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.

sa-article

 

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.

__________

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

A&U Magazine Review of The Troubleseeker

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
The Gods are a fickle lot. In Alan Lessik’s imaginative new novel, they reign over man both with an iron fist and a tender hand. The narrator of this piece is the Roman emperor Hadrian, deified upon his death and mourning the loss of his great love, his soldier Antinous, who sacrificed himself for the sake of Hadrian’s glory.

He finds a surrogate in a young boy in Castro’s Cuba of the sixties, Antinio. He watches Antinio grow into a man of great beauty on the post-revolutionary island. Antinio lives in Havana, (“Havana, more so than any other Cuban city, had sex in the air all the time. It was languid, thick, hot, and moist.”) Antinio is filled with sexual longing; he is different, however. He longs for the beauty of other men above all. His homosexuality and the constrictions of living under Communist rule eventually drive him to flee Cuba at the age of twenty.

He begins his American life in Minneapolis, where he meets the second of the fated three great loves of his life. There he contracts HIV (“And in this first meeting, a group of tiny beings made their escape from Laquesio to Antinio. Neither were aware of this, and no humans knew anything about them.”). Antinio is not only watched over by Hadrian and other Greek and Roman deities. The Gods of Santaria, who rule over his native land, exert their heavy influence. In his mind always are the voices of a Greek chorus, Reason, the Lamenters, the Shriekers, and finally the Siren’s call.

The Troubleseeker is a novel imbued with sex, sensual and often erotic. Antinio is a prolific lover, with many pleasurable encounters. The author’s use of the Spanish language to describe acts of passion add another layer of eroticism. Of course, as with any narrative of the time, the AIDS crisis looms large. Its mystical gods provide a context for the pain and loss that Antinio encounters. Some are the cause of suffering; other gods provide relief and succor. It’s a mystical and effective device and makes for a rich story.

AIDS, in this narrative, is not only presented as an end to life. Also explored are the pain of survival, surviving the death of people you love and the damage it and living with HIV can do to oneself. How did we, as a community survive such a pandemic? How does it continue to affect our lives today? Since there are no easy answers to the hows and whys of HIV/AIDS, a colorful and fantastical explanation is something that can be quite cathartic.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.

A&U, America’s AIDS magazine, is a national non-profit HIV/AIDS magazine.

Living in the New Year

We believe in forward progress, that all will incrementally get better in life. It’s a very American belief. We see a straight line ahead moving upwards and cling to this notion.

One more time this is an illusion of perfection. That there is only one direction. And when it appears that life does not conform to this, we get anxious and fearful and disillusioned.

A closer look at reality might suggest that life is cyclical in a way where we build up and then destroy part of what we create while building up again. Views from above make this look like a never ending cycle. From another vantage point, we can see that this reality view is a spiral, ever tracing a new path. Martin Luther King’s long arc of justice.

If as zen practice tells us every moment is new, it reminds us not to compare one moment with another. It reminds us not to fall into declaring things better and best, bad and worst, even earlier and later. It invites to look at the true essence of reality of what is available now. If you prefer Catholic saints over zen, St Augustine said, “There are three tenses or times: the present of past things, the present  of present things and the present of future things.”  Only one of those three tenses presents us with new experience and information.

This guidance can also help us as to examine our community, social, political and economic worlds. As a college student in the early 70s, I saw a world that was unjust: civil rights were not present for many, economic benefits were not adequately distributed, we were involved with a war that appeared never to have an ending, women were not farely compensated or recognized for their contributions and, gay folks were outcasts. Yet for some reason, I expereinced this as challenging but not daunting. Part of that was naïveté of the privileges I had, a second part the naïveté about the ease of change making  and a final part of naïveté about the linearity of human progress.

As we look at our present, we are forced to recognize that civil rights for many people are not guaranteed, that gender equality and equity is not present, and economic disparities are large. This does not mean nothing has changed over the decades. It means that change is change and can go in many directions. We have an opportunity to see what the conditions that exist are right now, not made up conditions, not imaginary ones, not ones that our privileges allowed us to ignore. Only conditions as they are. And from there our work begins anew, as it does each day.

This is how one celebrates a Happy New Year.

An exceedingly rich novel, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: GLBTRT-ALA review of The Troubleseeker

GLBT Round Table, American Library Association

This is truly a fantastic first novel, in both senses of “fantastic”: really good, but also based on fantasy, unless you are a true believer in the Greek and Santeria gods.  Our hero is Antinio, a gay Cuban with a large extended family, perhaps middle class but after the revolution just barely hanging on.  The novel is told in the third person, but the main narrator is the Roman emperor, Hadrian (Hadriano), whose lover Antinous dies too early.  Antinio is named for him.  Hadrian was deified after his death and became a demi-god.  In addition, the Santeria Orishas play a major role.  Unlike the God of the Judeo Christian tradition, these gods participate actively in the daily lives of their people.  Luckily, at the front of the novel there is a list of all the Santeria Orishas and Antinio’s’ choruses: Reason, the Lamenters, the Shriekers, and the Siren, all of whom try to guide him.  Also listed are all the humans in the novel.

Antinio has an active gay life in Cuba, with lots of encounters and one primary lover Cloto.  Antinio becomes an accomplished linguist and is sent to East Germany for a time.  On the way back he hopes to leave the plane in Madrid and apply for asylum, but he is not permitted to leave the plane.  Eventually he leaves Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift.  He is shipped to Minnesota, where he is harassed for being gay until local gay activists rescue him.  He falls in love with his second lover, Laquesio, who dies of AIDS, which was just descending on gays and everyone else.  Antonio gets AIDS too, but survives long enough for the new meds which permit him to live his life.  He brings his twin boys and former wife to the U.S.  They settle in Miami.  Antinio moves to San Diego and gets a good job with a high tech translation firm.  He falls in love with Atropos in San Francisco.  They commute back and forth until Antinio’s job falls apart with newcomers who advocate machine translation rather than human knowledge of language.  He moved to San Francisco.  His health fails and eventually he commits suicide.

This is an exceedingly rich novel, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially his One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It is highly recommended for libraries collecting modern gay literature, especially with a Latinx flavor.  It is expertly told, although one must pay attention because Hadrian the main narrator and the Santeria Orishas step in whenever they want to.  All readers open to exciting new gay novels will also want to read this book.

James Doig Anderson
Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science, Rutgers University