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Interview: Britain’s gay Consul General to Cape Town

Jessica Geen March 16, 2009
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Coming from Leeds polytechnic university, Richard Wood was always going to be an unusual diplomat.

Currently, he heads the British Consulate in Cape Town and lives in the city with his partner, riding a red Vespa to work.

After graduating from university, he found that the Foreign Office fast stream programme only accepted graduates from Oxford or Cambridge. After working for a time at the British Embassy in Bonne, he was encouraged to try again and was successful as the first poly student to be accepted.

Richard, 41, has been living in Cape Town for two years and will serve for another two years before returning to London. He got married in South Africa in December to his partner, an investment banking consultant.

He said: “It’s a very laid-back, interesting job but part of our life is that we move every three or four years. You look forward to new challenges. Cape Town is a seaside city, a fun place to live. Big cities such as Cape Town and Johannesberg have quite large gay communities and Cape Town has a vibrant gay life. It’s well-accepted.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing more LGBT tourism as Cape Town is now considered a popular gay holiday destination.”

However, he admitted there were still problems with homophobic violence, saying: “It is a problem. Legislation is very liberal but that doesn’t necessarily change attitudes on the ground. There is lots of discrimination and violence, particularly against lesbians, especially if they are openly gay. However, it’s not something I have encountered personally. Although I do get a lot of invitations addressed to Mr and Mrs Wood.”

He praised Cape Town for its relaxed climate, saying it was “perfect” for nipping around on his red Vespa.

“It does raise a few eyebrows when I turn up on it to official functions. The other consuls look quite surprised.”

He highlighted the change the Foreign Office has seen over the last twenty years, contending that although “it hasn’t always been like this”, it is “unheard of” for anyone to encounter discrimination on a daily basis.

“The Foreign Office is such a good organisation in terms of diversity and it scored highly on Stonewall’s list of gay-friendly employers. That’s very encouraging and it’s a reassuring work environment.”

One of his fondest memories is accompanying Princess Diana to meet Nelson Mandela a few months before she died.

“Her brother was living out here at the time. I picked her up from the airport and looked after her. She wanted to meet Nelson Mandela. In those days, everyone wanted to meet him. They had a very relaxed and friendly chat. It was a fascinating experience.

“We had a long chat in the VIP lounge at the airport – I wouldn’t want to say what we talked about. We talked about a vast range of things. Actually, we have another royal visitor in the next few months. No two days are the same.

“It’s an interesting career – very well-managed. It used to be that jobs like this were reserved for older people, at the end of their careers. Now there are a lot more younger heads of post than there used to be. It’s a dynamic career, you can pursue your own interests.

“Eventually, I’d like to be an ambassador in Cuba or Buenos Aires, somewhere like that. I can’t speak Spanish yet but they teach you. I’ve had to learn a bit of Afrikaans and Zulu for this posting. I just hope it will fit in with normal family life.”

Related topics: Africa

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