05/27/2010 01:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is the Malawi Couple Gay?

By now I'm sure you've heard of the Malawi couple that was recently sentenced to 14 years hard labor because they publicly proposed to one another back in December. Personally, I haven't written about it since I know next to nothing about Malawi, but now coverage of the story has become a story in and of itself.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza are usually referred, in both the mainstream and LGBT media, as the "Malawi gay couple." That assumes that both Tiwonge and Steven are men, and that they see themselves as men in a relationship. But it's been fairly clear since the beginning that Tiwonge identifies as a woman:

Mr Chimbalanga, however, remained defiant. Dressed in a blouse and describing himself as a woman, he said that they became engaged after "my darling, Steven, proposed love to me and we agreed to get married".

Unlike Mr Monjeza, he refused to accept that he had broken any law. "Which laws? I am a woman, I can do what a woman can do," he said. "I love Steven for what he is, he doesn't give me money. In fact, I do everything for him, but love is love."

But prison is prison. "They beat us up here," said Mr Chimbalanga. "Why? Why beating us? We have done no wrong. If they say we have broken laws, why not let the courts judge us?"

Reluctant to accept that his relationship was over, he said: "Well, he is the one who proposed to me. I still love him though. Love is between two people, the third one is a spoiler. The police is the spoiler here."

And is accepted as a woman:

Jean Kamphale, Mr. Chimbalanga's boss at a Blantyre lodge, testified that she accepted "Auntie Tiwo" as a woman and assigned her cooking and cleaning chores. But after the article in The Nation appeared, she made her employee disrobe and refused to let him stop until he was naked from the waist down and "that's where the cat was let out of the bag."

While Western concepts of "gay," "bisexual," and "transgender" don't fit neatly into other cultures, if we're looking for the nearest label to apply to Tiwonge, "transgender" is the one, even though Tiwonge herself just identifies as a woman.

Now, none of this should matter. Whether their relationship was one between two men or one between a cis (as in, someone whose gender identity conforms to his or her body at birth) man and a trans woman, the fact that a government should punish people for being in love (or having sex or being in a relationship or holding a marriage ceremony) remains the same.

I'd go further and say that 14 years hard labor is too harsh a punishment for any crime. Hard labor as a punishment in prison is harder than what most of us would think of, lasting over 12 hours, with poor nutrition and water, and few breaks. The fact that malaria and other communicable diseases have swept through Steven and Tiwonge's prison, as well as the fact that they're asking for money to be sent to them so they can buy food, shows the inhumanity of where they've been placed. Fourteen years is effectively a death sentence.

Whether they were caught marrying or stealing, any two people should not be treated this way.

Where their identities do matter is in the Western media, where straight/cis people have been known to erase trans identities mainly because the journalist in question doesn't accept the idea of a person born with a male body being anything other than a man or a person born with a female body being anything other than a woman. And, as transgender blogger Autumn Sandeen pointed out, if this were interpreted as a trans story it likely wouldn't have gotten as much attention as it has in the West:

The Malawian couple has been charged and sentenced in relationship to having a homosexual relationship. The LGBT legacy and new media has picked up on the 14-year sentence based on the couple's relationship being declared homosexual by the judge who sentenced the couple. And let's be honest with ourselves -- I believe we can safely say that from past coverage by the LGBT press and LGBT blogosphere that this story would not have gained as much traction in LGBT media if this were considered a transgender or intersex story.

That's probably true and I'll agree that the story wouldn't have gotten attention if it were seen as trans instead of gay, but I also doubt this story would have gotten much attention if it read like a much more common gay story.

Instead of a couple that publicly engaged and referred to themselves as married, let's imagine that two men in Malawi had cruised for sex in a park, were caught fucking as police walked in on them, and were sent to jail. Would Western media be reporting this? Would we be taking up their case? Doubtful - we barely even talk about people arrested for cruising in our own country.

Because that's really what makes this story ring more as a trans story than as a gay story - the fact that they were attempting marriage at such a young age. I don't know much about Malawi, but outside of the West there's little talk of two men marrying one another in the same way a straight couple would. My first instinct says that this is a case of a man who proposed to someone who he saw as a woman and a woman who accepted a proposal from a man, but of course I don't know this couple from Adam.

In that sense, it's hard to escape the fact that the West is imposing its own value system on this couple, and, more broadly, this country. We have particular hang ups and particular injustices that we're more fine with than others, and a story about a brave, young couple wanting to get married is more likely to pull at our heartstrings than two dudes caught with their pants down in a park.

Moreover, the number of times that it's been repeated that this couple is "innocent" (i.e., they didn't do anything that would be considered illegal in a civilized, Western nation, like cruising or drug smuggling or stealing) shows that our solidarity is based partly on an attempt to export our own system of justice than it is to stand up against needless human suffering. I'm not saying that our own system of justice is superior or inferior, but we should at least recognize that our level of care depends on how innocent we see the victims here and that both our need to find victims and how we define victimhood are specific to our own culture. We're not asking Malawi to treat all prisoners better but to adopt our own idea of what is and is not a crime and to treat anyone who is a criminal however they want (another American concept: if they're guilty of something, it's their own fault, so to hell with them).

I don't want people to care less about Tiwonge and Steven; on the contrary, we should start caring more about all the people who get put in prison and how they're treated there and reconsider whether they should be there or not. There are a whole lot of reasons - not just their identity as gay or trans or straight or bi - that this story caught the West's attention, and they're all worth examining.