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In South Africa
by Andy McNulty
When I decided to travel to South Africa last fall, most of
my friends and family thought I was out of my mind. Foremost
among my parents’ concern was my personal safety. Would
South Africans respond favorably to a gay, white American?
Would they notice me at all? Would I tell them about my sexual
All the questions had me freaked out before I left, although
I shouldn’t have been.
South Africa has arguably the most liberal and piogressive
constitution in the world. It offers protection against discrimina
tion based on HIV status and sexual orientation, as well as sex
and gender - recognizing the difference between the two.
As I came to acquaint myself with (and fall in love with)
South Africa, I realized that this country offered more protec
tion for me as a queer person than the United States. I actually
felt more at home there than I have ever really felt in this coun
Not only are LGBT people provided for on paper, but the
government has kept its word and began to provide actual rights.
In December, 2005 the Constitutional Court, the highest court
of law in South Africa, ruled that some form of gay marriage
had to be provided within one year’s time. November 28, 2006
came and Parliament passed the Civil Union Act, which not only
allows for same-sex unions, but also provides marriage rights to
those involved in informal, nonromantic arrangements.
I was in South Africa when Parliament was debating the act,
and the public forum was highly active. People were very vocal
on both sides of the issue. However, the discourse around the
issue was completely different from what we have in this coun
try. The debate in South Africa was never how to ban gay mar
riage; the dialogue instead focused on the appropriate manner to
afford equal rights to all of South Africa’s citizens.
Media focus, from what I saw, focused on poor LGBT peo
ple of color, i.e. queer blacks living in the townships. For those
not familiar with South Africa, townships are informal housing
settlements outside of major metropolitan areas. The townships
arose in response to apartheid laws that did not allow people
of color to live in the same areas as white people. In fact. Cape
Town once had about 8 distinctions of race apart from white
and black. They are typically rife with violent crime, particularly
against women. The Mail & Guardian ran several stories about
the struggles of queer folks in townships outside of Cape Town
The people the stories focused on were given pseudonyms,
and they spoke of the constant state of fear that they lived in.
They related that the so-called “mainstream queer culture in”
South Africa certainly does not reflect the situation of the poor
Despite this bleak picture, now that there is now a country
on the continent that thoroughly protects the rights of LGBT
folks, others may follow. Indeed, the African Union — modeled
after the European Union — is a real possibility in coming de
cades. In my opinion. South Africa will be a leader in protecting
the rights of queer people to which the continent may look.
I have been back at UNC-CH for about a month now, and
I have to admit that when I see the gay marriage debate on the
news for what seems like the 1000th time, I lose hope.
It was a rough transition period, because my whole mentality
shifted from the expectation of disappointment to overwhelm
ing hope and satisfaction. I realized though that my hope and
satisfaction were not necessarily caused by the situation in South
Africa. Traveling had allowed me to safely feel these things for
the first time without the threat of being crushed by disappoint
ment, as had threatened to happen over the past seven years.
My perspective changed, and I was able to marry my pessi
mism (created and nurtured by a country less than careful of my
rights) with my overwhelming optimism that South Africa gave
me for the future. What balanced the two was a realistic hope fof
the fumre of our country.
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