Malawi gays stay underground

The billboard has no militant language, graphic pictures or cleverly obscure message just a group of neatly dressed Malawian activists politely urging respect for sexual minorities.

But the sign along a busy road in the small African nation is a historic step after last year’s explosive jailing and pardon of a couple who held the country’s first same-sex wedding.

The case drove many gays underground, but also ripped open taboos and rallied activists.

“For me, I think it was an eye-opener, like they’ve pioneered for us to stand up, carry ourselves and move around and go about our business as usual,” said “Taliro” about the arrested pair who drew a worldwide media storm.

Lesbian kiss: Malawi's gay community in hidding

“That has brought us to the point where we can go out, do what we do, unlike in the past situation when it wasn’t that conducive enough for people to go out and do their thing.”

But every step forward faces a hardline government, the threat of prison and backlash from a still fiercely conservative society.

“Things are worse in terms of the government attitudes,” said human rights lawyer Chrispine Sibande, one of the activists on the billboard.

“But on a positive part, I think there have been increased debates in the country about talking about gay rights.”

Human rights groups say the case was a platform to collectively push for greater protection — like winning a court order for the release of printed cloths preaching tolerance that were seized in May.

They now want Malawi’s gays to come forward, but the 14-year sentence and public humiliation of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza the only two people to have ever come out publicly  drove many people underground.–AFP

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