Journalist: ‘It would be wrong to say Mandela was always comfortable with gay rights’

December 9, 2013
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The late Nelson Mandela has been described by some as a “gay icon”, but South African author and journalist Mark Gevisser says Mandela’s approach to LGBT rights was less pronounced.

Mr Gevisser wrote a prize-winning biography of Mandela’s immediate successor as president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, and co-edited an acclaimed collection of essays on life from the country’s gay community.

Speaking to gay US journalist Michelangelo Signorile on SiriusXM Progress radio, Mr Gevisser said: “It’s not that Mandela ever took the mic and said, ‘I love gay people,’ or, ‘Gay people have rights.’ He never did. He studiously never did. But he accepted it.”

Responding to last Thursday’s death of the 95-year-old statesman, LGBT campaigners around the world paid tribute to Mandela.

Writing for, Peter Tatchell said: “Nelson Mandela was an African liberation hero and a supporter of LGBT human rights. He continued the liberation struggle pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah and ranks with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King as one of the world’s great humanitarians. His government supported LGBT equality and ended legal discrimination against LGBT people.”

Whilst claiming Mandela was initially slow off the mark in responding to South Africa’s HIV epidemic during his term in office, which Mr Gevisser also mentioned in his interview, Mr Tatchell went on to say that Mandela was the “first African leader to embrace LGBT rights.

“His extraordinary compassion and forgiveness led to reconciliation with his former white supremacist oppressors. For all these reasons, he is a global icon and a gay icon.”

In his radio interview, Mr Gevisser said: “It was not Mandela who brought the notion of LGBT rights into the ANC [African National Congress, the governing party].”

South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution in 1997 was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Officially endorsed by Mandela as president on 10 December 1996, Mr Gevisser said there’s no question that South Africa is a global leader on LGBT rights and that Mandela rightly deserves credit for that.

“A lot of that happened on Nelson Mandela’s watch,” Mr Gevisser said. “But it wasn’t something Mandela was always comfortable with. Mandela was a man of his generation. He went to a conservative mission school.”

“So it would be wrong to say he was always comfortable with LGBT rights,” Mr Gevisser continued. “I think what is extraordinary about him and his generation…is that when it was sort of explained to them by younger comrades [who’d spent time in the West in exile]…when it was explained to these old men that human rights are indivisible, and that, just as you can’t discriminate against someone because of the colour of her skin, you can’t discriminate against someone because of her sexual orientation, they got it. And they got it very quickly. They didn’t stand in the way of this extraordinary legal process that happened in South Africa.”

Mr Gevisser, who is gay and lives in France and South Africa, also described what he said was one of the most moving moments he experienced covering the dramatic changes in South Africa as a journalist in the 1990s.

“I was writing about a young lesbian couple, in about 1996 or ’97, when Mandela was still president,” he said. “A black couple who had been married in an amazing black gay and lesbian church — I mean, they weren’t married legally; the church married them. And there was a big problem among their families when they got married. The family of one woman went and beat up the other family for having taken their daughter away. The whole thing ended up in a police station in Soweto.”

Mr Gevisser said the station commander, who was a young black woman who had been appointed to the job as part of the first generation of new democratic leaders, pointed to a poster of Nelson Mandela on the wall.

“She said to these two families, ‘Listen, that man, your father, the father of our freedom, says it’s okay for these women to be together. And if he says that, who are you to argue?’”

South Africa became the first and so far only country in Africa to legalise marriage rights for same-sex couples in 2006. 

More: Africa, Africa, gay icon, LGBT rights, Michelangelo Signorile, nelson mandela, South Africa, South Africa, south African

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