Ignorance excites discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex
The weather outside the room at one of the hospitality facilities in Mzuzu was warm, prompting those that were inside to somehow itch for the heat of the shining sun.
Gathered inside the room were chiefs, considered custodians of culture in the country, some members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community and human rights defenders from the Centre for the Development of People and Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR).
At the beginning of the meeting, the chiefs—in particular—had their minds stuck on one thing: people who are attracted to those of a similar sex do not exist in Malawi.
Although one of the chiefs sat next to a member of the LGBTI community—a lady— the masculine looks the member carried invigorated this chief’s belief that there was no member of such a community in the room and anywhere in the country.
Such was the strength in the belief that, while contributing to the topic on the floor, he hung his hand across the shoulders of the lady sitting next to him saying: “So, Can I be sleeping with my fellow man such as the one here?”
Sadly, the extended hand touched the lady’s breast and it was the reaction that left not only the chief shell shocked but also the gathering in the room, which went into graveyard silence as if one had poured ice on them.
The lady, smarting a trendy haircut associated with males and tight jeans and a matching top, burst into tears after the incident and stormed out of the meeting—leaving the chief in complete awe.
“It was a moment of shock for me because I have never imagined, not even dreamed, that a man could be getting attracted to a fellow man or a woman to a fellow woman,” the chief said.
“Traditionally, I have been of the view that a man gets attracted to a woman and a woman to a man—nothing else. But, after that incident, my view is that stories of people who fall in love with members of the same sex are real.”
He said the experience had taught him that the LGBTI community exists and “we might be eating, drinking or doing many other things together with them”.
Research conducted globally indicates that between five and 10 percent of the world population is born with hormones that make their carriers get attracted to members of the same sex.
However, despite the statistics, many people have clung to beliefs that the existence of such people is but mere fantasy. And, as demonstrated by the chief, much of this stems from a point of ignorance—the lack of knowledge about their existence.
This is supported by research conducted in 2013 by CHRR to gauge perceptions of religious and traditional leaders towards homosexuals.
The study established that as much as 67.8 percent of traditional leaders strongly believe that men who have sex with other men (MSM), a key population in the LGBTI community, do not exist in the country.
Sociologists and rights defenders have argued that it is such engraved beliefs or ignorance that force people to discriminate against anyone that declares they are a member of the LGBTI community.
Social psychologist Charles Chilimampunga says those who are not aware of the existence of such a community, or deliberately choose not to believe that the community exists, are bound to treat members of the community as outcasts whenever they disclose their orientation.
“Because of ignorance, people develop stereotypes about the LGBTI community. [And] these stereotypes are not based on facts,” Chilimampunga says.
“For the mainstream society, LGBTI represents a threat to its foundation and values. I feel it is important to provide the public with facts about LGBTI in order to clear the myths about LGBTI and to make society more tolerant of persons with a different sexual orientation.”
True to Chilimampunga’s observation, in 2013, a family from Salima came out and spoke about how their intersex child had been discriminated against since birth because the community in which the child was born never knew such an orientation could exist.
The community saw such an orientation as alien and a curse to the village.
Senior Chief Mabulabo says such has been the work of people who do not have respect for human rights and things have to change.
“Most of the times, these people do not have any knowledge about the issues around the LGBTI community and such a situation can only improve if people were sensitised to such issues. People should have respect for human rights,” he adds.
Chilimampunga reckons the media can play a significant role in this sensitisation respect, stressing that it is difficult for members of the LGBTI community to come out when society is hostile to them.
“Other change agents that can play a key role making society aware of these issues are traditional, religious leaders and civil society organisations. The LGBTI issue should be treated as a human rights issue,” he says.
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