My Words are My Memory: Transcendent Art on Naoshima

The Art House Project in Homura on Naoshima took 6 houses many 100-200 years old and a Shinto Shrine and created art in each. I spent 5 hours walking around this small village in a state of awe. Most of the spaces don’t allow photography, so my words are my memory. 

1. Imagine a square pool of water in an old Japanese house filling a room. The only lights are In the water: 125 LED lights counting from 1-9. Each counter represented a person on the island who determined the speed of the change. Kadoya, Tatsuo Miyajima

2. A 30 foot tunnel about 2 feet wide and 6 feet high is lined with smooth marble. You have a flashlight but don’t need it until the end. You turn into the blackness and turn on your light. The walls are rock, cave-like or tomb-like. Then your flashlight reflects light, in front of you is a staircase which looks like it’s made of ice with water dripping down. Go’o Shrine, Hiroshi Sugimoto 


3. You are led into a dark room by a guide who says keep your right hand to the wall. After the first turn it is pitch dark. You make several more turns and she invites you to sit and says, “Please wait 5-8 minutes.” You sit seeing nothing, listening to your breath. Nothing but darkness. Not even hallucinations. Nothing. You pay attention to your breathing so as not to let the fear of no seeing take over your mind. Then without announcement you begin to notice some light shapes on two of the walls and eventually light emanating from a large screen or maybe these are the hallucinations.  The guide invites you, “You can move around in the space now.”  You walk and see nothing in particular but the light is comforting in the dark. It’s not real light but a light that is not darkness. When you reach the place that you think there is a screen, your hand tries to touch and hits nothing. You begin to make your own movies of the lights. Nothing again. The guide beckons you to leave. This time you don’t need your hand on the wall to guide you. In the beginning of language there were no names for color, just light and dark. I experienced that today. Minamidera, James Turrell and Tadeo Ando

4. You take a break to eat and begin to notice big and little things, the sounds around you, the lushness of the land, the colors of everything. Your perceptions. 


5. You enter a large house formerly a dentists office. In one tall room the walls are painted shiny black in areas and a less shiny black in others. The room appears to be rectangular with a flat ceiling. The only light comes from a slot in the wall above you, natural light from a window somewhere. You walk up a staircase and look down into the room and discover the the black shiny ceiling has a huge triangular piece coming out about three feet. Then you notice the walls you thought were straight have alcoves. Later when you go down and step in each of the three alcoves you discover that they are all different and evoke different feelings. Back upstairs you find a 20 foot white plastic Statue of Liberty that’s a Buddha. Haidha, Shinro Ohtake

6. Hanging in there with me? You enter another old house with hard wooden floors varnished black with the exposed beams of ancient trees that were cut down to build the house. In one room on three sides are images that seem to be etched in metal but are really paintings set in the panels that used to make up the walls. The images evoke the Seto seascape around the island and on the final wall it trails into wisps of fog barely visible. In the other room, all three walls are of a painted waterfall, which is reflected in the black lacquer floor. Ishibashi, Hiroshi Senju


7. The Ando Museum has models of his work in an old house in which he added a square concrete room that goes down two stories. It creates a hard new space. Ando Museum, Tadeo Ando


8. Finally you reserve the 3:45 slot for a 15 minute experience alone in a building. The guide brings you to asks a thick yet low door and invites you to open it, step inside and close it.  It’s a 15 by 25 foot space. The only light comes from the bottom of the walls where there is a 4 inch slit that lets natural light enter. In front of you are there sets of columns which look like the tori gates in Shinto temples (the ones shaped like pi.) Surrounding the second set in the middle is a 12 foot diameter circular white ring made of marble. The marble ring has a smooth top about a foot wide with nothing but the ground and the tori gate in it. Scattered around are small flat circular objects and some small pointed objects. You remember from you beginning Japanese language class that flat things have a different counting system than pointed things. (There are numerous other counting systems.)  You doubt that is relevant to this situation. You are not allowed to roam around. You can just sit, look and breath. 

9. That was my day. Thanks for joining me.

A potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism-Review by Lambda Literary

Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker is an audacious debut novel.  No less a figure than Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Buccellanus Augustus (better known to us as the Roman Emperor Hadrian) narrates this tale. Deified after death, and therefore a demigod, he is able to interact with the immortal gods of ancient Greece and the orishas of Cuban Santería.  Unlike them, however, Hadrian can suffer the all-too-human feelings of love, an experience that extends into his post-mortal existence, and inspires acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of Antinio, the book’s mortal protagonist.  Hadrian cannot make himself known to humans, but he can, in a limited fashion (and at great cost to himself) extend his protection to Antinio, and does so several times over the course of the novel.

Antinio, despite his name, does not resemble Hadrian’s beloved Antinous (who drowned at the age of nineteen), except insofar that he too is literate, educated, and a great physical beauty.  Instead, he embodies the wily Odysseus (the eponymous “troubleseeker” of the book’s title), and his uncanny charm with women and men both continually lands him into and then out of trouble. The novel chronicles Antinio’s life-journey, which lasts far longer than ten years, and covers far more ground than the mythic islands of the Mediterranean. His facility with languages allows him to travel to Europe, and eventually he leaves his native Cuba for America, arriving in Florida before heading to Minneapolis and then eventually settling in California.  Similar to Odysseus’ journey, Antinio’s continual travels represent his search for home.  When Antinio immigrates to America, he is sundered from his wife and twin sons, but reuniting with them does not return him to himself as it did Odysseus; it is only by leaving Cuba that Antinio manages to establish an authentic identity as a Gay man.

Antino is not obsessed with the classical Greek preoccupation of avoiding one’s pre-ordained fate—nor does he share the ancient Greek distrust of that force called eros, the powerful, all-consuming love that even the gods feared because of its extreme potential for disruption.  Indeed, erotic love remains constant throughout his life, even during the repressive regimes of post-revolution Cuba and Reagan-era America, and even after he is stricken with HIV. (Lessik combines and subverts these two themes by naming the three great loves of Antinio’s life after each of the Greek Fates:  Antinio’s fate is to love, and he in turn loves Fate.)  For all that nearly every character takes his/her name from Greek myth, the Greek gods themselves play but a minor role in the narrative; the actions of the Cuban orishas result in greater consequences, as when Babalú Ayé (the orisha of disease and healing) creates the virus that eventually leads to AIDS.

Still, this book is not a recycling of Greek myth in Caribbean drag, any more than it is merely a retelling of love during the recent devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic with added fantastical elements to make the suffering mythic in scope. Lessik deftly weaves several narrative strands to create this story, which becomes greater than any of its single parts. Far more than the life story of one immigrant’s journey, or a Gay man’s search for love and/or identity, this odyssey is a potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism, and in its own way is just as epic.

Lambda Literary Review  by Keith Glaeske

The Troubleseeker: a Stunningly Creative Novel-Gay & Lesbian Review

“This stunningly creative novel, The Troubleseeker…with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, …is a powerful first novel.”

Gay & Lesbian Review of The Troubleseeker

This stunningly creative novel combines history and mythology from several cultures to tell the story of Antinio, a gay Cuban man, as he searches for freedom and love in the face of oppression and disease. It is narrated by Hadrian, the brilliant emperor of ancient Roman whose male lover Antinous died by drowning at age nineteen, whereupon Hadrian made him a god and had statues of Antinous erected all over the Empire. Hadrian,now a disembodied demi-god with limited supernatural powers, takes an interest in Antinio, actively saving h is life on several occasions. He also meets with several of the Greek gods and with the orishas of the Santería faith who migrated to Cuba from Africa during the slave trade-learning about their role in human affairs. It is an unusual blend, but holds together throughout to tell a compelling story. There is a helpful character guide at the beginning.

Antinio’s story begins in childhood, under the Castro regime. Skilled in languages, after an eventful stint in the military, he works as a translator in the Ministry of Culture, assist ing visiting artists and performers. This job also helps him to meet many like-minded men, and he has a few passionate affairs. Unfortunately, due to Cuba’s macho culture and the leadership’s repressive stance on homosexuality, he must keep his feelings and relationships a secret, even from his family. This leads to powerful feelings of guilt and shame, enough to create a chorus of Lamenters, Shriekers, and a Siren, which torment him throughout his life. He also has a brief relationship with a woman, which leads to children; his relationship with them will come to haunt him.

After a botched attempt to escape to East Germany, Anti­nio finds another opportunity when the Cuban government allows homosexuals and other undesirables to leave via the Mariel Boatlift. This makes for an unusual scene, when Anti­nio, w ho has always presented himself as a ‘”macho” type, must now adopt the stereotype of the effeminate gay man to the authorities to convince them that he’s gay. He arrives in the U.S., ending up in Minnesota, where he struggles to adjust to an unfamiliar climate and culture. He begins to find community, work, and lovers, but he’s hit hard by the AIDS crisis. Despite Hadrian’s power, he cannot save Antinio. But he can tell his story.

A love of language infuses the novel. The characters’ names are mostly derived from Greek mythology and language. Anti­nio’s wife is Circe and his sons are named Icario and Polideuces. His best friend is Erato, the muse of love and erotic poetry. A bully is named Apolion, from the word for destroyer. Even the novel’s title, according to Hadrian, comes from a translation of the hero Odysseus’ name, which literally means “to be grieved at.” (The actual etymology of Odysseus is uncertain.) As a young man Antinio falls in love with the constructed international language Esperanto, and his job in the U.S. involves creating a computer program that can translate any language. Spanish is also scattered throughout the novel.

The gods and orishas play an unusual , sometimes troubling role in the story, helping to influence human affairs while generally staying away from individual people. Babalu Ayé, responsible for disease and healing, is the creator of HIV, although he takes no responsibility for its effects. This reader could not help but remember certain religious figures who declared AIDS to be God’s punishment for homosexuality. Not that the novel is suggesting that, but it’s an uncomfortable association nonetheless. That said, with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, The Troubleseeker is a powerful first novel.

Charles Green is a writer based in Annapolis, Maryland.

 

 

 

Our Queer Art Interview

Interview in My Queer Art

ALAN LESSIK, SAN FRANCISCO WRITER, INTERVIEW

What is your name?
Alan Lessik

Where are you from?
San Francisco

What kind of work do you create?
Novels and commentaries

What do you define yourself as? Or do you not? Why/Why not?
Novelist, storyteller and alan of all trades

How long have you been practicing?
Since the beginning, although I just wrote my debut novel.

What interests you about your medium or why do you use this medium?
I am a story teller. Fiction allows me to explore the perceptions of life around me and then transform those into something new, adding in connections that only exist in my mind. Words have their own stories so I get fascinated by how to best express their history while using them for my own purposes.

If not answered in a previous question, when were you first exposed to your art form?
In elementary school, I loved when it was the bookmobile day. I would buy as many books as I could afford and most of those were way over my age comprehension. Every book I read, took me to new places in the world outside my NY working class suburb.

What kind of work do you want to create, or what work are you inspired by that you would like to strive for/emulate?
In this time of homogenizing the homo into marriage and society, I want to capture the unique and distinctive ways of our experiences and lives. As queers we are not actually outsiders, we are the real insiders and our experiences and perspectives have much to offer the world. Queer identities give depth and meaning to a world that seems stuck in identifying everything in a dualistic male/female, yes/no. We provide alternative models of behavior, love and creativity.

Every artist loses inspiration, or has “writer’s block.” What do you do to push through it?
My ideas are like kimchi. They need to ferment, sometimes for hours and other times for weeks or months. I trust in my “downtime”. When I am in the midst of setting down some words, I will write until it is done or I am exhausted. In the morning, I do zazen for almost an hour and watch as the thoughts pass through my brain. I try not to hold onto anything in particular as I do this. Later on, when I start writing again, some of those ideas reappear on the page. I love editing and re-editing until I don’t. Then I stop and either send it off or put it aside for another fermentation period.

What is special about your work? What do you have to say that others don’t?
No one else is me. No one else can see or imagine what goes on in my head. No one else is interested in same exact things that I am. This is true for each of us. The challenge is celebrate the differences while placing them in a context of the familiar. My canvas is the wide world. I love traveling to places where I am not always fluent in the language and have to rely on my other senses to understand the place. I love to sit back and listen and watch and to make connections. My work reflects people and places real and imaginary.

What limitations do you find with your medium?
The skills for marketing a book are not the same as for writing one. Reading habits have changed and buying habits have also changed. Bookstores are harder to find and there are few publishers and outlets of queer identified works. Working with a small press means I have to do much of this on my own.

What do you want to tell artists who are just beginning their journeys?
Listen, not to advice, but to the world around you. Explore and discover what types of risks you are willing to take. Be open to learning continuously. Floss everyday, your teeth are important.

You are not allowed to use your medium anymore, what medium do you choose to begin and why?
I would do interpretive figure skating.There is so much more that you can do on the ice than you can do on a floor. It is the closest thing to flying that I know. I love the feeling of grace and beauty and expressing one’s heart to the music.

Are you currently working on a project you’d like to plug?
My debut novel is The Troubleseeker. The Troubleseeker follows the life of Antinio from his youth in Havana through his later life in Minneapolis, San Diego to his death in San Francisco fifty years later. Scenes of post-revolutionary Cuba, the Mariel Boatlift, seeking asylum, the AIDS crisis, mental illness, and aging as a gay man are vividly depicted in Antinio’s lifelong odyssey to achieve freedom and love. The narrator, the Roman Emperor and demigod Hadrian, also weaves in conversations with Cuban Santería orishas, Greek gods, and stories of his own past in this funny, thoughtful and deeply poignant novel.

 

 

 

Remembering Simon Nkoli: The White-washing of LGBT History in South Africa

In 1996, I had the honor of interviewing the major players who engineered the inclusion of sexual orientation in the South African constitution. Simon Nkoli, Zackie Achmat, Edwin Cameroun and David Botha were among the leaders that I interviewed, each having their own crucial role to play. As I was pulling up the articles I wrote for the Advocate, SF Frontiers Newsmagazine and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, I was reviewing some subsequent writings published around the time of Nelson Mandela’s death in  2013. What I discovered was that the efforts of non-English/Afrikaans players, seem to have been diminished or eliminated completely. In particular, the role of Simon Nkoli was relegated to a small footnote.

pretoria

I first met Simon inside Johannesburg’s only gay bar in 1996.  He had just entered coming in from an AIDS candlelight vigil in the park across the street. He was the only black person in the bar and we struck up a conversation. When he told me his name, my immediate reaction was, “I have been looking all over for you!” My good friend farooq had contacts throughout the entire anti-apartheid and gay movement and Simon was a key member he wanted me to meet.For his out-sized reputation and leadership role, he was about 5’6″, had a goatee and a broad smile that hinted at a more serious side. After questioning about my motives in talking to him (and later I found out checking my background with others), we set up a time to talk.

By this point, he was the President of GLOW, the Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand, the multi-racial L/G group he had founded when the larger white run Gay Association of South Africa would not sponsor events in outside the whites-only  locations. He was also one of the first South African to come out as being HIV+. While we talked about a number of topics, the one I was most interested in was his role in the anti-apartheid movement  leading to the constitution.

His story began with begin arrested with 21 others in 1984 as part of the Delmas rent strike. All of the participants were thrown into a joint cell, including some leaders of the movement. They were in Cell 36 for two years before they were finally charged with the death penalty for treason and murder.  Jail time was often utilized as a time to organize, plan defense strategies and educate members of the anti-apartheid movement. At first, Simon did not come out to the group of men, which included some of the major leaders of one of the banned political parties, the United Democratic Front. However over several months, he came out to the group.

For several weeks Nkoli’s sexual orientation was the main discussion of the group. He had some supporters but others were concerned that if the the authorities brought up this issue in the upcoming trial, their whole case might be discredited. Over the time that the group was locked up, they come to recognize Nkoli’s honesty and strength. He was able to convince them in his words and integrity that being gay was one more oppression facing South Africa. Given that the regime would do anything to defame any members of the opposition, honesty and openness would give them less ability to blackmail them. It also did not hurt this case, that Nelson Mandela himself was aware of the young man and sent word that he should be listened to and protected.

When his trial finally occurred, Nkoli testified that on the day in question, he was at a gay rights meeting in one of the black townships. The government lawyers were stunned by this response and asked no more questions. After four years in prison, he was acquitted.

Internally, Nkoli was able to change the attitudes of his comrades and consequently the anti-apartheid movement itself. At the same, LGBT folks active in the international anti-apartheid movement were putting pressure on the African National Congress (ANC) to renounce a statement that “gay were not normal.” In 1987, the ANC’s spokesperson Thabo Mbeki (who eventually became President after Mandela finished his terms in office) announced that the group “is firmly committed to removing all forms of discrimination in a liberated South Africa. That commitment must surely extend to the protection of gay rights.”

Banned for life from participating in political parties, soon after being released Nkoli organized GLOW and in 1990 he was the co-organizer of the first Pride Parade in the country. As the new constitution was being outlined and Mandela was released from prison, he became one of the black spokespeople and leaders for LGBT inclusion.

About this time, the AIDS crisis began to affect South Africa. Nkoli became a national and international spokesperson when he formed the Township AIDS Project and announced that he was HIV+. When I met him, just two years before he died, he had numerous projects he was working on, including a book, which sadly was never completed.

It is quite likely that if Nkoli had not been arrested and come out in jail to his fellow detainees, including sexual orientation in the constitution would not have had the solid support that it did within the ANC. Let us remember his courage today.

 

The Advocate, May 28, 1996

By Alan Lessik

South Africa’s constitution, which was scheduled to be  ratified May 8, makes history by being the world’s first to explicitly prohibit anti-gay discrimination. But the decision to include the ban in the document’s bill of rights was unexpectedly smooth, insiders say, owing at least in part to the nation’s long history of institutionalized racism.

“We know what it is like to be oppressed by a characteristic that is irrelevant, whether it be your skin color or your sexual orientation,” says gay South African supreme court justice Edwin Cameron, who was one of the nation’s leading anti-apartheid attorneys before being elevated to the bench by President Nelson Mandela.

It is the long involvement of Cameron and other gays and lesbians in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement that paved the way for the inclusion of the gay rights clause in the new constitution, activists say. “Edwin was one of the first young lawyers to attack the judiciary for supporting apartheid,” says Zachie Achmat, co-director of the National Coalition on Gay and

Lesbian Equality, a South African gay rights group. “He was more or less out as gay during this time, although he was primarily doing anti-apartheid work, not gay and lesbian work.” During the 80’s Cameron was actively involved with the black trade union movement, helping its leaders make a link between anti-gay oppression and racial oppression.

Another gay anti-apartheid activist, Simon Nkoli, also played a role in bringing gay rights issues to public attention. Nkoli and 21 others were arrested as part of a rent strike in 1984.

Among those arrested with Nkoli were two leaders of the United Democratic Front, South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid organization at the time.

Nkoli says he did not come out as gay to his fellow rent strikers on their first day in detention in the Pretoria prison. “All 22 people were in one cell,” Nkoli says. “On the first day we had a meeting to discuss our backgrounds, family, religion.” Only a few members of the group knew much about Nkoli, and he says he chose not to bring his sexual orientation up at that time.

Several months later, though, he came out to the group, and while a few members were supportive, others were cautious, and some were openly hostile. For several weeks during the strikers’ imprisonment, Nkoli’s sexual orientation was the subject of the group’s daily meetings. Some of the defendants, afraid that prosecutors would use Nkoli’s homosexuality to discredit the entire group, “They wanted me to be quiet and not give evidence,” Nkoli says. However, everyone’s being locked together in the same cell allowed Nkoli to challenge the anti-gay attitudes of some of his fellow detainees.

In addition, gays and lesbians were active in anti-apartheid committees in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Scandinavia, Achmat says. When a leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid

African National Congress (ANC) declared in a London gay newspaper in 1987 that gays and lesbians were “not normal,” an uproar ensued. Foreign funding for the ANC was threatened, and the group was obliged to declare that gays and lesbians were indeed part of the South African revolutionary movement. By November 1987 then‑ANC information director Thabo Mbeki had announced that the group “is firmly committed to removing all forms of discrimination in a liberated South Africa. That commitment must surely extend to the protection of gay rights.”

Cameron says that South Africa’s ground breaking bill of rights will help the cause of gay rights throughout the world. Among judges, he contends, international precedents can influence

 

how cases are argued and settled. Kevan Botha, a lobbyist for the Equality Foundation, a South African gay rights group, agrees. “Gay rights issues were ones that your founding fathers had not considered in the United States,” he says. “But here the founding fathers have considered them. We are undergoing a paradigm shift where the inconceivable enters the realm of possibility.”

 

 

 

Speaking Truth to Power–S.F. Frontiers Newsmagazine, June 8, 1995

In 1995, I entered this essay in the “Greatest Moments of Pride” Contest in S.F. Frontiers Newsmagazine and was awarded 1st Place. Unfortunately, there are no on-line archives of the magazine from this period.

The room fell silent as I slowly walked up to the podium. When I reached the front, I too fell silent as I tried to gather my thoughts. Although I had volunteered to speak, I still had no idea what I was going to say to this gathering. The assembled group before me was the business meeting of the Quakers (Friends). And since the Quaker form of worship is based upon silent meditation, silence is a welcome part of all of their meetings, including those for business. My pause allowed them to reflect quietly to themselves as well. Given the controversial and almost raucous nature of the discussion so far in the meeting, a small break was appreciated.

The Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C. had been trying to come to terms with the issue of same gender marriages for five years at this time. As is Quaker practice, the entire meeting had to come to a joint consensus before any new change could be accepted. Originally requested by a gay couple five years previous, the issue of gay and lesbian marriages had split the meeting. While a clear majority of the group favored the marriages, a majority is not enough for Friends. Unity had to be reached and several prominent homophobic members were enough to prevent that unity from being achieved.

After the initial push for marriages ended in failure several years before, the discussion moved to a number of different committees, where slowly, it seemed, a consensus was emerging. A renewed public discussion was started in the business meeting, the decision making body of the Friends. However, despite the growing numbers of gay and lesbian members in the meeting, none of these members had chosen to speak on the topic before the meeting itself. No one felt safe in exposing themselves to the type of personal attacks that had gone on before. This is where I waltzed in.

I was a late bloomer and had recently come out after being married for a number of years. My coming out process was a joyous and exhilarating one for me, as for the first time in my life, I felt like a whole person. Coming out opened a flood gate of emotions. In this period of intense spiritual and psychological growth, I sought out like-minded people. Thus I found myself attending the predominantly gay and lesbian Friends meeting in Dupont Circle, one of several meetings constituting the Friends Meeting of Washington.

Quite soon after I began attending, I heard about the gay and lesbian marriage proposal that was being discussed. I went to the next monthly business meeting and was dismayed at the type of the statements that were being made by what I had assumed were enlightened Quakers. The usual “gay equals AIDS” as well as the “lifestyle choice” arguments were brought up. One older member even said, “Gays are like barnyard animals in the way that they have sex. It’s disgusting!” Each of these comments provoked anger and shame in the gay and lesbian members. And despite attempts by other supportive straight members of the meeting, the resolution of this issue appeared to be blocked for the foreseeable future.

I was bothered about what I had heard and experienced. Why was this otherwise strong and supportive group of gay and lesbian Quakers being quiet? Being new to the group, I knew little of the bad experiences and the mistrust that had developed over the previous years. Over the month until the next meeting for business, I pondered my reaction to this situation. On the afternoon of the business meeting, even as I approached the head of the meeting, I knew I had to speak, although to say what was unclear.

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As I closed my eyes to gather my thoughts, I was filled with a strength that had been growing ever since I started corning out. This strength came from loving myself, my entire gay self. It was a strength, I knew, that was supported by my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters scattered throughout the 90 people attending the meeting. This resilient force reached back to all of the gays and lesbians I knew, back to Stonewall, back to as long as we have existed and professed our love to each other. Suddenly, I felt clear headed and was ready to speak. And the words poured out of me as if a river of our experience was guiding me along. And no one, not even the most unrepentant homophobe in that group, could divert the truth.

“Friends, 10 years ago I was married in a Quaker ceremony in what was one of the most moving and loving experiences of my life. Surrounded by my family and Friends, capital ‘f’ and small, I felt love enter the room and bless not only me and my partner but all who were there on that fall afternoon. Anyone who has participated in a truly centered Quaker wedding has experienced this same feeling.

“Over the past several years, the Spirit has led me onto a path, a path that I could not have predicted 10 years previous. As I grew to know myself better, it became clearer and clearer to me that something was missing in my life, that I was not being true to the spirit that is within me and within all of us. As I started opening myself up to this feeling, I came to understand that I was gay. And while this Spirit-led understanding has caused some pain to others outside of me, it has brought nothing but joy and peace to my heart.

“I now stand before you, a gay man at peace with his soul. In many ways, I stand no differently before you now than I did 10 years ago when I celebrated my wedding. I look the same, although a few gray hairs now grace my head; my commitment to letting the Spirit guide my life is the same or even stronger; my strange sense of humor has not mellowed with time. The difference now is that I love men in the way I used to love women. In fact, I now love men with a passion and conviction that is stronger than I ever had before. Nothing else has changed.

“Oh yes, one other thing has changed. Before, I could celebrate my love with the blessings of my community of Friends. Now you tell me that I cannot. What is the difference, I ask? What is love about?  Is gay and lesbian love different from heterosexual love? I can say, from my unique vantage point, that the answer is no. How I feel love now is no different than how I felt love before. Love is love, we either recognize that or we must deny the existence of all love.

“Friends, the question before us is not whether we permit gay and lesbian marriages; it is whether we will recognize and bless love within our community. When we look at the issue in this manner, I don’t believe that there is any doubt as to how to answer that question.”

I stood before the group for a few seconds longer and sat down. There was silence throughout the room, a silence that lingered longer than any other that afternoon. The next person to speak was a young African American woman. Her message was short and to the point. “I came to the meeting today to speak out against this proposal. However, after hearing the last Friend speak, I now realize that what he said is the truth. The issue is love. There is no other issue. We must join together, gay and straight to support love in all of its forms and allow same gender marriages to come under our care.”

Her message started the flow of tears for many seated there and a perceptible change swept over the meeting. Afterwards, a number of gay and lesbian friends approached, not only thanking me for speaking but for being the first gay person to break through the silence and shame that had surrounded them.

The following months saw gays and lesbians speaking out at every meeting, sharing their stories, their dreams and their pride. In true Quaker fashion, the question of gay and lesbian marriages was not resolved for almost another year. But from that point on, the tenor of the discussion had changed. And the result… Two years later, a lesbian couple Jacqueline DiCarlo and Renee Roberts, stood before the meeting and exchanged their vows. The entire community shared in this historic moment as we all reflected on the long and difficult path that had brought us to that day. Within two years, two other lesbian and gay couples were married in the meeting.

Gay pride shows itself in many ways and in many forms. Sometime: it requires the outbursts and rage of ACT-UP or the boisterousness of thousands gathered in marches and parades. At other times, however, pride needs the silence and reflection of prayer. What all of these manifestations of pride have in common is the realization that we will not be taken for granted or ignored, that we are proud of who we are, and that we will continue to celebrate our lives and shape the world around us. The Quakers use a simple and forceful phrase to describe this: speaking truth to power.

 

South Africa’s Gay Rights–San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 22, 1996

I wrote this article for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1996 after four trips to South Africa. I had the great fortune to interview the major players in the movement to include sexual orientation in the new constitution. Unfortunately, this article is not currently on-line. The Bay Guardian plans to open up archives of this once important San Francisco newspaper in the future.

 

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA- On May 8 1996 South Africa became the world’s first country to constitutionally outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Constitutional Assembly’s vote to approve a new constitution and bill of rights not only completed the process of dismantling the apartheid regime but also ushered in a new era for gay and lesbian rights.

This historic achievement can be traced to the intervention and dedication of a few key people who made the case for a more inclusive definition of equality and human rights in the new constitution.

Kevan Botha, a lobbyist for the Johannesburg-based National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a political organization founded in December 1994, says that while most South Africans’ perceptions of discrimination were race-based, people now “can identify with the indignity and arbitrariness of  multiple discrimination.”

One of the first activists to effectively bring sexual orientation into national discussions on discrimination was Edwin Cameron. Cameron is a leading anti-apartheid lawyer who has taken part in numerous landmark cases involving forced eviction, relocation, and conscientious objection to obligatory military service. Now a judge on South Africa’s Supreme Court, which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. District Court, Cameron is probably the highest-ranking openly gay judge in the world.

During the 1980s, Cameron was especially active with the black trade union movement, then led by Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa, a likely successor to President Nelson Mandela, heads the parliament’s Constitutional Assembly, a special assembly formed after the 1994 elections to write the country’s new constitution.

Pretoria prison

Simon Nkoli, a gay student activist, has also influenced South African politics as a defendant in one of the largest apartheid trials, the Delmas treason trial. In 1984 Nkoli was arrested along with 21 other blacks for participating in a rent strike in Sebokeng, a township outside Johannesburg. All 22 spent nearly two years in Cell 36 of Pretoria Prison before· being formally charged with murder and treason.

Although Nkoli had been public about his sexual orientation before his arrest, few in the group of detainees knew that he was gay. In prison the group met daily to plan for their release. One day Nkoli came out to the group. Their reaction was hardly supportive.

“They didn’t want me to [testify],” Nkoli told the Bay Guardian; because they were worried that “state prosecutors would use my homosexuality to discredit [us] all.”

However, the long wait in prison gave Nkoli the opportunity to challenge the homophobic attitudes of his fellow detainees. By the time of their trial Nkoli had won not only the group’s acceptance of his homosexuality but also its support for including gays in South Africa s human rights movement.

Sheila Lapinski, another activist, also has helped make gays and lesbians a force in the human rights movement. In 1987 she helped formed the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Activists (OLGA) in Capetown. In 1989 OLGA became the first and only gay organization to join the United Democratic Front (UDF), the country’s leading anti-apartheid organization. This link enabled OLGA to organize discussions on gay and lesbian oppression with other human rights and political organizations, which led to higher-level contacts within both  UDF and the African National Congress (ANC).

 A new start

Nelson Mandela was freed Feb. 11, 1990, after two and a half decades in prison. Soon afterward the ANC was “unbanned” by the apartheid regime, and negotiations began among the ANC and the ruling parties to form a new government. The negotiators met in the Johannesburg suburb of Kempton Park to negotiate the government transition and develop an interim constitution.

In early 1991 Edwin Cameron was called in by the ANC and the Democratic Party, a mostly white moderate political party, to help write the early drafts of the country’s new constitution. These drafts incorporated a non discrimination clause that included sexual orientation along with race, gender, ethnic origin, color, age disability, and religion.

But the day-to-day negotiations on the constitution were being held behind closed doors, and Cameron and others were concerned that the sexual orientation clause might be dropped. In response to their worries the Equality Foundation, a Johannesburg-based human rights group, hired Kevan Botha in 1992 to lobby the negotiators to keep the clause.

Cameron says these lobbying efforts were a critical juncture in the country’s gay-rights movement. He recalled one cold-Sunday evening in May 1993 when he received word that all references to specific forms of discrimination-except for race  and gender had been dropped from the draft constitution. He and Botha quickly wrote the negotiators arguing that a broad discrimination clause was too vague to guarantee the rights of those not mentioned specifically. They also wrote in their memo, which can be found on the Constitutional Assembly’s World Wide Web page, that discrimination [on the ground of sexual orientation] is often arbitrary and based on innate prejudice with no empirical basis. Discrimination in this context requires that any protection be clear [and] comprehensive.

After continued lobbying, the sexual orientation clause was put back in the draft.

At the end of April 1994 Mandela was elected as the first president of a democratic South Africa. A few weeks later the interim constitution, including its new protections for gays and lesbians, went into effect. Despite this victory, Cameron said, the struggle was far from over.

After the elections the newly elected 400-member Constitutional Assembly, headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, was to write the final version of the new constitution. Mandela’s new government also brought the constitution-writing process out from behind closed doors and into the public arena. Citizens were invited to review the interim constitution and comment on its provisions.

Members of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), a religious conservative political party that received only 7 percent of the vote in the 1994 elections, began flooding the assembly with letters protesting the sexual-orientation clause. According to Botha, the ACDP has been given tactical advice from American Christian right groups. In 1994 the group circulated copies of The Gay Agenda, a video produced by a U.S. group known as The Report that depicts gay life in America, in an attempt to turn public opinion against the discrimination protection for gays and lesbians.

At this point the burgeoning gay and lesbian movement realized it had to take a more open approach to protecting its newfound status. In December 1994 a coalition of more than 60 gay and lesbian organizations formed the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. OLGA’s Lapinski became a co-chair. The group decided to dedicate itself to a single issue-keeping the sexual-orientation clause in the constitution. Soon it became the only nonpolitical party in Capetown to have a full-time lobbyist.

In June 1995 thousands of South African gays and lesbians wrote the assembly to support the clause and to describe their own experiences with discrimination. Ramaphosa later cited many of these letters in his rebuttal to the ACDP’s claims that protection was not needed.

While the one-on-one lobbying of individual politicians continued, Botha and others worked to increase public awareness of and support for the clause, especially in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu became an early and vocal supporter. His support, combined with the coalition’s efforts to bring the various religious communities into the debate, helped blunt the impact of the ACDP’s protests.

On May 8 the Constitutional Assembly approved the final version of the new constitution—with the sexual orientation clause intact.

Botha says he feels that as these new rights are tested, there will be both victories and setbacks. However, he added, South Africans’ expectations for equal treatment are higher than ever.

“South Africa will be the one to carry the torch of human rights into the 21st century,” Botha said.

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