By now, the entire world knows of the passing of one of its greatest leaders. A huge part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy will be the role he played in ending Apartheid in South Africa, but the role he played in LGBT rights was also crucial – not just to South Africa, but further afield as well.
Mandela supported gay rights from 1994, when he became President of South Africa. Let’s think about that for a second. The head of state in an African country supported gay rights in 1994. Only the previous year, the Republic of Ireland had decriminalised homosexuality. To say that Mandela was ahead of his time would be a severe understatement.
His attitude towards gay and lesbian people also paved the way towards South Africa becoming the first country to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, an act passed during his presidency. In 1996, the government provided for openly gay people to serve in their military, some 23 years before the United States would act in a similar fashion. Some years later, in 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legislate for marriage equality.
While social attitudes towards LGBT people remain quite mixed – I interviewed journalist Laura Fletcher on her documentary about LGBT life in South Africa for EILE’s August issue – the South African LGBT community owe the recognition of their rights to Nelson Mandela.
Mandela’s advocacy for human rights was personal on so many levels, but none more personal than when he became an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness at the age of 86, following the death of his son from the disease. “Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it,” he said at a press conference, “because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like tuberculosis, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary.”
The President of the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin, said of his death:
“Nelson Mandela tore down oppression, united a rainbow nation, and always walked arm-in-arm with his LGBT brothers and sisters — and with all people — toward freedom. Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed.”
As Barack Obama said, “[h]e no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.” Indeed, we have lost Nelson Mandela as a hero amongst us, but we have gained him as one of the world’s greatest legends. To have lived during his lifetime is a privilege, and we, as a community, should never forget his intelligence, compassion and understanding.
Scott De Buitléir