A confession. An impassioned plea. Silence. Rapturous applause. More confessions. Then a dramatic change of heart.
It took one brave young man.
He changed the conversation from one that dwelt on abstracts on the topic of homosexuality to one that zeroed in on specifics.
“I am gay. I was born gay. Nobody made me gay and I did not choose to be gay. It came naturally to me that only when I sleep with a fellow man, do I feel sexually satisfied,” said the man who has sex with other men (MSM).
The man, in his 20s, was speaking during a panel discussion in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe on Saturday organised by Centre of the Development of People (Cedep) and Manelera+.
The discussion brought together 40 gays and about 80 religious leaders to have a frank discussion on homosexuality, according to Cedep executive director Gift Trapence.
He asked the clerics to accept homosexuals because gays are human beings too just like other sinners such as thieves and murderers who the clergy embrace in their prayer houses.
What followed this impassioned plea was pure drama.
One woman grabbed the microphone to proclaim that she was married with two children, but she is bisexual, revealing that she has a sexual relationship with a woman in which she is the man.
“I sleep with my husband and I also sleep with my female lover. Between the two, it is my female lover who satisfies me,” said the Lilongwe woman.
Then the woman’s female lover, who was also at the conference, stepped forward to state that she has one child from a previous heterosexual relationship, but that she was in love with the woman who had just spoken. Since then, she has not looked back, she said.
After their confessions, the two women lovers embraced and kissed in full view of the participants, attracting disapproving snorts from the clergy’s side of the imposing auditorium at Cross Roads Hotel in Lilongwe and murmurings of encouragement from the other side mostly populated by gays.
What sparked all this?
It was a video documentary, God Loves Uganda, which was screened to set the stage for the gay-clergy discussion on a subject that has become as emotive within the Malawian society as it has been political.
The 90-minute God Loves Uganda—directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams—interrogates what some human rights defenders say is the dangerous evangelical crusade “to change African culture with values imported from America’s Christian Right” to demonise homosexuals through extremist sermons.
The film led to intense debate in Lilongwe, with some religious participants such as John Chitsulo saying the clergy must preach love because that is what God promotes, not hate as is currently happening when it comes to gay rights.
But another member of the clergy, Tupi Monjeza, argued that it was unacceptable in the eyes of God for people of the same sex to have carnal knowledge of each other and condemned gays as misfits.
But in a dramatic change of heart, Monjeza—after listening to the gays’ confessions and plea for acceptance—stood up, as the discussion was winding up, to announce that he was withdrawing his initial remarks against gays, saying his views had evolved during the two hours of the discussions.
But for Sheik Twaha of Chinsapo in Lilongwe, nothing would make him accept gays in a mosque.
“Islamic teachings do not allow same sex relationships. Real Muslims should follow the teachings of Islam. If they do not do that, then they do not deserve to be in a mosque,” Twaha said in an interview after the debate that sometimes made tempers to flare.
Globally, the debate around homosexuality—MSMs as well as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) relationships—has largely been framed around respective countries’ legal and regulatory frameworks, inherent cultural norms and traditions as well religion.
This is why, said Cedep’s Trapence, his organisation—in collaboration with its partners such as Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV and Aids (Manerera+), Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa) and the Open Society Institute, organised the Lilongwe discussion to provide a platform to enable the two sides to appreciate each other’s positions.
While Malawi’s Constitution upholds the protection of all human rights without discrimination based on sex and other statuses; and while Malawi is a signatory to international human rights instruments, the sexual activities of people in same-sex relationships are criminalised under the Malawi Penal Code.
This legal conundrum boggles the mind of human rights lawyer Crispin Sibande, who was a panelist at the discussion.
“It is surprising that the people who made the homosexuality laws, the colonialists, are beginning to get rid of them. Why are we clinging to them?” he wondered
For Dr. Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian based in the United States of Amercia working as a religion and sexuality researcher at the respected liberal think-thank, Political Research Associates, the major problem is that the debate around homosexuality has been over-sexualised.
“When I look at a homosexual, the first thing that comes to my mind is that he is a human being, not a sexual object. Yet, most of the discussion around the subject revolves around how gays carry out their sex acts. It is the human being angle that this debate should centre around,” Kaoma, who is also a professor at America’s Boston University, said in an interview after the Saturday conference.