Comment: Why we shouldn’t judge African countries by their anti-gay laws
Oliver Kasin writes for PinkNews about coming out in Malawi and the reaction he received from its people.
Malawi doesn’t do particularly well in the press in relation to its LGBT rights. In fact, it was only in April 2015 that another law called the “Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Law” came into effect, a law that stigmatises the LGBT community by defining what marriage is and strengthening the notion that cohabiting relationships should be between a man and woman only.
However, although a lot is reported on Malawian legislation, very little actually gets reported about the opinions of everyday Malawian people.
As a happily engaged gay man, I was nervous about the journey I was about to embark on. As someone who is interested in travelling and has always loved learning about other cultures, I decided to take part in a programme called International Citizen Service (ICS).
ICS is a Department for International Development (DfID) funded programme that works with International Development charities to send young people abroad to volunteer in Developing countries. I went for a selection day with an organisation called Progressio, before I was selected to go to Malawi to work with a HIV and AIDS organisation.
Naturally, I was excited, but I also had to consider my safety as a gay man. One of the irritating – albeit sensible – things gay people have to do before they visit a new country is research their LGBT laws – although I already knew that Malawian law states that being gay is illegal.
However, I was not going to let this stop me from visiting the country, as I felt safe in the knowledge that I was under DfID protection and I also genuinely wanted to help the Malawian people.
Despite this, I still had to make the difficult decision about whether to disclose my sexuality to my fellow volunteers – some of whom would be Malawian – and my host family.
Disclosure of sexuality is an everyday challenge for LGBT people – in work, school, social situations – but this felt different.
I am someone who has come to terms with and is proud of their sexuality – if people have a problem with it, then that is their issue, not mine. But in Malawi, for the first time in years, I was also aware that I may have my physical safety to take into account.
I ultimately made the decision to come out to my UK peers and to be as honest and open as possible with our Malawian counterparts – dependant on how safe I felt or if the time was right.
Even though deep down, I felt it was my duty to come out for the sake of the Malawian LGBT people that might be scared or suffering, I also knew that coming out or directly challenging the people I met may not help achieve the equality and protection they so desperately deserve.
After much preparation and fundraising – which involved me shaving my hair for charity and eating cat food – I finally arrived in Malawi. It is true when they say Malawi is the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ – not only is it a beautiful country, but the people are extremely welcoming and friendly.
This was confirmed in one of my language lessons, when I was told that the most important phrases to learn were the greetings, because Malawians love to greet each other.
However, as well as being a warm country, it is also a very religious one, to the extent that at the start and end of each meeting held, there will be a welcoming and closing prayer. In addition, most politicians at some stage of their career will served as a pastor.
Arguably, the country’s faith provides many benefits – such as a sense of community and family – but it also raises a number of social challenges. As is often the case for many countries across the world, this is where many of the anti-LGBT beliefs stem from – the influence religion has on the country and its people.
My first experience of this came after my team – made up of five UK volunteers and six Malawian volunteers – were placed in our community. As a bonding experience, we decided that we would host a cultural exchange, in a bid to understand each other’s way of life better.
During the exchange, we decided to discuss the idea of love, sex and relationships. I thought this would be the perfect time to test the water – so I asked the question: “It is OK for two people of the same-sex to have a relationship with each other. True or False?”
A heated discussion soon began between the Malawian volunteers. All of them – except one – said “false”, using religion and Malawian culture as their reasoning. Their descriptions and views of homosexuality were shaped by what they had been taught and I soon realised that they had obviously never met or even seen a gay person before. As much as I felt it was my duty to challenge these views, I have to admit that I was too scared. Judging by this initial reaction, I decided it would be unsafe and inappropriate to come out.
As the weeks went on, however, my lack of honesty started to bother me more and more. I could not help but think of the Malawian LGBT community and how difficult life must be for them – if I, a Westerner, was finding it so hard, how must it feel for them?
I seized my opportunity a few weeks later during a conversation with some of the Malawian people I worked with regularly. As we discussed sexual health, I explained that sex in the UK comes in a number of forms and that it could also be between people of the same sex.
It was then that one of the Malawians asked me if I had ever had a sexual experience with another male – this was the moment – I could either stay in the closet and deny who I am or take the risk – I was shocked, but quickly answered yes. I was then asked which type of sex I preferred.
The risk paid off! The group were not only okay with my sexuality, but also inquisitive. They asked to see what my partner looked like and wanting to know how long I have known I was gay. Some of the standard (annoying) questions were asked such as whom in my relationship more masculine and who is more feminine. But I did not mind answering every question they asked, because I felt that I was educating them.
Being honest with my new friends left me feeling liberated and relieved but also taught me an important lesson. Sometimes, people might seem homophobic, but I believe it is our responsibility, as gay people, to give some of them a chance.
Most ‘phobias’ usually comes from fear of the unknown and homophobia is no different. By letting people get to know you, I truly believe it makes it easier to address those fears.
At the end of the placement, we had a debrief week. News of my sexuality had spread around the other Malawian volunteers, the ones we initially asked about same sex relationships when I arrived.
I asked them whether they would care if their friend was gay, to which their quick response was that not only would they not care but it was none of their business and that people’s personality is made up of more than their sexuality. A perfect answer!
My experience in Malawi was refreshing and challenged my initial assumptions. It has taught me that we shouldn’t always be so quick to dismiss a whole group of people so quickly, as that makes us no better than the xenophobia we are ourselves trying to fight.
A little getting know someone goes a long way – Malawian legislature might be homophobic but the majority of its people are far more open-minded.
The UN is threatening to pull its aid if Malawi does not improve its sexual minority rights. Just before I left the country, I read a comment piece in a Malawian national paper calling on the government to listen to the UN – not only because the country needs the aid but also because members of the LGBT community are Malawian citizens too.
We should use the recent creation of groups like the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights – chaired by Nick Herbert MP – and take a more patient approach, like that of charity’s such as Stonewall, to work with the Malawian government, using our Commonwealth influence to patiently pressure them to make change – by talking, educating and listening, not making threats or severing ties.
The response I received and the young people I volunteered with demonstrate a different side of Malawi, as a country that has a strong voice for equality – and hopefully, it won’t be long until the Malawian legislature has to listen to that voice too.