05/21/10-by Bridgette P. LaVictoire
At what point is a gay man not a gay man? When she is a woman. The case in Malawi has shown something rather horrific about the media and about even the LGBT media. The couple who were sentenced to fourteen years in prison for “unnatural acts” is not a gay couple. They are a straight couple. Tiwonge Chimbalanga does not identify as a man; instead, she identifies as a woman. This creates something of an inconvenient narrative for many media outlets. This information is coming to light only just now. Several quotes from Ms Chimbalanga have been altered or ignored by many media outlets in order to make this about a gay couple instead of a straight couple involving a man and a transwoman.
One statement by Ms Chimbalanga goes “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.” However, the way this was printed was “I’d rather remain in prison than to be released into a world where I am kept away from Steven.”
The New York Times noted this stating:
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.
In a world without sex change operations and hormone replacement therapy, many transgender individuals often simply dress and act in a manner that identifies them with the proper gender. Many transgender individuals in years and centuries past simply dressed as women or men instead of undergoing surgeries which changed their bodies. For some female-identified-men (that is a female gender in a male/man’s body), castration was an option to allow a woman to feel more at home with her own body.
Classifying Ms Chimbalanga as a gay man erases her identity. Audacia Ray at Akimbo states the rest more clearly than I can:
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.
Ironically, one of the few sources outside of Africa to make mention of this being an issue of gender identity is the statement from the White House condemning the convictions:
The United States strongly condemns the conviction and harsh sentencing of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi. The criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi. We urge Malawi and all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution.
The media tends to erase gender identity as a whole. While some are very blatant about their disdain and hatred for transpeople, others may be supportive but often slip in their terminology or their statements regarding a person’s real gender.
Unfortunately, this erasure of transgender identity and the tendency to equate transpeople as being “men in dresses” (let us ignore the fact that there are transmen as well), tends to do as much as possible to dismember the identity of transpeople and make it harder for them to live. The media needs to do more to counter act this problem moving forward.