Mark Gevisser and the new human rights frontier

The author of The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers says queer people face a backlash because they’re breaking new ground in claiming a space for themselves.

In a podcast discussing his new book, The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, Mark Gevisser describes it as a project he occasionally felt was “overambitious”. Eight years after setting out to put together the resultant tome of more than 500 pages, the project has fortunately not crumbled under the weight of its overreaching ambition. 

Centred on the lived experiences of queer folk in nine countries across the globe, Gevisser’s book is an expansive yet intimate look into “how LGBT rights became one of the world’s new human rights frontiers”. 

Gevisser is the author of Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred and Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir. He is also the co-editor of Defiant Desire, a collection of essays on queer life in South Africa published in 1995

The Pink Line, he proffers, is “a new human rights frontier that has come to define, divide and describe the world in a whole new way, a new human rights frontier that is being staked over LGBTI rights. It’s about how identity has become politicised in our era in a way that has had really positive consequences and really negative consequences. That it’s really complex.” 

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For queer folk, increased visibility – usually in tandem with a push for the protection of their rights – is often something of a double-edged sword: it is both vital and challenged by violent contexts. And while the LGBTQIA+ rights movement might have secured victories when it comes to the recognition of same-sex rights, the latest example of pushback is what Gevisser calls “the battle against ‘gender theory’”, which challenges “the very notion that gender existed in the first place”. 

The ever-increasing rate of violent crimes against transgender women globally is, in no small part, part of a coordinated fight by “the anti-gender theory movement” and the structural, violent queerphobia and transphobia that LGBTQIA+ persons still face daily. Navigating visibility, hard-won rights and continued activism in the face of this structural violence is complex and made necessary by these societal contexts. 

Gevisser talked to New Frame about the complexities of queerphobia in Africa, violence and visibility around the globe, how Covid-19 will affect the telling of marginalised people’s stories, and finding hope in the courage of the people he writes about. 

Carl Collison: When you did Defiant Desire in 1995, did you think that in 2020 we would still be here, particularly as the African continent, dealing with queerphobia? 

Mark Gevisser: One of things I write in the book is that when I did Defiant Desire, I could never have imagined that there would be the debates that there were in 2012 [when I started working on The Pink Line]. And that’s one of the points of my book – how quickly this debate exploded. Barack Obama once said that it’s the fastest-moving human rights struggle that ever happened. And he is right. 

Does that necessarily mean that there are more rights? That it’s easier and that there has been progress? No. And I think that’s one of the big points of my book, that the claiming of LGBT rights by people, particularly in Africa and Eastern Europe and the Carribean, has been very, very, very hecticly opposed. So there are new debates and new constraints that weren’t there when I did Defiant Desire, because it wasn’t a matter of public debate back then. It was on the down-low in most parts of Africa. And I think we can track that in South Africa, too. 

You know, this is something I say often, but I think it’s really important – and I don’t know if you agree with me – but the phenomenon of punitive rape and the kind of terrible queerbashing and violence that we see in South Africa now, like the murder of Kirvan Fortuin recently [which is still under investigation], are as a consequence of people coming out and claiming space that was not claimed in previous generations. 

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It’s [a result of] people feeling, or insisting, that they be allowed to live openly as a consequence of a human rights movement of changing law in South Africa that has provoked backlash. Not that there hasn’t always been policing of people who are gender-nonconforming. There has been. But it has become a matter of public contention in a new way because of the way people are claiming public and political space as never before.  

Collison: Do you think this backlash is part of an evolution towards acceptance, or do you think we need to address it by changing our behaviour and not claiming as much space as we are doing?

Gevisser: If I can answer that by repeating the story I tell in my book of a Ukrainian activist [who] says her fellow activists were saying to her, ‘Ukrainian society isn’t ready for this. You need to take it more slowly.’ And her answer was like, ‘It’s too late. Ukranian queers are coming out of their own accord.’ You know? So yes, activists can try and be incremental in some ways. And certainly South African legal activists were very successful with that in the way they changed the law, using a strategy kind of developed by Edwin Cameron and Zackie Achmat. You know, first to decriminalise sodomy and then very slowly work up to same-sex marriage. 

But I’m not even sure you could do that anymore, because that was done in a somewhat pre-digital age. And [these days] there is no way of controlling the way messages kind of zoom around the world. So I don’t even think it is worth pondering whether we should do it more slowly or whether we can do it more slowly. It’s not how the world works. [But] I do think that the Western model of visibility being the root to social change has to be understood and contextualised in different contexts.

Collison: Unpack that? 

Gevisser: Well, for example, when Harvey Milk said in the 1970s, ‘Gay brothers and sisters, come out wherever you are’, which became a sort of coming-out rallying cry, he was saying it on the wave of the American sexual revolution and in a society where people were speaking about sex and sexuality. In an African society, where talking about heterosexual sex is somewhat taboo and where claiming an identity on the basis of sexual orientation is sort of unheard of, that’s got to be factored in. 

Not to say ‘don’t come out’, but rather that there are different ways of coming out, of fighting for rights and of being full citizens that have to do with taking into account the political history of your country. One has got to understand it contextually. And I, as a middle-class, middle-aged, white gay man certainly don’t feel comfortable telling anybody that they have to come out and be visible. Because, you know, the consequences can be very, very tough. 

Collison: Speaking of tough consequences, let’s talk about Africa specifically. Do you think it is only because of colonial-era anti-sodomy laws we have inherited that there is still such large-scale queerphobia across the continent? Or are there other reasons for this? 

Gevisser: I’m very cautious about blaming Western laws exclusively for African queerphobia. Because I think that even if the laws or the strategies come from the West – whether it has to do with anti-sodomy laws or the strategy of political homophobia that comes from evangelical Christianity in America – these are sort of taken on and indigenised by African people. And to say that homophobia is unAfrican denies African agency as much as saying that homosexuality is unAfrican. African societies, like all societies, have always had trouble with non-normative sexualities and gender identities. But they have integrated them in different ways and in ways we can learn lots of different lessons from.

And it is true that the West brought the “crime of carnal knowledge against the order of nature” thing into Africa, but I think this is really important – and I don’t know if it is something you have found in your own work – but truly, until people started standing up and demanding that they be counted politically and that they get their rights politically, those laws were on the whole not used against consenting adults. The very first time that anti-sodomy laws were used against consenting adults in Malawi was with Tiwonge Chimbalanga [the transgender woman arrested in 2009 for conducting an engagement ceremony with her male partner]. It was rarely ever used until suddenly there was this new threat in society, this new group of people demanding rights. 

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In authoritarian societies – even ones masquerading as democracies, such as Uganda – where civil society is not allowed, along comes a new group of people demanding their rights as citizens. And the patriarchs and priests who don’t want this for political and social reasons, and feel threatened by this, look at what they’ve got in their arsenal. And what do they find? They find this age-old sodomy law that they got from the British. 

So they dust that law off and use it. And they use it to fight something they say is unAfrican, which is, of course, ironic. I think it’s important to bear that context in mind: that these are not laws that have been used since they were written to discriminate against queer people. There are other ways that queer people have been, and are being, discriminated against in society. And it is more often in the church than in the courts… It’s through religion, through religious codes and norms. 

Collison: You got to visit most of the people you write about in those countries at least twice. I must say, that made me very envious. I wish I had that as a journalist. But with budgets being what they often are and the nature of news, that’s just not possible.

Gevisser: Ja, that was my intention. It’s partly because I don’t believe you can ever really know someone well enough to presume to write about them, so I wanted to know as much about them as possible. But also precisely because I’m writing about how the world is changing, I wanted to watch the people I write about over time, and over these critical years. To watch how their lives were changing, how politics were changing, but also how they were changing politics. 

Also, I could never, ever, ever have done this book without the grant from the Open Society Foundation. Never. It enabled me to travel and be with people in those places. Ja, it’s impossible to do this work as a journalist. Frankly, even the grant from the Open Society Foundation wasn’t enough. The only way I could do the book was, after having got the grant, selling the book to publishers. And they never paid me millions, but enough to fund another round of travel to the people I was writing about. And I also sold journalism to do that, bit by bit. I would get a commission from The Guardian to write about Tiwonge and that would fund a trip to Malawi. And that’s another reason why this book took so long, I had to find ways to carry on funding my travels through journalism.  

Collison: Covid-19 has affected the media industry pretty badly. So I find myself concerned about what impact this will have on our ability to report thoroughly on marginalised people specifically, and not only queer folk. Is that a concern for you, too? My worry is that publications or publishing houses will now be even less willing to spend resources covering, for example, a story on trans people in rural areas. 

MG: Ja, of course it will. You’re absolutely right. There’s less budget, less ability to travel, and also travel is going to be so much more expensive. That’s the downside. The upside is that the pandemic has really dramatically accelerated the way we use communication technology. And that gives us the opportunity to be places that we might not have been able to afford being. Would I be able to write about a place as well as if I did visit those places? No. I don’t believe so. I believe the sort of embodied experience of a journalist is critical. And there’s no way I would have written… none of the people I wrote about in my book who are the main subjects – the nine main stories – I wouldn’t have even contemplated writing about them if I didn’t get to spend very significant time with them in person. 

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In the future, will it be the same way? I don’t know. I’m thinking of another book with a similar structure on a different issue. So am I going to insist on going to all the places to meet all the people again? Will I be able to insist on that? I don’t know. We’ll have to see. I might have to change my methodology. 

Collison: Towards the end of the book, you wrote really powerfully about how invested you were in the process of writing the book and how important it was to tell stories of people overcoming their struggles. Were there any points in the years it took to put this book together where you felt ‘I’m not going to win here’? 

Gevisser: Sure. I write in the epilogue that, in fact, it was really painful to me that so many of my stories don’t end well. I mean, that is partly because you have to stop the book at some point. And there are some stories that don’t end well in the book but have actually ended much better since the book ended. And that’s life, right? I would have loved to be able to give my readers a happy ending. But, you know, life’s not a fairy tale. 

And many of the people I write about are still struggling. It’s not as though, because they came out, they’re free and life is better. In some instances they are and in some instances they’re not. In some instances they actually went into exile and they’re finding life very tough in exile as refugees. Even though they’re going to South Africa or the Netherlands or Canada – these places that are meant to be sort of places of gay freedom – they get there and discover a new set of problems they have to deal with. And I think that’s very important, that we all strive towards freedom and living our best possible lives, but that life isn’t a fairy tale. And the journey is tough. And it’s tougher for some people than for others. 

But in all of that I didn’t despair, [because] very importantly … no matter how tough the situation, they all in their different worlds have allies and supporters, people who support them, believe them and trust in them. This helped me see the way that change sometimes happens … on a more granular level, on a more intimate level. The reason I didn’t despair is because … I found hope in the courage and the agency of the people I wrote about. 

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