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LGBTs Mourn Mandela

by Heather Cassell
Thursday Dec 12, 2013

LGBT human rights leaders mourned the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela, calling the Nobel Peace Prize recipient a true global leader.

Mandela, 95, died December 5 at his home in South Africa. He had grown frail and suffered from recurring lung problems many believe began during his 27 years as a political prisoner on Robben Island during the apartheid era.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced his death.

Speaking about Mandela, President Barack Obama described him as "a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice."

Mandela held a special place in the hearts and minds of LGBT rights activists for many reasons, chief among them was his work in drafting South Africa's new constitution that included protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, called Mandela's life and legacy "incomparable gifts to the world."

Julie Dorf, senior adviser for the Council for Global Equality and a former executive director of IGLHRC, agreed, emailing the Bay Area Reporter from Germany.

"There isn't a greater symbol of equality for anyone involved in social change than Nelson Mandela," she wrote.

Dorf recalled meeting Mandela at the 10th anniversary of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was honored with the Freedom Award in the early 2000s.

"He just had an amazing power to inspire," wrote Dorf.

"He was not only fully inclusive in his vision for South Africa, but more than anything he inspires us to be fiercely ambitious in our vision, while steadfast and forgiving in our approach," added Dorf. "I encourage our movement to learn from the legacy of Mandela's life, as we fight for our own better future."

Carolyn Wysinger, a Hayward LGBT activist and author of Knockturnal Emissions: Thoughts on #race #sexuality #gender #community , agreed.

"We don't really have activists like Nelson Mandela was in our community anymore. We have plenty of activism, but he was truly an extraordinary being," said Wysinger.

"Learn from him. Don't just honor him just because you think that he should be honored, but really learn about who he was and take the meaning of the lessons that you can and put them into practice," said Wysinger, who credits Mandela for teaching her how to bring humility, love, and passion to her work.

Boris O. Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch, said it was the end of an era.

"He embodied hope," Dittrich said in an email to the B.A.R. "Without him the world needs to find a new moral leader and people of his caliber are very, very hard to find.

"The world has become an empty place without him. He will be sorely missed. South Africa became a beacon of hope in a continent where most countries criminalize homosexual behavior and where LGBT people are treated as second-class citizens. Let us hope that those who follow in his footsteps will show the same magnitude and wisdom as Madiba did," Dittrich added, using Mandela's clan name.

Mandela served as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999. He was the nation's first elected black president. In 1993, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former South African President F.W. de Klerk, who released him from prison in1990.

Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918. He was a son of the chief councilor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people in Transkei. He received his more familiar name from a teacher, according to the New York Times.

Rainbow leader
California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco who launched California's battle for same-sex marriage in 2004, said the "the world lost a great man and moral leader."

"Like Moses before him, Nelson Mandela led his country out of the chains of oppression and ushered in a new era of humanity for all of South Africa," said Newsom.

Mandela's record on LGBT rights was strong, in spite of rarely speaking about LGBT people and fighting for HIV/AIDS rights late in South Africa's epidemic. In 2005, Mandela lost his son to AIDS. During his presidency he fought to decriminalize homosexuality and provide legal protections of LGBT individuals all the way up to enshrining rights in South Africa's constitution.

Mandela wrote in his book Long Walk to Freedom , "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

He appointed the country's first openly gay, HIV-positive judge, Edwin Cameron.

"Without Nelson Mandela's great-hearted commitment to humanity and justice, sexual orientation equality would never have found its way into the South African constitution in 1994," wrote Cameron in an email to the B.A.R.

"Mr. Mandela's commitment to gay and lesbian dignity goes back many decades. In 1962, when the apartheid security police arrested him, he was posing under cover as a driver to a white man, Cecil Williams. Williams was a gay man, and widely known in the ANC [African National Congress] to be so. His closeness to Mr. Mandela is obvious."

Cameron recalled the uncertainty that sexual orientation would survive the debates to ratify South Africa's Bill of Rights, but it did with Mandela's strong support after a ruling by the Constitutional Court. In a single action as president he became the first head of state in the world to meet with South African LGBT community leaders.

"Very soon after taking office, he met with gay and lesbian groups at the Union Buildings. He did so years before LGBTI groups were officially received by other heads of state," Cameron said.

In 2006, South Africa became the first African nation and the fifth in the world to legally recognize same-sex marriage. As recently as 2011 South Africa introduced a resolution supporting LGBT human rights to the United Nation's Human Rights Council, which was passed. A task force was also established to investigate hate crimes against LGBT community members in the country.

That doesn't mean that all is perfect in the country.

In 2010, Cameron, told the Guardian that he believed his appointment was a "remarkable achievement," but he agreed with LGBT activists that South Africa's constitutional aspiration for freedom from discrimination wasn't reached yet.

"But like with gender and racial discrimination, we haven't fulfilled the constitutional promise of non-discrimination," he told the newspaper. "There's still widespread ignorance and homophobia toward gay and lesbian people."

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