Sexual minorities are living risky double life to conform to societal expectations, MERCY CHILONGO writes in Nation Newspaper.
Call him Watipaso because he is usually resented by the people around him. The 30-year-old has grown up being suspected of being gay.
But it is no longer a suspicion. Watipaso lives a pretended life to elude incessant disapproaval from his family, friends, neighbours and onlookers.
His double life cost him jobs at a bank and security firm.
Despite opening up about his sexual orientation 15 years ago, he tells his story in whispers afraid of being jailed.
“The rejection the gays face everywhere we go makes me totally resent life,” says the man who now works at a non-governmental organisation in the Northern Region.
Leading a double-faced life remains a major challenge for the country’s underground population of gays estimated at 40 000.
For three years, Watipaso has been dating a female nurse in Mzuzu.
However, he does not sound keen to marry her.
“I like my girlfriend because she makes me relate well with my family, but I am in love with my best friend, Gregory, who lives in Mangochi,” he explains.
Some family members familiar with her “top secret” help him conceal it.
However, he was forced to flee his parents’ home when they discovered some pro-gay magazines and lubricants.
“They agreed to make peace if I got a girlfriend and stopped dating the man,” he recalls.
His cousin says he does not approve of the double-dating, but accepts Watipaso’s dilemma because it is almost unchangeable.
“The two men regularly visit each other. When the fiancé is around, they go out in the name of partying or clubbing. Even if he marries her, he would still be his beloved companion,” says the cousin.
People in same-sex relationship often face a backlash in religious circles where homosexuality is condemned as evil.
“If the way I feel is sinful, I’d expect my loved ones to help me know that God can rescue me from homosexuality,” he says.
He spoke of a Blantyre-based preacher who constantly prayed for him when rumours emerged that he is gay.
Recently, churches under the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) have urged government not to repeal laws that prohibit same sex-acts which they find abominable, sinful and a threat to marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
EAM’s stand comes in response to ongoing consultation by Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) on how to conduct a public inquiry into freedoms of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans-genders and intersexes (LGBTI).
The churches evoke the country’s laws which only recognise marriages involving men and women.
But the two-pronged sexual affairs not only expose the gays to HIV infections, but also their male and female partners.
A study by John Hopkins University exposes a high burden of HIV infections among men who have sex with men (MSM) in the country.
The researchers established that 21 percent of gays interviewed were HIV positive, reinforcing existing evidence that the criminalisation and stigmatisation of same-sex practices greatly impedes the national HIV response.
Social pressure compels the likes of Watipaso to keep a low profile and fail to access vital HIV and Aids services, including counselling, testing, treatment, care and support.
Yet MSMs constitute the neglected bridge of HIV infections that silently cross over from the high-risk same-sex relationships to heterosexual women in sexual relations with straight men.
The climate of fear worsens exclusion among the key population
Eric Samisa got arrested shortly after he appeared on a local television and asked government to decriminalise same-sex affairs or kill homosexuals.
Recipe for disaster
These arrests, hate speech and mob justice compel gays to have male and female sexual partners as HIV infections abound in their midst.
The secretive gay relations are “a recipe for disaster”, says Centre for the Development of the People (Cedep) executive director Gift Trapence.
“Accepting and acknowledging that there are people leading a double life just to be seen to conform is the first step towards a holistic response to HIV and Aids,” he says.
In the country, homosexuality attracts jail terms of up to 14 years.
In 2010, the late Judge Nyakwawa Usiwasiwa sentenced the first admitted gay couple—Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza—to the maximum jail sentence.
Last year, Solicitor General Janet Banda said government would not be pressured to review penal laws against homosexuality.
This stance contradicts assurances by her boss, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu, who reaffirmed the 2012 moratorium when he announced suspension of further arrests and prosecution of gays in 2015.
Lawyer Chrispin Sibande, who champions sexual and reproductive health rights, wants Sections 153 and 156 scraped off the Penal Code to reflect prevailing realities and uphold human rights trends.
“Continued criminalisation further alienates gay people. It also fuels the spread of sexually transmitted infections,” he warns.
This article was coordinated by Centre for Solutions Journalism in Malawi with support from The Other Foundation