The Museum as Art: Tadeo Ando and Ryue Nishizawa

” When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the wayer. When a bird flies, no matter how high it fileis, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When a bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is mall, the range is mall. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole of space and vigorously acts in every place.”–Genjokaon, Eiheiji Dogen

Imagine a favorite modern art building designed by a star architect in your city. Now take out all the art except for one piece or 15 or 30 pieces. Welcome to the new world of art on Naoshima and Teshima Islands in Japan, The  Benesse Corporation has created 4 museums, three designed by Tadeo Ando and the fourth by Ryue Nishizawa. Despite the “lack” of art in these museums, I only had time to visit three in the two days I was there. In each time move on its own pace unrelated to world time or even museum time. With so little to see, the amount of time to experience felt endless. 

There will be few pictures in this blog because photography was extremely limited.  Museums as Art also meant the the ban on photographing exhibits extended to the buildings themselves. The freestanding art outside was not part of this prohibition.

The Chichu Art Museum is a Tadao Ando concrete masterpiece built into the top of a hill overlooking the Seto (Inland) Sea. From the ticket center, you walk upwards through a garden filled with flowers, trees, a stream, a pond, refreshing in the coolness of the trail on a warm humid day. The museum is entered through a long concrete tunnel and walkway that  twists and turns and takes you down some flights of steps. It was long enough to make you wonder if you missed something. Is it possible that a person can we be walking this long in an art museums without any art. Ando creates experiences for humans, not places to hang pieces on a wall. 

When we do break through the maze, we are confronted with our only decision: which of the three artists, with eight works total on three floors to see first.

The Walter de Maria room is a modern ancient temple. The front wall is about 50 feet high and the room extends about 150 feet long. A massive staircase the width of the room occupies most of waht you see with flat spaces on top and bottom and a third of the way up. All white/ grey concrete. There is a lowered ceiling that has a slot allowing a direct view if the sky, while around the edges of the lowered ceiling diffused light comes through from openings we cannot see. There are no other light sources. Around the walls are 27 pairs of guided wooden columns about 4 feet high. The are arranged on the entry wall, the rear wall with just a few on the long walls. 

In the middle of the central stair platform is is a 2.2 meter diameter round black marble which looks like to could roll down the steps. However it was held in place, was not apparent although once could touch it and several people tried to push it. Such is human nature. It reflects the light particularly from the slit in the ceiling. 

People sit on the stairs above it and below it in quiet worship. It might be a long-lost recovered temple to the room itself. In re-looking at the brochure, I just noticed the name of the room, Time/Timelessness/NoTime.

The Monet Waterlilies room requires you to take off your shoes and don white soft slippers. The floor is composed of white miniature thick ceramics with no visible grout. The corners where the white walls meet are rounded. Again only diffused light enters the room from a lowered white ceiling; there are no electric lights. On each of three walls are hung one waterlily painting. The fourth had two smaller paintings. For about 15 minutes, no one else was there but me, the guard and the waterlilies. Being alone with such art is dangerous. I began to let the paintings speak to me, instead of the catalogue describing THE ART. I was bothered first that the largest of the works had this large reddish area blocking the views of the water lilies. In the endless time I had, I began to see and create my own stories of fire and light around this no longer serene pond. Like i said, it’s dangerous to let people alone with art, they may react.

The final room was James Turrell, the artist of light, vision and created environments. Open Skies is a large room with the ceiling open to the sky. Completely open to air, the clouds, the rain and sun. It was a dull day out, soon to rain, and  the sky white and grey just slowly moving. In the evenings, Turrell plays with our vision by bathing the walls in different hues which shockingly paints the open skies in new and vibrant colors.

In the next room was his Open Field. Up a staircase of black steps you enter a glowing magenta room which feels soft and misty, walking through a fog bank that’s perfectly clear while casting a spell on the air itself. The more you walk, the more the space seems contained yet endless. 

As you walk through again the corridors, Ando leads your eye to look at the building and your reactions. The one exception to the photography ban is from where I am sitting outside the cafe where you take pictures of the scenery. 

At 4:56 Japanese time on June 24, this is what I see.

Lower down the hill is the Benesse Art Museum. Here is the view from the from entrance.


 It was realively more crowded with art, 30 pieces or so over three floors. I remember three pieces by Richard Long, one ring filled with cut stone, another with driftwood from the Seto Sea and a third of two circles painted on a wall with what looked like mud.  For some reason their lack of importability struck me. That’s when I realized that they were created for the building and space so they don’t have to move.

In contrast, one of the temporary pieces was called Weeds by Yoshihiro Suda. Weeds were indeed the one thing missing from Ando’s building. All concrete has cracks and weeds are the first to grow. Now they complete the space. Here’s a picture from the Benesse website. 


Outside on the grounds are additional pieces of work. 


Drink a Cup of Tea, Kazuo Katase


Pumpkin, Yayoi Kasuma


Seen/Unseen, Known/Unknown, Walter de Maria (The hat was actually a found object.)

On my last day in the islands, I took a ferry to Teshima Island, the home of the Teshima Art Musuem. The museum was designed by Ryue Nishizawa and the interior piece, there’s one and only one, was designed by Rei Naito who did the Art House Project  called Kinza  which I had experienced by myself a few days before. The Museum is a white concrete shell like some sort of oblongish saucer foot ball field size with two oblong holes in the ceiling. 


Each hole has a white ribbon hanging from side to side like an ethereal swing which blows and shimmers in the wind.  The smooth white concrete floor had tiny pinpoint holes where water exudes in drops. The drops coagulate and move following unseen pathways only known to them, sometimes swiftly like shape-shifting snakes, other times simply blobs of water joining with other blobs until that mass starts moving. There also occasional strings from the ceiling and small round white objects on the floor. We enter, as one does to temples, barefoot and can feel the coolness of the concrete through our feet. All throughout people are silently sitting some on their knees in seiza, as it is Japan and they know that position from birth, others walking sitting breathing lying in awe.

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.