Thirty-year-old Watipaso (not real name) has been suspected to be gay since childhood. His demeanor, interest in perceived female chores and the friendships he nurtured would become testimony to vindicate the earlier suspicions relatives had had.
In the midst of incessant disapproval from within the family, Watipaso tried to conform by acting normal while leading a double life.
His double life has continued for years – costing his ties with some friends, family members and, twice, he has lost jobs.
His worst fear is doing jail time for making his sexual orientation known and this was obvious in the whispering tone of his voice during the interview.
“The rejection for being gay by all sectors of society makes me resent life in its totality,” says Watipaso, who works for a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the Northern Region.
Over 15 years after coming out in the open, Watipaso says he is still forced to lead a double life just to conform to societal norms.
For the past three years, he has been dating a nurse at a local health clinic in Mzuzu.
The two plan on getting married, but the man does not seem enthusiastic.
“It’s true I have a girlfriend I have been dating for the past three years. I like her because she makes me relate with my family. Since I started dating her, my soured relationships have been normalised and I do not want to strain them again,” he says.
Ironically, Watipaso has been in a love affair with his best friend, Gregory, who is based in Mangochi.
He concedes some of his close family members have known his double life for ages but have helped conceal it with avowed secrecy.
“My parents confirmed my sexual orientation when they ransacked my personal stuff where they discovered some pro-gay magazines and lubricants before I moved out of their place. They agreed to make peace if I had a girlfriend and stopped sleeping with other men,” he explained.
Not all of Watipaso’s relatives disapprove of his sexual orientation.
His cousin, Timothy, says he accepts him for who he is “because he has proven it’s even difficult for him to stop”.
He, however, disapproves the double life being pursued by his cousin.
“The two best friends regularly visit each other. Even when the fiancé is around, they take their secretive orgies outside under the guise of partying or clubbing,” Timothy says.
He now fears for the worst.
“Some of my church-mates, who know my sexual orientation, have lashed out at me. Some have not said a word but I sense it from their conduct when they are around me,” he says.
He laments the treatment gays are subjected to by some religious people.
“If the way I feel is sinful, I’d expect my loved ones to allow me to know that God can rescue me from homosexuality,” he quips as he shares memories of one renowned Blantyre-based preacher who, during the early days of making his sexual orientation known, embraced him and oftentimes invited him over to his church for sermons.
True to his words, in the Holy Bible, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the Apostle Paul mentions those Christians in the church at Corinth who had been involved in homosexual sin but ceased, and were declared clean and righteous in God’s sight.
At the moment, churches under the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) have reiterated their position that homosexuality is an abomination before God, citing 1 Timothy 1:10; Jude 1:7; Romans 1:32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Leviticus 18:22.
“Besides being sinful and an abomination before God, homosexuality is a threat to the fabric and morality of a society as the union between man and woman is the foundation or basic unit of a society, and that anything that runs counter to this set-up must hence be challenged,” reads a statement released by the EAM in response to a call for public input on the roadmap for implementing a public inquiry into LGBTI in Malawi by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC).
The statement further states that section 13 of the Malawian Constitution recognises the family as the natural and fundamental group unit entitled to protection by society and the state, but challenged by act of homosexuality.
According to human rights activists, there are over 40,000 gay people in Malawi.
A study conducted by the John Hopkins University on the burden of HIV/Aids among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Malawi a few years ago reinforces existing evidence that the criminalisation and stigmatisation of same sex practices continue to greatly impede the country’s HIV response.
The research established that 21 percent of the sampled gay men were HIV positive.
The mere fact that most men who have sex with fellow men, like Watipaso, keep a low profile for fear of societal blackmail, stigma and discrimination should raise a red flag.
If left unchecked, this constituent can punch holes to the country’s HIV/AIDS response.
For example, men such as Watipaso are one unnoticeable bridge on which the HIV/Aids scourge can cross from the high-risk underestimated homosexual population to infect many heterosexual women who are also engaged in sexual relations with straight men.
People who publicly reveal they are gay face arrest and, at worst, fierce discrimination.
For example, a young gay man, Eric Samisa, appeared on local television station where he made the bold ‘legalise or kill us’ daring interview that got him arrested.
Thereafter, he reportedly received death threats and briefly went into hiding.
Eric is among hundreds of Malawian gays who continuously struggle and live a staged lifestyle while others have found solace in other countries to escape the hostility and homophobia against them back home.
While the silence is favoured to avert arrest, desertion and hate violence, the double life among gay people has dire consequences as the country battles HIV/Aids.
Centre for the Development of the People (Cedep) Executive Director, Gift Trapence, warns that secretive gay relations are a recipe for disaster, especially in the wake of the HIV/Aids menace.
“In all honesty, accepting and acknowledging that there are people leading a double life is the first step towards achieving a holistic approach in the fight against HIV/Aids,” says Trapence.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director, Timothy Mtambo, concurs with Trapence, adding that the plight of gays in the health sector has far reaching consequences.
“When gays have health complications, health workers do not offer the necessary support. Instead, they chastise them; this should be condemned in strongest terms. Why should one fail to access medical care in their own country because of their sexual orientation?” Mtambo queried.
Mtambo says government’s failure to come up with a clear-cut stance on homosexuality is endangering the lives of gays and lesbians in Malawi.
In Malawi, homosexuality is illegal and the offence attracts up to 10 years in jail for men and up to five for women.
In 2010, the country saw the arrest of the first gay couple who were given a 14-year prison term, the maximum for the offence.
They were later released after the sudden visit by former United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.
In 2016, Solicitor General Janet Banda and Secretary for Justice [as reported in the media then], claimed government was receiving enormous pressure from undisclosed sources to review laws that criminalise homosexual acts but there has been no significant headway nonetheless.
Although the Joyce Banda administration suspended any further arrests, arrests of gays have continued and they continue to lead secretive lives.
Same sex relations are illegal and criminalized under Sections 153 and 156 of the Penal Code (Laws of Malawi).
While government tends to take the popular stance of disapproving same sex relations, current Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu is on record to have reiterated government’s commitment to the suspension of enforcement of anti-gay provisions, first announced in 2012.
In a statement released early last year, Tembenu emphasised the government’s commitment to freedom of association and expression for groups working to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
The use of the law to throw gay people in prison, the stigma at the domestic level and failure to provide adequate resources to LGBT is a slippery slope that can make the fight against HIV/Aids almost impossible.
For example, the country’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy recognises high-risk groups such as the LGBT and recommends action to stem the epidemic within it, targeting people such as Watipaso.
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