In every place I’ve visited since I came out, I’ve wondered what it’s like to be queer there. Malawi, of course, was no different.
There were two complicating factors to this trip, though. One, my girlfriend and I had accepted an invitation to Blantyre, the Malawian centre of finance, in order to visit her father. (Oh boy, meeting the parents.) Two, after a quick Google search, I was unsurprised to find that Malawi is one of the many countries were same-sex relationships are still illegal. My partner and I had both been out for several years, and have dealt with more than our fair share of homophobia. This, however, would be our first experience of our relationship being a crime.
As the wheels of the small Malawi Airlines plane hit the ground, we joke we’re now outlaws in this beautiful expanse of tall grass and trees. Even though some of Malawi’s more over-reaching anti-LGBT laws – mostly concerning arrest for “unnatural acts” – have been suspended since 2012, the everyday affections between my girlfriend and I suddenly feel loaded. Something has come between us. Outside the airport, a man probes my girlfriend about the nature of our relationship – if we’re not sisters or friends, what are we? Why are we traveling together? He asks if I’m her “escort”. My girlfriend manages to change the subject, to our relief.
I know that this is probably the worst it will get for us as tourists. Being white and english in this african country, my queerness is easily masked by my foreignness. (That knowledge still doesn’t stop our hands from shooting off each other’s legs whenever we drive through the police stops around Blantyre.) “You’ll be fine at the Lake”, Omar, a Malawian friend of my girlfriend’s family tells us. “They’ve seen everything there, and no one will cause trouble with tourists.” And he’s right about that: at Lake Malawi, we bob away, daring each other to come in for the kiss.
Omar warns us to keep our heads down in Blantyre, but even there people are more confused than hateful when they see us being affectionate to each other. Once, while feeling courageous and walking hand-in-hand alone through Blantyre, a man asked “Ah! Why two women?” as we walked by, another young man wearing a chunky gold chain hollered “Les— lesbiaaaans!” as though sounding an alarm. Nothing happened to us, though, that was the end of that. I was constantly aware of how being a privileged tourist was a protection.
So what is it like to be queer in Malawi, for a Malawian? On my return to South Africa, I sat down for a chat with Gift Trapence, an LGBT rights activist and director of the Centre for Development of People (CEDEP), to find out what my personal experience couldn’t tell me.
He’s frank about why we had such an easy experience: “If you’re white, they won’t care.” Tourists are exempted from the reality of queer Malawians, who aren’t just not tolerated – “People won’t hold hands on the street for fear of being targeted” – but have no formal protection from violence.
Even though queer people cannot be arrested in Malawi for simply being queer anymore, Trapence explains that “our biggest challenge is access to justice.” Last year alone, the CEDEP recorded over 90 cases of homophobic crimes, ranging from physical violence toward queer people, to the destruction of their property. Troublingly, politicians won’t step in to intervene, worried that their Christian support base will desert them. (Malawian churches hosted two major anti-gay rights and anti-female reproductive rights protests last year.) In ignoring the violence, Trapence says, “politicians say they are protecting families.”
“But we have so many challenges in Malawi,” he continues, “so which families are they talking about?” Trapence argues that most families need “food, services and access to education” – not protection from queer people.
Such rhetoric has resonances all around the world, from Trump’s America to home in South Africa. “We can compare our situation to yours in South Africa,” Trapence says, “in that even though laws might change, we have a lot to do to change mindsets.”
I could only agree with him. When we I returned to Cape Town and shared our first legal kiss in ten days, I felt only a superficial relief. Being home doesn’t mean being safe, whether it’s on the foot of the Majete Mountain or in hip urban bars in Cape Town, homophobia follows you.
For more about gay rights in Africa:
Progressive Prudes: a survey of attitudes towards homosexuality & gender non-conformity in South Africa
Pew Research Centre: The Global Divide on Homosexuality
Pambazuka News: Why Malawi can’t just legalise homosexuality