The Malawi Couple: Gay or Transgender? Or Something Else?
This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
May 22nd, 2010
Transgender advocate Autumn Sandeen has published a post on Pam’s House Blend calling attention to something that we noticed on January 5th — that Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who was convicted and sentenced with Steven Monjeza to 14 years at hard labor under Malawi’s harsh anti-homosexuality law, actually identifies as a woman. Since learning of this, we’ve been extremely careful at BTB not to use the term “gay” to describe Tiwonge, and we’ve tried to avoid the use of male pronouns. (Actually, we’ve tried to avoid the use of pronouns altogether when talking about Tiwonge, as I’ll explain in a moment.) Unfortunately, other blogs and media outlets haven’t been so careful. Autumn notes:
[L]et’s be honest with ourselves — I believe we can safely say that from past coverage by the LGBT press and LGBT blogosphere that this story would not have gained as much traction in LGBT media if this were considered a transgender or intersex story.
And, that’s sad. Transphobia and homophobia both arise from the same root — that root has to do a lot with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people not conforming with societal sex and gender norms…Especially societal sex and gender norms for those considered to be male. And, that root has a lot to do with misogyny.
But, the erasing of the woman in this story’s intersex, transgender, and/or transsexual history from this story says a lot about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and its media.
I agree wholeheartedly with Autumn’s point that this story does say a lot about the LGBT community and media. But I also think that Autumn’s position, as admirable and fully correct as it is from a Western point of view, says more about the construction of sexuality and gender in Western society than it does about how people in other cultures actually see themselves.
As I said, we have avoided describing Tiwonge and Steven as a “gay” couple, but we’ve also avoided describing Tiwonge as intersex, transgender or transsexual, and for good reason. None of these terms may describe Tiwonge very well because they speak to a Western, Euro-centric understanding of sexuality and gender, and not an African one.
And it’s critical that we wrap our brains around this because otherwise we will fail to fully honor Tiwonge. We know that Tiwonge identifies as a woman. We also know that Tiwonge wears women’s clothing. We also know that Malawi court officials assigned Tiwonge the “woman’s job” of mopping up her own vomit when she fell ill in court, although that was clearly an act of humiliation by assigning her a “woman’s” duty rather than a respectful recognition of her self-identity (which furthers Autumn’s point about misogyny.)
(And for the time being, I’ll use the female pronoun to describe Tiwonge although I have no idea if that’s the pronoun that Tiwonge prefers. Tiwonge may actually prefer male pronouns, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.)
By Western standards, all of this evidence would be sufficient to remove Tiwonge from the “gay” box and placed her neatly and tidily in the “transgender” box, and the rest of the story would (or at least, should) proceed accordingly. And certainly if we must place Tiwonge in such a box, there is a much stronger case for using the transgender box than the gay one. But doing so may not be the best way to honor Tiwonge’s self-identity.
Research indicates that in contemporary western cultures where gender roles between men and women are more equalized, gender differences often are more pronounced when identified with a set of traits. Standardized measures for aggressiveness and openness to ideas correlate to males, while standardized measures for agreeableness, warmth and openness to feelings correlate more strongly to females. This finding, which has been replicated elsewhere, baffled researchers who expected the equalization of gender roles to result in a similar equalization of gender traits. And they were further surprised that gender traits were actually more equalized in traditional societies where gender role differences were much stronger.
It turns out that in many traditional cultures, it may be more acceptable for women to take on what westerners perceive as “masculine” traits, and for men to take on what westerners would label more “feminine” traits. Which means that many of the external peripheral markers that we use to understand the contours of our masculinity or femininity become less important in many traditional cultures. But in these non-western cultures, gender roles — what men and women do as opposed to who they are — are considered much more important in defining what is a man and what is a woman. Against that realty, our understanding of gay/straight/transgender/whatever has only a passing relevance.
And this research appears to confirm a trend that I have noticed in my own reading of LGBT narratives from Africa. I’ve noticed that some men in particular appear to shift quite easily back and forth between masculine and feminine gender identities, and that these shifts appear to mark an identification of gender roles, whether that role may be the role someone takes in an intimate setting, or a broader role in a community or society. I’ve seen narratives where a man may take a woman’s name, and then he later shifts back to his original male name with little apparent consternation or confusion to those around him. And where I’ve seen this happen, it has appeared to me to be a reflection of gender role more so than gender identity. These appear to be men who also sometimes see themselves as women, but with little apparent intention of seeing themselves as transgender. In other words, the identification appears to describe a role by taking on the cultural trappings of that role, but not a definitive declaration of a state of being as is generally the case among transgender people in the West. (Although, of course, it must be said that there really are transgender people in Africa, in precisely the same sense in which there are transgender people elsewhere in the world.)
So if I may, I would like to take three seconds to pat myself on the back for having avoided the term “gay” to describe Tiwonge. I wish others had been similarly careful. But I suppose I will now have to expose myself for a share of bricks being thrown my way for refusing to describe Tiwonge as transgender. I’m sorry, but I’m not fully convinced that “transgender” is an accurate description either, at least not until I hear it coming from Tiwonge himself or herself. I readily concede that if we must apply a Western term, transgender appears to be a much more accurate descriptor than gay. But in the interest of fuller accuracy, I will stick to the only description that Tiwonge provides, and the one I find to be the most accurate: Tiwonge identifies as a woman. And she does so according to her understanding of what it means to be a woman in the context of her culture. Until we hear otherwise from Tiwonge directly, there cannot be a more accurate description than that.