Tuesday 18 May 2010

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and his partner Steven Monjezas to be sentenced today in Malawi

The movement to overcome prejudice towards LGBT people is now being played out on a global scale. The internet has enabled LBT people in every continent to access information which helps them identify their sexuality and provides information which enables them to affirm their identity.

Many are now networking through Facebook and other social networking sites and gay dating sites and making friends with and learning from people in countries where equality for LGBT people is already being achieved.

Today, the verdict in the trial of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and his partner Steven Monjeza is to be given in Malawi. They face three charges of unnatural practices between males and gross indecency. They have been held in the maximum security Chichiri prison in Blantyre since they committed to marriage at a symbolic ceremony last December. They face a possible 14 years in prison with hard labour.

Tiwonge has vowed to become a martyr rather than deny his love for Steven and give in to the rampant homophobia of Malawian society. Peter Tatchell of Outrage! has maintained contact with the couple and received a defiant message from Chimbalanga that said: "I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless." His partner Monjeza said: "We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will never stop loving Tiwonge."

They were denied bail, supposedly for their own safety, and have been forced to endure the appalling conditions in Blantyre prison.

Residents and relatives from their township of Machinjiri on the outskirts of Blantyre have reacted in accordance with the widespread African prejudice against homosexuality. They say they will not allow them to return home if they are set free. Maikolo Phiri, a local vendor said: "They have given this township a bad name." Zione Monjeza, an aunt of Monjeza, said: "We as a family have been terribly embarrassed to be associated with this gay thing. It's a curse and a big shame. We will chase them away if they are freed." Nchiteni Monjeza, Monjeza's uncle, said: "I won't drop a tear if they are jailed – they deserve it."

But for others, the couple are social revolutionaries. George Thindwa, head of the Association for Secular Humanism, has spoken out against the overwhelmingly homophobic attitude of his country. He said: "The gay movement is gaining ground. The country should simply accept gays. We are giving them moral support by bringing them food, money and clothes to prison."

Thindwa's group has joined the Centre for the Development of the People, which is financing the couple's defence. Their case is a critical test in the struggle between gay rights movements and resistant conservative sentiment across the continent.

The conflict about attitudes towards homosexuality is intensifying and spreading across Africa. There is a struggle between the nascent gay rights movements and the deeply conservative culture of African society and faith communities, Christian and Muslim. The intense conflict to the north of Malawi in Uganda over the Anti-homosexuality Bill is the most prominent manifestation of battle lines which are being drawn across Africa. Homosexuality is still illegal in 37 African nations but gay, lesbian and transgender people are becoming more visible. Many identify as bisexual rather than admit that they are really gay or lesbian.

Pro-gay movements are making a stand (encouraged by the legal advances in South Africa) in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Zimbabwe and other countries. Most of these movements didn’t exist a decade ago and very few people had the courage to make a stand in the way LGBT groups and individuals have in Uganda over the Bill, let alone get married as Tiwonge and Steven have done.

Uganda has become a central battlefield after legislation was proposed last year advocating punishments for gay sex that range from life imprisonment to the death penalty. The country has come under intense pressure from activists both inside Uganda and overseas.

Last week’s report that a special committee organised by president Yoweri Museveni has recommended that the Anti-homosexuality bill be withdrawn in Uganda could herald an important victory for organisations such as Freedom and Roam Uganda (Farug) and Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug), a victory no-one would have predicted when the Bill was first published.

Val Kalende of Farug, which was set up in 2003, said: "I believe that now is the season and time for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the continent. The LGBT rights movement has grown and it has come to a point where people can no longer be silent about injustices."

Asked if the gay rights lobby is resulting in a surge of homophobia, Kalende added: "Yes. Long before we built a movement here, no one bothered about us. We got away with so many things. When we decided to come out and claim our space, society came harshly against us. This implies that we are stepping on people's toes. People hate to see us free and that's why oppression of LGBT people is on the rise. One of the indicators of a progressive social movement is when its enemies start organising against it."

This growing confidence and assertiveness is provoking a fierce defensive reaction from religious fundamentalists and politicians. Anglicans, having witnessed and been affected by the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson have been made aware of the advances LGBT people have achieved in western liberal democracies. They are now having to fight against LGBT equality movements on the home front as well. Some still claim that homosexuality is a western corruption that is not known in Africa. This position is becoming more difficult to maintain as the number of confidently identified African LGBT people rises and their visibility increases.

For the past two decades the sexuality war has been fought by proxy between well-funded US conservative Christian evangelical groups typified by the Global South/ACNA coalition and a looser network of groups and individuals working for the full inclusion of LGBT people of which Changing Attitude is a part.

This decade is going to witness radical new developments in the way homosexuality is perceived across the globe and in the power balance between pro- and anti-gay groups. Our resources may be small but truth, justice and God are on our side. That may seem a provocative thing to say, but God is for love, fidelity, truth and justice. Despite the seven biblical texts and 2000 years of negative Christian teaching, change is happening now and a change in attitudes leading to legal changes and eventually to full inclusion will become a reality in country after country.

Colin Coward

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