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

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.

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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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Marching to Pretoria: Adventures in Queer South Africa–SF Frontiers, January 18, 1996

I rediscovered this article I wrote in 1996 and sadly enough, its last paragraph is true again. 

“No person shall be unfairly discriminated against, directly or indirectly, and without derogating from the generality of this provision, on one or more of the following grounds in particular: race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture or language.”

Question  1: The  above  quote  comes  from:  a)  San Francisco Human Rights Ordinance, b) Apple Computer’s corporate policy, or c) South Africa’s interim constitution.

Question 2: You can find a nationally celebrated drag performer interviewing politicians with her own television show on: a) SciFi Channel, b) Australian Broadcasting System, or c) M-NET South Africa.

Question 3: What is going on down there anyway?

Shedding its racist, puritanical past, the New South Africa is changing daily, in a process that is as amazing to outsiders as it is bewildering to those who live there. 1nmy fourth trip to South Africa over the last four years, and in my first trip since the first democratic elections last year brought in Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity, I experienced a South Africa that was only dreamed about a few years ago. South Africa is now looking to the future, a future that among other things, is queer. The dream and reality of the New South Africa can be seen in the city most connected with its past, Pretoria

The White Bread City

As the home to white Afrikaner bureaucrats, Pretoria had the distinction of being the world’s most boring city. ‘Blacks could not live within the city limits and were forced to leave in the evening. And so did pretty much everyone else.  Stores closed early  and  the  streets were  generally deserted after 6 p.m. Only at brightly lit malls, painted in pink and turquoise, could you find some cinema-goers in the evening. Movies were highly censored, eliminating sex and controversial issues. No films were shown on Sundays, the day of rest.

The gay bars of Pretoria were quiet affairs, hidden away and discrete except for weekends when things picked up a bit. But it was generally agreed that all of the action was in Johannesburg. This time, entering Pretoria I was aware that even here change was happening.  There were blacks on the streets,  all  over the city, day and night.  And even more surprising to me, my “gaydar” started working for the first time ever in my several South African travels. Previously, it always seemed to be on the blink, never registering any like kinds, often not even in the gay bars. This time it started beeping before I had even pulled into the Holiday Inn.

The Holiday Inn had changed a bit, but not much..My shock  came,  however, one evening while I was waiting for a friend. A handsome young black man entered the hotel and ran up the escalator, not before giving me a big smile. A few minutes later he ran down outside, giving me another smile. We started to talk and within minutes we were making plans to ditch our friends, when my ride showed up. Waving good bye, it dawned on me that I had been cruised by a black man in the Holiday Inn in Pretoria Perhaps not a startling occurrence elsewhere, but a world shattering occurrence in Pretoria. I decided to find out more.

Drag in the State Theater

Standing blocky and imposing, the State Theater complex in Pretoria was built as a monument to white straight culture. It regularly serves up “The Sound of Music” and other hits, while also presenting the Symphony and Opera. Gay sensibility has never made a big showing here… that is until now. On my second night in the city, I went to see a performance of Pieter Dirk Uys, a well known South African satirist. Seeing Uys at the State Theater is the equivalent of seeing our Joan Jett Black at the Kennedy Center. Uys is best known for his drag persona Evita Bezedenhuit, the ambassadress of the New South Africa

Last year, Evita had her own hour-long television show where she interviewed prominent South African politicians. Typically, Evita managed to set her interviewee at ease, as she was graciously escorted around their home or, sometimes, office. Often arm in arm with her host, she would lob off-the-cuff but on-target questions about the issues of the day. On one show, Jay Naidoo, one of Mandela’s cabinet ministers, mentioned an interest in learning to dance.  On a whim, the pair rushed off to a local dance studio, where they learned the rumba—all on  film. After it was over, Naidoo exclaimed to Evita, “I’ve never Latin danced before,” to which Evita replied, “Jay, I doubt if you have ever danced with a man in drag before!” Nonplussed, Naidoo agreed that that was true.

Uys reported that he as now seen Nelson Mandela four times, each time in drag. The last time, Mandela gave Evita a big hug to which she replied, “Nelson, we have got to stop meeting this way.”

Other South African leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, complained to Uys that they were not satirized in his show. So now Uys sports a frock and a grey wig to portray Tutu in his State Theater show.

The Church

For the most part, Afrikanerdom is associated with the Church. And there is only one church, the Afrikaans Reformed Church. The Church has helped form the theological connections to apartheid as well as to the general Victorianism that was part and parcel of the old South Africa. In fact, today the only political party opposed to the sexual orientation provision in the Constitution is the African Christian Democratic Party,  a small church-affiliated group. But once again, a revolution is brewing in Pretoria.

I sat talking to a gay Afrikaner couple in their mid-30s one evening. One spoke fluent English, but his partner stumbled a bit more. He explained that he had few chances to speak English with anyone, so I must excuse him, not an uncommon remark in the tightly closed Afrikaner community. The conversation turned to religion and they mentioned that they both were very active in their church. When I asked how they could be, given the Church’s stand on homosexuality, they laughed. Their minister, they explained, just got back from the U.S., where he was exploring affiliation with h t h e Metropolitan Community Church. The shocked look on my face encouraged them to continue. Their several-year-old church has weekly services in Afrikaans for gays and lesbians that are deeply spiritual as well as affirming. Ina few short years under their dynamic minister, the church grew from 15 or so members to over 500, much larger than a similar church in the more progressive Johannesburg.  The church has performed several marriages and was gradually moving out in the wider community.

The Bar and the Constitution

On Friday and Saturday nights, Steamers, is the place to be in Pretoria. Parking in the railway station lot across the street, you can hear the music and see the hoards of men and women making their way over to the club. Unlike many South African gay bars, this one is not content to hide away behind some anonymous door. Instead, the patrons spill out into the veranda and the parking lot, greeting friends, flirting and generally making a scene. You know it is gay long before you actually approach the door.

Steamers gets going a bit early compared to “Joburg” bars, which are more attuned to international gay time. By 9:30 p.m. the dance floor is filling up and by 10:30 p.m. it is packed. And it seems for the first time in my experience, local men are cruising. This statement may sound absurd, but previously, I have discovered that the only men who were interested in talking or dancing invariably turned out to be foreigners. Afrikaner men, especially, were known to be aloof. Men of color operate differently, but they are still scarce in the Pretoria bar scene.

An Afrikaner in a white T-shirt and black leather vest approaches me. He’s surprised to meet an American and feels like he’s made some type of a catch. We chat a bit and then head to the dance floor. The music is good and there is a nice mix of gay men and lesbians packing the floor. After a bit, he takes me back upstairs to meet some of his friends.

His group is composed of standard Afrikaner bureaucratic-class types with lower level jobs in the government. They come down to the bar about every other week and stay until closing. We talk of the U.S. and comparisons to South Africa. They are keenly interested in how the world is looking at them now. One talked of going to Amsterdam a few years ago and being spit upon when he introduced himself as South African.

Despite their Afrikaner background, they were wildly pro-Mandela and were even warming to his party, the ANC. In addition to Mandela’s leadership skills that  are unifying  the  country, the main reason that brought this group to enthusiastically support him was the changes in the constitution’s equality clause.  “Before the Interim Constitution took effect, this place was dead and gays were pretty quiet. Now look at it…Once the final Constitution is put into effect, you can expect more and more gays and lesbians to come out. We have nothing to fear now.”

The gay community has been actively lobbying the constitutional commission and the movement to endorse the equality clause of the Constitution has gotten support from most public officials throughout the country. Most recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has declared his support for the inclusion of sexual orientation. The rationale for support is quite simple: after years of oppression based on color, those in power do not want to see politically based oppression of any type. While attitudes may take some time to change, the Constitution is unambiguous and clear: equality before the law is to be cherished.

On the Streets

A gay presence in Pretoria is even starting to become evident on the streets. Sunnyside, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown, is emerging as Pretoria’s place to be. There are a number of restaurants, catering to a wide choice of tastes. The local bookstore has a wide selection of books and magazines and an interesting gay section. Some light porn is even available now.

As everywhere in Pretoria, the local mall dominates Sunnyside. During the evening, gay couples and cruising single men can be seen riding the escalators to the shops and restaurants and movie house. And while a Castro habitué may not notice much difference, the fact that any gay presence exists is a new miracle.

Night life is still low key and, at best, circumscribed. There are not that many places to go in Pretoria. One new gay-friendly coffeehouse opened on the historic Church Square in the heart of the downtown. Owned by two women, Cafe Riche offers a friendly and intimate venue that is rare in the mallified architecture of the city. With the original marble counters and wood paneling from its 1905 predecessor still in place, a mixed inter-racial crowd of hip younger folks and gays and lesbians patronize the cafe.

Not all of gay life is dependent on constitutional protections.  Gays and lesbians have long been around and quietly out in Pretoria. I met several couples who have been together for 10 and 15 years, living their lives in privacy that most Afrikaner’s cherish. However, a new opening and tolerance is also apparent. I saw a number of bed and breakfasts that advertised in straight publications, listing their hosts as Jack and Alex or Pieter and Jan and gay movies, such as “The Sum of Us,” playing at multiplex theaters.

Pretoria still holds true to certain patterns. I only noticed one interracial couple, conspicuous in the general whiteness of the Pretoria gay and lesbian scene. People of color are generally missing from the bar scene in Pretoria, belaying the fact that 80 percent of the country’s population is black. And among many of the Afrikaner men that I met on this trip, racism is still a part of their lives and outlook. In fact, they often thought that my observations of Pretoria were amusing, at best. Where I saw a night life developing, they saw more blacks on the streets at night. Where I saw a wonderful diversity, they saw more blacks on the streets. Where I saw… Well, you get the picture.

Coming back to the U.S. after each of my trips to South Africa has always given me cause for reflection. In the past, I was aware of the way our two countries were similar—institutionalized racism being part and parcel of the experience in both countries. Before, I had the sense—perhaps chauvinistically—that we were at least attempting to deal with our problems, while South Africa was creating new ones. However, this time my return home was different. South Africa has gone from being a pariah to a country promoting the greatest respect for universal human rights in the world. Here at home, however, our political debate is about closing our doors on diversity and equality, as politicians seek to identify scapegoats for problems-immigrants, welfare mothers, anyone of color, and gays.

I never imagined that I would come home from South Africa thinking that they offered us a model. But as the right wing dominates the dialogue in the United States, I find myself looking for our own version of Nelson Mandela, someone so secure in his understanding of oppression that he believes no one else should endure the suffering that he and his people have experienced. Despite the preeminence of U.S. gay culture around the world, we indeed have much we can learn.

This article was originally published in S.F. Frontiers Newsmagazine on January 18, 1996. Unfortunately it is not available in any on-line archives.

A Conversation with Alan Lessik 

This was one of the last pieces that Dave Robb wrote before his death in November 2016. He was a fantastic editor.

A Conversation with Alan Lessik
Interview by Dave Robb.

On a foggy summer morning in San Francisco, Dave Robb sat down with Alan Lessik over a plate of homemade waffles. Lessik’s debut novel, The Troubleseeker, published by Chelsea Station Editions, was recently released and has been getting positive reviews.

In addition to being a writer, Lessik is a Zen practitioner, amateur figure skater, LGBT activist, and non-profit director. His non-fiction works include news articles published in the Advocate, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Frontiers. His contribution to KQED Radio Perspectives, “Judge Not His Death,” was one of the most commented on in 2014.

Dave Robb: The Troubleseeker ties together so many unexpected elements—Santería and Greek gods, mythological figures, a Roman emperor—with scenes of post-revolutionary Cuban life, life as an asylum seeker in the US, AIDS, mental illness, sex, and aging as a gay man. In many debut novels, characters are inspired by real-life people or events. From the book’s dedication, it appears that Antinio, the hero of your tale, was based on a real person.

Alan Lessik: Yes, the Mariel boatlift in 1980 brought over 64,000 Cubans to the US, one of whom was my later partner, René Valdés. He left Cuba after several run-ins with the authorities due to his sexual orientation, and after arrival in Key West, he was sent to the Fort McCoy Processing Center near La Crosse, Wisconsin. Alone without relatives to support him, he was rescued by a group of gay activists. He had a ten-year fight with the INS to become a citizen. He was infected by the AIDS virus shortly after he arrived in the US.

His story was an immigrant story, a story of survival during the bleakest period of the AIDS crisis, a story of love and finding home. My willingness to believe his well-honed survivor’s tale meant that I was blindsided by his death. Despite my understanding of his fatal mental illness, I was left confused and wanted to understand why he died.

DR: So you set out to write a book explaining this—why he died.

AL: That question was sitting in my unconscious and permeated the story as it emerged. Each of the elements you mentioned earlier, the gods and mythological elements, appeared as I wrote. Since I was not there for much of René’s life, I had to imagine what had happened. And once I started to do that, all sorts of interesting characters appeared.

Their origins came in part from thinking about his mother, who was a teacher of ancient history in a high school in Havana. I only knew her through René’s stories, so she herself is a mythical character to me. From there the ideas flowed, of using The Odyssey and other stories, of naming the hero Antinio, after Antinous, the lover of the emperor Hadriano…

DR: You point out that Odysseus was both storyteller and actor in his story. Just as Odysseus would comment on his story, you use this form of commentary in your book.

AL: Zen teaching says that each of us creates a story of an entity called “me.” The mind that controls the “me” attempts to make sense out of the world and the experiences it encounters. But the created story of the self has little to do with reality; the story is only an internal prism to break down feelings and experiences and sort them as fitting or not fitting with who we think we are.

Over time, our story becomes an amalgam of events, loves, hurts, losses, and mistakes that shape our narrative. Most of us believe this invented story of who we are is real. However, the truth about any storyteller is that the story is always on their terms. What is revealed is what we want to reveal; what is not is kept a secret, perhaps even from ourselves.

As I wrote, René’s story (which were his own inventions describing his life) changed as it became the story of Antinio. And when I brought in Hadriano as the narrator, he demanded to tell his story. As a demigod he had access to the pantheons of gods throughout the world and two thousand years to reflect on life. At this point, the narrow world of post-revolutionary Cuba expanded significantly.

DR: Let’s talk about sex. I love that you are so sex-positive in the book.

AL: Gay men love each other against all odds. We have lived through an extraordinary 50 years of blossoming LGBT rights, and I want to celebrate what we as a community have to offer the world. With the advent of same-sex marriage, there seems to be an attempt to “straitjacket” gay men into monogamy as our only choice. Sex is just one part of our lives. We don’t believe that our partners will be our only source of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support, and it makes no sense to assume this one person can meet all of our sexual needs. All relationships are by nature complicated. That is their beauty.

DR: The Greek gods and Santería orishas in your book seem to see something special in LGBT people.

AL: One can’t read about the Greek and Santería pantheons without appreciating the fluidity of gender and love. Almost all of them have multiple sex partners, and many have both same- and opposite-sex partners. The orishas are especially fluid with gender. Most have various caminos or identities that can be both male and female. So, of course they would love LGBT people over straight folks. As the orishas tell their stories, a different narrative emerges about our place in the world.

DR: I have never read a book before that includes the point of view of the AIDS virus.

AL: As I was writing, I could not reconcile how Apollo and Babalu Ayé were gods that simultaneously brought about disease and cured disease. It occurred to me that if there were gods of humans and various animals, why not a god of the tiniest beings, viruses? Just as the gods can’t control human or animal nature, they cannot control how viruses interact with their world. The epidemiological journey is their own Odyssey. The stigma attached to AIDS is a human invention, not a viral one.

DR: I saw that Elías Miguel Muñoz compared you to Reinaldo Arenas. That’s quite a compliment. How did you manage to capture Cuba so well?

AL: I have been to Cuba six times since 2002 visiting René’s family and friends. Cuba in my first visit was in many ways little changed from the 70’and 80’s depicted in the book. Staying with family provided insight into everyday Cuban life that tourists never see. I did a lot of listening and watching as I wanted to understand how people managed around the shortages and repression and how gay people managed their secret lives. Walking around decaying neighborhoods and talking with friends, family or people on the street, I discovered that most people still saw the city as it had been in the days of past glory.

Cuban life centers around the home and extended family members and close neighbors came in and out of the open front door without announcing themselves. I quickly became integrated into the family and its web of relationships which have continued after René’s death. As death of the older generation and migration of the younger have taken its toll, I am one of three remaining family members, all of us in-laws who continue to uphold the family history.

In my latest visit this last summer, I could see the historic grandeur of Havana was coming back, block by block. At night, hundreds of Cubans would gather to connect to Wi-Fi that was available in a central park in each major city. Very few sites were blocked, and it was easy to connect with Cuban men on Planet Romeo. People were still talking about President Obama’s visit and his unprecedented access to the Cuban airwaves for his speech. Despite all this, Cubans have too much experience with disappointments, so there is still quite a bit of uncertainty and concern about the future.

DR: I have one final question. If The Troubleseeker were made into a movie, what part would Meryl Streep play?

AL: Ha, that’s an easy one. Yemayá, the mother of all orishas and of all waters. Yemayá has a bad-girl attitude. She was married to several of the orishas and therefore has the skinny on all of them. She’s in charge, but still no one listens to her. And when she gets angry, she is willing to spite them all and wipe out the earth. In the end, though, she knows she has to be the responsible adult in the room and whips everyone together in action. Only Meryl has the skills to inhabit a role like that.

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Dave Robb is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.