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GAY AND GRAY: Gay in South Africa 20 Years Ago

Posted Feb 25 2010 2:35am

JanAdams75x75 Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams ( bio ) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here , and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here .]


category_bug_gayandgray.gif One of the odd sensations I've gotten used to while growing older is the shock of realizing that the world is marking the 20th or 30th or 40th anniversary of events that were part of my life. I want to react - hey, wait a minute, that was just yesterday! I'm sure most elders feel that.

This past month, one such event was the 20th anniversary of the release of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela by South Africa's white-ruled apartheid regime. This momentous step portended the transition to majority rule in Africa's most developed nation and the fall of a system of racial domination unrivaled elsewhere in the modern world.

The dignified Mandela had been imprisoned for 26 years by the racist regime, yet when he stepped out of prison, he seemed the model of the free man, a head of state in waiting, while his jailers looked puny.

The release was televised live. My partner and I watched in California and marveled - something so long wished for was taking place before our eyes. Within the next few days we got an email from a technical assistance non-profit group seeking volunteers to work with a Cape Town anti-apartheid newspaper on its computer technology.

This was 1990 - "desktop publishing" was still something of a novelty then. We were only reasonably accomplished amateurs - but we were that. And we had numerous progressive friends who generously raised the funds to send the two of us for three months to support the South Africans. Within six weeks of Mandela's release, we were on a plane to Cape Town - to a country emerging from its global isolation and beginning together to imagine a non-racial, democratic future.

I have lots of South Africa and technical assistance stories, many funny, a few harrowing. But in my Gay and Gray mode, I want to share a bit about being gay in that time and place. You see, the American outfit that sent us, in a fit of political correctness, decided it had to tell our South African hosts that they were sending a lesbian couple. They thought they were being very progressive by sharing.

We two probably would have skipped this advance revelation; our South African friends would have figured things out pretty quickly. As it was, we arrived with the extra burden of being not only "girls" in a techie role in an unfamiliar country, but also a gay couple.

As it turned out, it didn't take that long for folks to decide we didn't have horns. Cape Town in 1990 reminded us of San Francisco in the 60s where every free spirit and weirdo in the country chose to congregate. It was imaginative and fun. There was no visible gay culture (as there had not been in 60s San Francisco either) but there was a great sense of openness to experiments with freedoms of all kinds. There was great snickering over anything that could suggest sexuality, but also toleration and, I suspect, experimentation all around us.

And so from this exciting perch, we had the privilege to observe something of how the African National Congress (ANC) - the political party that had led the freedom struggle and would easily win the eventual democratic election in 1994 - would deal with gay issues.

One of the first leaders of the ANC to return to South Africa from enforced exile abroad was the lawyer Albie Sachs. His assignment was to meet with groups that had worked for liberation throughout the country getting their views on what should be in a new constitution for a free South Africa. One of the groups he met with was the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Activists (OLGA).

The meeting was possible because OLGA campaigned not only for gay rights, but also was a recognized "nonracial," anti-apartheid group. Nonetheless, the quite open-minded journalists at the paper where we worked were surprised by this overture from the revered ANC to the gay community.

The newspaper we worked for got an invitation to a press conference held by Sachs and OLGA; our co-workers insisted we come along. We jumped at the chance, and were bewildered by the dirty looks we got from some of the OLGA people. Much later we understood. Every gay and lesbian in Cape Town had wanted to attend the event. OLGA members had to limit attendance; they thought we were some local lesbians crashing the party until informed that we were "press."

The statement Sachs issued that day still amazes me. Here's some of it as we recorded it at that time:

"The question of homosexuality has never been treated in an open and honest way in South Africa. The first thing that has to be done is get the question out in the open and for persons who stand to be most affected by any future dispensation to say themselves what they would like to see. This is part of a very extensive process of consultation and debate, based on the principle that people must write their own constitution...

"In the case of homosexuality in South Africa, there is a special pertinence in this phase where we are overcoming apartheid. The essence of apartheid was that it tried to tell people who they were, how they should behave, what their rights were. The essence of democracy is that people should be free to be who they are. Any full democracy in South Africa, in my view, should be such as to encourage everybody to be who they are...

"There is too much fear in South Africa in general. We want people to be free, to feel free. This is one more area, in my own view, where there appears to be oppression. We are against oppression and we want everybody to feel they are part of the nation, they are part of the new South Africa, as part of a general program against discrimination, against marginalizing people, against this idea of telling people who they are and what they are..."

Sachs and ANC were true to their principles. The new Constitution that came into effect in 1997, included equal rights for gays and lesbians. In 2006, Justice Albie Sachs wrote the legal opinion that required the country to recognize same gender marriage.

None of this is to say that today South Africa is a great place for its gay citizens. Lesbians are at risk for "curative rape" by men who think they know how to fix them; gay men are deeply stigmatized and sometimes beaten up. But the basic law stands for equality of rights.

This makes South Africa by far the most friendly place for LGBT people on its continent. An outburst of freedom was turned in that time and place toward freedom for all, not just some.

I've also written this story with a little more detail here.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jan Adams: Bethany Center Senor Housing Murals

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