activists, defending their misgendering, have said that as Westerners, we cannot impose our concepts of “gender identity” on to Tiwonge — and it is true that our concepts of gender and transsexuality do not directly translate, but it is no less true that our concepts of sexuality and homosexuality do not directly translate. We have to make do with what we have, and what we have is her saying, repeatedly, that she is a woman.3

Given that the Malawi government has also been consistently misgendering her, is homophobia at play here? Yes, indubitably.4 But homophobia only becomes an issue because transphobia has erased her gender. And when that psychological violence is perpetrated against a woman, that’s a woman’s issue.

Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough that this is a LGBTQIA issue, a trans issue — and, most simply, an egregious human rights violation? Of course. But while mainstream media and the majority of queer activists are making this out to be about “gay rights”, it is important to remember that at the center of this storm are a woman, and her man, who are being punished simply for wanting their relationship recognized.

There are many ills being done here. Don’t add to them: honor Tiwonge’s womanhood, and insist that your news sources do as well. It may be little comfort to her at this point, but it means so much to so many women, all over the globe.


Further reading:

Questioning Transphobia — Be sure to watch the video, if you are able. (There’s no transcript of it as of yet that I am aware of.)

Gender DynamiX



  1. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender/transsexual Queer Intersex Asexual
  2. The bolded “her” is the one appropriate gendering pronoun used in the entire New York Times article.
  3. Although I haven’t been able to confirm what language Tiwonge is speaking, my understanding is the national language of Malawi is English, so it is entirely likely her words have not even been translated.
  4. It is not even entirely accurate to call them a heterosexual couple, because the man in the couple appears to be what we in the West might identify as queer: he has stated that he had never been attracted to women, before meeting Tiwonge.
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10 Responses to Malawi Couple Jailed: This Is a Woman’s Issue

  1. This is a trans woman’s issue, and violent transmisogyny has erased her gender.

    • Casers — yes, and thank you for the point about transmisogyny, but my point stands that trans women’s issues are, y’know, women’s issues. A certain kind of women’s issue, like cis women’s issues (access to menstrual care, for example) are a certain kind of woman’s issue, but no less a woman’s issue therefore.

  2. I understand that but too often cis women twist these kinds of things for their own ends, which I don’t exactly see here but the point deserves to be made. The entire phrase “women’s issues” (or “women’s rights”) has been made to be understood by trans women as Cis Women’s Issues.

    • Casers: it is a good point, and thank you for making it. Part of my goal is to help correct the very real bias which has led to that (accurate, unfortunately) understanding. I hope I am able to do it without further appropriating or marginalizing trans women’s struggles.

  3. When I brought this up on a web forum I was accused of appropriation and dog-whistling and divisiveness and all sorts of nasty shit. With impunity, of course.

  4. Yeah, I’ve been pointing this out to people for awhile now. Oddly everytime I do I suddenly become the enemy of peace and freedom. A lot of Cis-gays are taking this story VERY personally but can’t seem to figure out why trans women aren’t going to be equally offended by the erasure of someone’s identity just for their own convenience.
    What is happening to Stephen and Tiwonge is a grievous crime against all humanity. But it is being terribly compounded by this attempt to erase take her womanhood just to appropriate her as a “gay man”.

  5. What a sad, sad story. =( Just kick her while she’s down, why don’t they? Ugh.I

    As a sort of aside– The more I learn about trans issues, the more it seems to me that blanket terms like “women’s issues” and “men’s issues” become somewhat meaningless. For example, Arwyn brings up “cis women’s issues” like menstrual care… which is also very much an issue for many trans men, right? It feels like we need a whole new set of language to talk about these things in an accurate, respectful, and inclusive manner. (or maybe us cis folk just need to re-train ourselves and the way we think…)

  6. That NY Times article is horrible. They seemed to go out of their way to say Mr. ___ instead of just using her first name. I don’t know if that is the common way with NYT because I don’t read it often but if they did it specifically for this article then that is horrible.

    Thank you for writing about this. I think in the area I live (at least in my small circle of knowledge) anything outside of Cis and hetersexuality would fall under a huge category of “gay.” Like there is only Us and Them. And even when this isn’t meant to be offensive (e.g. someone who supports “gay rights”), there doesn’t seem to be a recognition/understanding of any intricacies. Even those that would gladly use a person’s preferred pronoun probably wouldn’t really consider her a “woman.” Sometimes, otherwise very sympathetic people, are just ignorant due to lack of exposure. I appreciate your spreading the word!

  7. As a person who loves (a lovist, as I prefer to be called) I am offended by this attack on these lovists. As adults, we lovists find that our choices are constantly questioned by non-lovists and folks who claim love as being specific and small. We see love as big and varied and we are hurt when other lovists are oppressed based solely on their love.

  8. Pingback: Tiwonge and Steven are not a “gay couple” — but are they a “straight couple”? « Raising My Boychick

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