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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Making things, like gay marriage, happen

There was a unanimous ruling last week (December 1st) in the highest court of South Africa in favour of same-sex marriage. The ruling has a story in which I feel like I played a part. And it's a story that keeps me reminded of the bigger significance and effects of our conversations, decisions and actions.

Around twenty years ago I started my job as "Community Worker" in the Leicester World Development Centre (in UK). My brief was to promote awareness of aid, trade and human rights in community groups in Leicester. Most of our funding came from Oxfam and Christian Aid. Although the centre was not Christian, we received donations from local church groups whose intentions were to contribute to helping the poor people in Africa and other Third World countries.

One of the first things I did at the centre was to start a newsletter - and I invited different community groups to contribute with news and articles about things that concerned them in their own communities. One of the groups that responded was the Gay and Lesbian group. This caused outrage from some groups who gave donations to the centre. They complained that lesbian and gay issues were not "Third World" issues. In my usual implusive way, and to the disapproval of some members of my Mangagement Committee, I wrote a strong case in the next newsletter as to why any agenda about human rights in any part of the world could not exclude gay and lesbian issues - and that as a centre we could and would not compromise on that.

Another significant part of my activities at the centre was promoting and supporting information and counter-information, action and counter-action related to Southern African countries. Apartheid was going strong; Nambia was still illegally occupied by South Africa; there was low-intensity warfare by South Africa in Mozambique; Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the African National Congress (ANC) was still seen by many as a terrorist organisation.

Around this time, 1987, Ruth Mompati - an executive member of the ANC - was in London to promote South Africa Women's Day. She was articulate about issues of women's emancipation. However, when Peter Tachell, a gay rights activist and supporter of the ANC in South Africa asked her about gay rights she responded that gay rights was not an issue in South Africa and was merely a red herring to the apartheid movement. While women's issues were of concern to the ANC, gay rights certainly were not.

Her statement and others that came from executives in the London ANC office caused outrage among some of us and we started to put pressure on the ANC. We stepped up our conversations about lesbian and gay issues with ANC members who came to Leicester for political events. After these events we used to have great nights of drinking beer and dancing late into the night. These events became another opportunity to put social pressure on ANC members to confront and include gay and lesbian issues in their political agenda.

A few months later Thomas Mbeki responded to public reaction to Mompati's comments with a letter stating that the ANC was firmly committed to removing all forms of discrimination and oppression in a liberated South Africa, including gay and lesbian rights. I remember attending a meeting in London where I listened to a convincing speech by a well-known ANC executive member about gay and lesbian rights - while only months before he had been in my house assuring us that these things were fashionable Western worries and nothing to do with the South African struggle.

In 1996, after Mandela's release, South Africa's new constitution became the first in the world specifically to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference. And now in 2005, in the context of being the only country in Africa to even officially acknowledge same-sex relationships, same-sex marriages have become legal.

So when I read the BBC stating that "South Africa is one of the world's most liberal countries in terms of gay rights" I feel satisfied to think that some of my conversations and some of my actions probably helped to make that happen.


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