I have the delicious pleasure to be dating a wonderful guy who is very smart, a brilliant writer, a fellow Quaker, and adorable to boot! Glen Retief is currently working on a memoir about growing up white and gay in South Africa. (You can read a sample that was recently printed in the Virginia Quarterly Review).
Having witnessed firsthand unbelievably historical shifts in his home country, in the following Op-Ed that appeared in yesterday’s Patriot News (Harrisburg, PA), Glen reflects on the historic election of Barack Obama and the subsequent banning of gay marriage in California and elsewhere.
Still a long way from the dream
Among the thousands of congratulations pouring in from around the world for President-Elect Barack Obama, the media quickly focused on one that seemed to mirror Obama’s own quiet but resolute, “Yes we can” idealism.
“Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world,” wrote Nelson Mandela, in words that recalled his own election as South Africa’s first Black president. The symbolism was unmistakable: the world’s greatest living emblem of racial justice and reconciliation, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday, was passing on the baton.
And for me, an expatriate White South African who voted for Mandela in 1994 and Obama in 2008, the parallels between the two elections indeed seemed inescapable. There were the long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots, just like in Johannesburg fourteen years ago. There was the astonishing exuberance in Grant Park—an exhilaration that seems to sense a new era rather than a mere victory. Above all there was the dignified, thoughtful manner of Barack Obama himself, so… well, so Mandela-like.
“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of … our people. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.” No, that wasn’t Obama last Tuesday night—it was Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech.
At the time I had just turned twenty-four. Like many of the college kids who staffed the Obama campaign’s call banks, I’d thrown myself whole-heartedly into the fight for social justice. Among the groups I joined was the Organization for Lesbian and Gay Action. Here, I worked for Mandela’s African National Congress while simultaneously lobbying that party to include non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the postapartheid constitution—a successful effort that eventually led to South Africa’s adopting same-sex marriage.
In April 1994, as I watched the election returns, I knew the vote was a defeat for both white and heterosexual superiority. Desmond Tutu, effective leader of the South African Black Church, said, “Homophobia is a crime against humanity, and every bit as unjust as apartheid.” Every mainstream political party in the country lent its support to the concept of equality. A decade later, in 2006, same-sex marriage passed by a parliamentary vote of 230 votes to 41.
Here, of course, the opposite happened. Hours after Obama referred to a victory for “White and Black…, gay and straight”—surely the first time an American president thanked gay people in an acceptance speech—exit polls revealed that African-Americans had voted 70-30 to ban gay marriage in California. This was twenty points higher than any other ethnic group. Black voters were by no means the only ones to support this ban; still, there was little doubt that they had helped inflict arguably the worst civil rights setback for GLBT people since the Bowers vs. Hardwick decision that affirmed sodomy laws.
I was sad, furious, and bewildered. Truth be told, my expectations of the other groups supporting the ban—White Protestant evangelicals, Mormons, and conservative Catholics—had been low to begin with. But the African-American community? Surely, like large sections of the Black South African community, they would be able to link their own oppression to mine? Surely they would remember Loving vs. Virginia, the struggle for interracial marriage, the feeling of being excluded from the restaurant, the church, the happy party at the center of the room with the dancing and the cake?
Apparently not this time. As the hours rolled by, my outrage gave way to sadness. I heard stories of celebrations of the ban in historically Black churches. I read analyses of how the pro-gay campaign failed to place advertisements in minority-owned newspapers, thus fueling a perception that they did not care about the Black community. I thought of all the everyday racism I encounter at middle-class gay social events—the stereotypical remarks about gangsters selling crack to kids; the talk about the effects on real estate values when the “wrong” people move in next door.
And I realized, yet again, with considerable grief, how far we still are from fulfilling the dream of Martin Luther King that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . that all men are created equal.’”
GLEN RETIEF teaches creative writing at Susquehanna University. His memoir, The Jack Bank, will be published by St. Martin’s Press.