Next week, Malawians will go to the polls to elect a president, members of Parliament and local councillors. But, no matter who wins, queer people are guaranteed to lose.
Malawi’s political landscape is marred by queerphobia. Many people’s attitudes towards dissident sexualities and genders are hostile, and the final election debate between the deputy leaders from the major parties reflected this.
During the debate, they were asked whether they and their respective parties would protect queer rights. Notably, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP’s) deputy was absent. The answers of those who were there encapsulate the voting conundrum queer Malawians find themselves in.
Malawian laws criminalise consensual same-sex conduct between adults. Sidik Mia, of the Malawi Congress Party, and Frank Mwenifumbo, of the United Democratic Front, came out unwaveringly in defence of these laws. Playing on worn-out tropes that falsely construct Malawian culture as a heterosexual and cisgender monolith, Mia declared that “Malawian culture does not accept things like this [queerness]”.
Similarly, refusing to recognise the existence and activist work of queer Malawians, Mwenifumbo asserted that queerness is unAfrican and unMalawian. He stated that “the issue of LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] is a foreign phenomenon. It does not exist in our cultures and traditions. We are not going to embrace [it], it belongs to the Western culture and if they have it, fair enough, but here, no!”
Despite acknowledging that human rights are a fundamental component of democracy, Mwenifumbo suggested that a “Malawi-type of democracy, which must include our cultures, our norms and our beliefs”, was one that excluded queer people.
Both Mia and Mwenifumbo confirmed that if they were in power they would allow the criminalisation of consensual same-sex conduct between adults to continue to be used to arrest and convict queer people.
The decision by the DPP’s vice-presidential contender, Everton Chimulirenji, not to participate in the debate spoke volumes about the ruling party’s failure to protect queer rights.
A third party represented at the debate, the United Transformation Movement (UTM), said all issues concerning queer rights should be put to a referendum.
This is not a novel suggestion. The idea of using a referendum in this context was first introduced and then abandoned by the DPP following local and international criticism of its attitude to LGBTI people.
This same criticism was levelled at UTM during the debate. Human rights, particularly those of minorities, should not be decided by majoritarian dictates.
Defending the UTM’s position, Michael Usi argued that the result of a referendum would not necessarily be harmful to queer rights because there is no nationwide research to suggest Malawians would vote in favour of retaining the antiqueer laws. In spite of this, Usi would not offer his personal views on the issue or how he might weigh in on such a referendum if his party was to come into power.
In light of this debate, Lawrence Phiri Chipili, the executive director of Lite, an organisation that focuses on the human rights of Malawi’s queer people, commented that “for LGBTI rights, election day offers very little room for progress”.
He added that his organisation would “continue to work on the health and security rights of LGBTI people in Malawi as ensuring nondiscriminatory access to basic services for LGBTI people is fundamental in moving Malawi towards true democracy that is inclusive of all”.
It follows from this that for queer people the upcoming elections are a no-win situation. The current electoral possibilities are simply not enough. Queer people are largely faced with the choice to not vote, to spoil their ballots, or to vote directly against their interests.
The excruciating realities of the political landscape mean that whatever the election results are, loss is inevitable. Considering this, the task at hand for all queer people and their allies is to manoeuvre the political terrain in a way that creates opportunities to move beyond the present antiqueer politics.
Nigel Patel is a philosophy and law graduate and a queer rights activist