In recent years, ‘African homophobia’ has become a spectacle on the global stage, making Africa into a pre-modern site of anti-gay sentiment in need of Western intervention. This article suggests that ‘homophobia’ in post-2009 Malawi is an idiom through which multiple actors negotiate anxieties around governance and moral and economic dependency. I illustrate the material conditions that brought about social imaginaries of inclusion and exclusion – partially expressed through homophobic discourse – in Malawi. The article analyses the cascade of events that led to a moment of political and economic crisis in mid-2011, with special focus on how a 2009 sodomy case made homophobia available as a new genre of social commentary. Employing discourse analysis of newspaper articles, political speeches, the proceedings of a sodomy case, and discussions about men who have sex with men (MSM) as an HIV risk group, I show how African homophobia takes form via interested deployments of ‘cultural’ rhetoric toward competing ends. This article lends a comparative case study to a growing literature on the political and social functions of homophobia in sub-Saharan Africa.