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Malawi couple goes to trial Jan. 15
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Malawi couple goes to trial Jan. 15

Bride identifies as Trans woman

By Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Ending a week of international speculation about her gender identity, Tiwonge Chimbalanga told reporters on January 4 that she is a woman.

Chimbalanga married Steven Monjeza in a traditional ceremony on December 26. Within 48 hours the couple was in jail, charged with "gross indecency" in violation of Malawi's law against homosexuality.

BBC News, which reported extensively on the wedding and subsequent legal proceedings, has consistently referred to the pair as a "Gay couple" and has used male pronouns for both. The same practice has been followed by almost all international media.

Chimbalanga, however, wore a wedding dress at the December 26 ceremony and has continued to wear women's clothes in jail. She is reportedly known to friends and neighbors as "Auntie Tiwonge."

"I am a woman," she said flatly to reporters at her bail hearing on January 4. "I can do what a woman can do. I love Steven for what he is, he doesn't give me money. In fact, I do everything for him, but love is love."

The couple's request for bail was denied, and they will likely go to trial on January 15. If convicted, they face up to 14 years in prison.

Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa said the couple risked mob violence if they were released on bail, although this claim was rejected by their lawyers.

Usiwa-Usiwa added that he might set bail on January 10 if prosecutors had finished their investigation by then.

The couple told reporters they are being beaten in prison, and Monjeza seemed totally demoralized by the experience.

"I am sad I am going back to Chichiri Prison," he said after learning bail had been denied. "The conditions are terrible there. People are exaggerating this thing. I may just as well dissolve this marriage."

Monjeza also told reporters, "Well, I was drunk. I guess I wanted to be famous but I am now regretting. Prison life is no good. I realized we have broken the laws. I am calling this off."

Chimbalanga, on the other hand, seemed buoyant, smiling and waving to a crowd of supporters who chanted "Auntie Tiwonge! Auntie Tiwonge!"

She also chastised reporters for "writing stupid things."

After the latest hearing the pair was surrounded by hundreds of chanting and cheering supporters. Previous appearances had drawn about equal numbers of supporters and detractors who jeered them.

According to British Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who is in contact with Malawian activists, the couple will deny the charges of unnatural practices between males and gross indecency.

He said they would challenge the prosecution on the grounds that it is illegal under the equal rights and non-discrimination clauses of the Malawian constitution.

In a media release, Tatchell said the couple were suffering "appalling" conditions in prison and are being threatened with forced physical examinations to determine whether they have had sex.

But he added that they had been given food and money by supporters and were being represented by a team of five lawyers.

Their case has been taken up by the Malawian human rights group, the Center for the Development of People (CEDEP). CEDEP Executive Director Gift Trapence, told LGBT website PinkNews.co.uk that the couple's lawyers are fighting for the trial to be held in a higher court where more judges sit.

"Because of the penal code in Malawi, Gays are seen as unnatural," Trapence said. "This is the first case. There is a lot of attention in Malawi and lots of newspaper coverage. Gays are afraid of the law, they are not open, they are not visible."

"The problem is the violence is there but it is not reported," he added. "There are lots of blackmail issues. They think they will be prosecuted."

An administrator for CEDEP was arrested January 4, on charges that the Center's safer sex HIV education materials are pornographic.

Tatchell described the charges as "trumped up," and said the arrest was "almost certainly in retaliation" for CEDEP's public support of Chimbalanga and Monjeza.

On January 5, CEDEP called for a nationwide referendum on homosexuality, saying that consensus was needed.

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