Da Capo al Coda: Steven and Tiwonge

Belonging Matters.

And it matters how we belong. To whom, under what circumstances, with what guarantees, what sets of mutual obligations, what measure of mutual pleasures.

It matters where we belong, not simply in a geographical sense but also in terms of how we feel. Belonging is about access, obligation, embedding, the ability to obtain easy credit, eat affordable food, enjoy local entertainment, say hello to neighbors, and cultivate friendships.

Belonging is how we inhabit the world. It can also be profoundly misunderstood.

Recent news that Steven Monjeza is now with a woman can easily be read into an anti-queer narrative: he has grown up and abandoned the sexual play of undeveloped, immature queerness. It was a phase. He was experimenting. Phases and experiments are important and their importance must be wedded to an anti-homophobic politics.

There are many delicate threads to disentangle, and forgive me for the ones that I will snarl.

While I do not want to bifurcate the world unnecessarily, let me start with two models of belonging. In a justly famous article, historian John D’Emilio argued that homosexual communities in the West coalesced following changes in the nature of capitalism. Shifts from agro-based forms of social reproduction to industrial-based labor, coupled with the growth of urban cities, freed gay men to move away from their rural towns. Their labor was no longer required on family and community farms and they could contribute different kinds of capital to their families.

The idea that modern homosexuality emerges through queer migrations plays a powerful role in the U.S. imagination, as it fits in with other dominant U.S. narratives about manifest destiny and rugged individualism and personal choice. That we choose our association has become a powerful rallying cry of queer organizing and scholarship.

At the same time, other scholars have suggested that this migration paradigm is neither necessarily desirable nor available to many rural-based populations and people of color, whose forms of local embedding provide sustenance and pleasure unavailable in often alienating urban spaces. Not every queer wants to be in New York or San Francisco.

As queer scholars have looked beyond the U.S. and England and toward Asia and Africa, we have noted how class and religion and tradition enable different strategies of belonging. We have affirmed the importance of embedded communities, arguing that the paradigm of the deracinated queer is inadequate to explain queer life worlds. Across the world, local embedding matters.

I make broad claims here, and hope they will be understood as polemical and strategic.

The “making” of Steven and Tiwonge into a gay cause proceeded under several assumptions, a key one being that a worldwide gay community, a transnational embedding, had a palpable presence and reality that could compensate for, if not surpass, the local forms of belonging practiced by the two. It was a model that then and now continues to argue for the value of deracinated belonging, a tough proposition at best.

In part, this disembedding of Steven and Tiwonge from Malawi happened through the invocation of the term “gay marriage,” a term that aligned them with struggles in California and D.C., saw them as victims through the lens of U.S.-based struggles, in which gay marriage has become a dominant frame through which to envision gay rights.

As I have noted, the term “gay marriage” robbed their ceremony, chinkhoswe, of its ritual significance. Chinkhoswe is about being embedded within local communities through a recognizable practice. Steven’s grandmother attended the ceremony, as did other friends and relatives. It was not a “gay wedding” attended or organized by a local queer or gay activist community.

I split hairs here, perhaps.

Significantly, the women who testified against Tiwonge included Tiwonge’s landlady and a church friend who had lent Tiwonge clothing to wear for the chinkhoswe. And even though much remains murky about this case, there is no evidence that Steven or Tiwongwe belonged to any queer-friendly activist organizations in Malawi.

Now, much of this, I admit, is unremarkable. Many gays and lesbians do not belong to activist organizations and often turn to such organizations for help or come to those organizations’ attention during unusual circumstances.

Yet international gay organizing around Steven and Tiwonge remained, for the most part, indifferent about their desires to belong: Tiwonge’s membership in church, for instance, has not been remarked on. And this absence is telling and worrying. Tiwonge’s gendered status has not been remarked on enough. And this absence also remains telling and worrying, to the extent that ignoring it masks something incredibly significant about how Steven and Tiwonge imagined their relationship.

To which communities did the two belong? How did they experience their belonging? Which forms of belonging mattered to them?

Added to all this, the presence of very loud international voices, including my own, who know about discourse: the relationship among institutions, language, and power; the historical production of knowledge; the suture between rights and politics. And because we know all these things, and speak with some measure of authority, we speak and write over Steven and Tiwonge.

Let me be clear: it is ethical to act for and with others.

At the same time, such acting can become a vast echo chamber, in which acting for takes precedence over acting with. And the moment the former dominates, we who act cannot understand decisions to be re-embedded. We can be, and maybe are, disappointed when those for whom we act seem to betray the hopes we invested in them.

We wanted Tiwonge and Steven to be figures around whom a queer revolution would coalesce. They wanted to live and love. And it is difficult, now, to name the particular mix of relief and disappointment that attends their decisions.

It is difficult for us to understand what it means to be symbolically expelled from one’s country through a punitive sentence, only to be welcomed back by the symbolic father, the president. It is difficult for us to understand the power of that welcome, the force of its demand, the appeal of its re-embedding. And it is especially difficult for us to pay attention to the ambivalence that now attends Steven and Tiwonge as they live their lives, perhaps differently than we had envisioned for them.

Of course, their case was fueled by homophobia and transphobia, but that is only part of the story. And, of course, as Eve Sedgwick argues, denying an individual the right to desire, the right to name that desire, is one of the most violent things that can be done. Steven and Tiwonge might never have stayed together. But that was their decision to make. That decision has been taken away from them. And this is violent.

I have titled this piece da capo al coda, from my long-ago music lessons. Translated loosely as back to the beginning and play until the end, it is an invitation for us to re-examine the “case” of Steven and Tiwonge, to pay attention to its textures and nuances, to understand the fugue in which we are engaged, and not to privilege our cadenza-like performances.

There is no moral from the Steven and Tiwonge chapter. No easy lesson. Several painful ones. And a broken relationship. That we who are concerned are implicated in producing this, no matter how tangentially, must be part of the bitter, ambivalent lesson we must learn.