Supreme Courth Judge Edwin Cameron also just happens to be one of South Africa’s most legendary LGBT and Aids activists. Here he talks to Brian Finnegan about the African LGBT struggle, the anger of white male patrirarchs, the issues around tackling record gay HIV infections, and how his own coming out and subsequent diagnoses with HIV determined the course of his career.
This article was originally published in the March 2017 Issue of GCN (Issue 327) which is available to read online here.
Like you, I was born gay,” says Edwin Cameron with a twinkle in his eye. “You said that on your website, and I like it.”
The Supreme Court Judge, who was first appointed to South Africa’s High Court by Nelson Mandela in 1994, and whose LGBT and Aids activism is legendary on the African continent, is the only interviewee I’ve ever come across who has done research on me before meeting.
He’s read my blog and pieces I’ve written for GCN, and before I can get any questions of my own out, wants to know if my parents have read my books, and if they are proud of me.
I assure him they are indeed proud, somewhat disarmed by this 63 year-old’s charisma, by his open-faced curiosity, despite the fact it’s supposed to be the other way around.
“Let’s talk about you,” I say, and he acquiesces with another smile. “But I want to know more about your writing later,” he adds, not letting me off the hook.
He’s got what might be called ‘winning charm’, and I guess it’s been a key part of his arsenal in fighting for human rights over the decades in South Africa, against enormous odds.
“I’m a white lawyer in a suit,” he tells me. “It’s my drag. We all protect ourselves in different guises, and I’ve always been a man in a suit.”
As with all good drag queens, there’s a huge element of inventiveness involved. Cameron spent much of his childhood in an orphanage after his father was jailed for car theft and his mother was unable to look after him and his sister.
After winning a scholarship to attend Pretoria Boys’ High School, one of South Africa’s best state schools, he reinvented himself, he says, “in the guise of a clever schoolboy.” From there it was to University, first in South Africa and in Oxford, where he graduated in civil law. He came home and after completing further studies, specialised in defending human rights, his own journey out of the closet marking his professional development.
“I grew up in the deeply homophobic, repressive society of Apartheid South Africa,” he says. “I came out just before the I turned 30, just as Apartheid was reaching its crisis in the 1980s. At the time I was dealing with 95 percent of anti-Apartheid cases, and I began campaigning for gay rights.”
Cameron downplays his pivotal legal role in helping South Africa become the first country in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996. “My real role in it was to oversee the legal elements of the negotiating process,” he says, pointing towards activist Simon Nkoli for the lion’s share of glory.
“He was a young man from a township who took part in a massive anti-apartheid uprising in September 1984 and was arrested for murder and treason. He was eventually acquitted, but he was on trial for his life. He came out to his fellow prisoners, saying he was from a township, fighting Apartheid, but that he was also gay. Simon and I were comrades in the fight for constitutional protection, but he was the really important one because he legitimated the idea of LGBT rights.”
Just two years after the new post-apartheid constitution was put in place, Nkoli died from Aids-related illness, and Cameron was diagnosed with HIV. It led him into another major struggle for human rights.
“My safety and my protection were due to my privilege, this time not because I’m white, but because I was a judge and I could afford medication,” he says.
“The epidemic had reached us and people were dying. It was quite demonstrably not a gay epidemic; it was very different in Africa, but as in many other countries it was also an epidemic of shame and fear and stigma, and the internalisation of those things.
“My experience as a gay man was one of profound shame of being sexually different, and I think that’s something many gay people experience. The burden of a sexually transmitted virus on top of that, just as we were celebrating our capacity for sexual agency, was a blight that fell upon our community.
“In almost identical moral and internal terms it fell on the black community just as the African Renaissance was happening, just as South Africa was getting its liberation. It got President Mandela, who was a beautiful, wondrous man and leader, and then he was succeeded by President Thabo Mbeki who wouldn’t accept the reality of a mass sexually transmitted disease affecting black heterosexuals. He made the link explicitly, saying ‘people accuse us of having sex with gay abandon’.”
Generic Drug Deal
Cameron, by then an appointee to the Supreme Court of Appeal, used his considerable influence as an activist with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which was co-founded by the HIV-positive activist Zackie Achmat in 1998. “The struggle was on,” Cameron says. “The big breakthrough was in 2002 when the Clinton and Gates Foundations did a huge deal with the drug companies to get generics manufactured in India and Africa.
What we didn’t anticipate was Mbeki’s denialism. The big implement we had in the face of that was the South African Constitution, which protected freedom of association, the freedom to organise. Eventually it went to the courts, which gave the TAC a ringing victory. South Africa now has the world’s largest publically funded anti-retroviral treatment programs with 3.5 million people on treatment. It was a significant success for activism.”
However, as with so many other countries, South Africa has seen an enormous spike in HIV infections between men who have sex with men (MSM) in recent years. “Our levels of HIV infection with MSM in Africa are at San Francisco pre-1980 levels, with 30 to 40 percent.
MSM HIV Awareness
We’re talking working class, middle class, black, white. Once we got constitutional protection, we thought the struggle was over. We don’t have a very organised LGBT political movement; I can’t name you a gay-directed HIV awareness organisation.
“There’s a paradox there, and I have to take some responsibility for it myself. We were leaders in the fight against HIV, gay men like myself who were infected, and we were grateful to take the focus off the gay men and our ‘unspeakable’ sexual practices and the way we ‘deserved’ it. But it led to a lack of focus, for which Zackie and I are responsible. That’s the heritage. We’ve had a mass transmission awareness education in South Africa that was directed at opposite-sex partners, and we didn’t do enough to ensure gay men were part of it.”
When I point out that in countries where Aids activism primarily focused on gay men the rise in MSM HIV rates is equally prevalent, Cameron again answers in personal terms.
“If I had to choose between the days of terror and stigma plus infection, and the days of no terror, less stigma plus infection, I’d choose the latter,” he says, “but it still means that beautiful young kids are putting themselves at risk.
“We’ve got to find new ways of messaging to them. It’s about sex, which is a profoundly intimate connection between two human bodies, and therefore for most people it’s private, and that leads on to it not being explicitly talked about it.
“And of course there’s sexual moralism, which increases the shame, so there’s a complex problem around education. I don’t know how we’re going to get the message across but we’ve got to get a broad, health-seeking positive message, not a moralistic message, not a message of superiority or condescension.
“I’m a supporter of PrEP, I think it saves lives. I want it to be available to women sex workers in Africa, so of course I want it to be made available to men in Ireland. I think PrEP should be one of many options.
“The best option, of course is playing safe. It’s 23 years since South Africa included sexual orientation in its constitution, but LGBT people there still face violence and oppression, most notably with the phenomenon of lesbians in townships suffering ‘corrective’ rape.
“I think the idea of two men loving each other and expressing it physically is a very offensive and destablising thought to a lot of patriarchal men, but the idea of two women together offers a particularly virulent challenge,” says Cameron.
“In Africa a lot of the struggle is about patriarchy. The targeting of lesbians is what I call a production of an unstable transition in our lives. In comparison, in late 1988 a white supremacist killed seven people on a public square in Pretoria.
“There was a sense that white supremacy was ending, and that triggered violence. The same thing is happening. The thought that there is a destabilisation of male supremacy leads to violence.”
That violence has been widespread on the African continent, endorsed in some 34 countries by legislation.
“There’s a long trajectory in Africa of grief and violence and oppression, and LGBT lives lost, but I am resolute that it will be a good outcome,” says Cameron, and he points to Ireland’s vote in 2015 for marriage equality as a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think it was a victory for a country that was seen as very oppressed and very religious, and some ways literally insular. I sat there in Southern Africa watching the news and I experienced it as deeply affirming that a majority of an electorate so decisively said they supported equality for same-sex relationships.
“It’s a moment we can build on, especially in Africa where it seems impossible. I think things are changing. There’s still brutality and persecution, but African gays are becoming visible, they’re saying ‘to hell with this, we’re not putting up with this.
“We’re African, we’re not a colonial import, we’re not a product of western civilization, we’re not a figment of the white imagination, we’re lesbian and gay, we’re African and we’re black’. This visibility is changing attitudes in Botswana, in Namibia, in Kenya, many countries. The key to the success of the campaign in Ireland was that visibility.
“It’s a ray of light, especially to my continent. We have no reason to be complacent in Africa; there is much work to be done. But the Irish referendum was a moment of joy, and a message of hope for us all.”
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