NY Newsday & Baltimore Sun, Editorial pages, April 2007

In an April 2007 New York Newsday & Baltimore Sun op-ed, John Newsome contrasts South African vs. US political leadership and equivocation on marriage equality

“Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s support for gay-marriage legislation – even though he acknowledges passage by the State Legislature is unlikely – reflects that new American leaders are emerging on this issue. His backing for such legislation follows the lead of the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco…”

Assuming more such leaders follow, and that the gay and lesbian community holds its ground, it’s a matter of time before we see more marriage-equality victories. In the meantime, when searching for moral leaders, I often find myself looking beyond the United States. Many national figures in the United States seem obsessed with caution around critical moral issues such as the Iraq war and gun control.

And marriage equality. Thanks to the cowardice of many of our most promising leaders, including Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the issue of same-sex marriage is becoming the third rail in American politics, when it should be a major “front” in the struggle for civil rights.

So I take my inspiration from South Africa, a country that had long been the scourge of the international human rights community. On Dec. 1, South Africa’s Parliament made headlines around the world when it granted same-sex couples the right to marry. This groundbreaking law did not arrive without major struggle. Its passage is a powerful testament to those committed and unyielding moral leaders who demanded nothing less than full equality for gays and lesbians.

Most notably, in pushing for marriage equality, South Africa’s Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu refused to acquiesce to public and political prejudices against gay people. Drawing upon the country’s painful apartheid history, Tutu drew parallels between racism and homophobia, arguing: “To penalize someone because of their sexual orientation is like what used to happen to us, to be penalized about something about which we could do nothing – our ethnicity, our race.”

Echoing Tutu’s bold moral call for gender equality was South African Minister of Defense Mosiuoa Lekota, who served prison time with Nelson Mandela. In arguing for marriage equality on the floor of Parliament, Lekota called upon South African leaders to uncompromisingly extend the rights of hard-won democracy to all South African citizens: “To look past the prejudices of our time and grant this right to those who have been pleading with us for so long now so that we may bequeath to succeeding generations a society democratic and more tolerant than the one that was handed down to us by those who preceded us.”

Sadly, back in the United States, we are waiting for our own Desmond Tutus and Mosiuoa Lekotas to defend the humanity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples. Even within the Democratic Party, too many politicians have been AWOL on the issue of marriage equality, kowtowing to antigay prejudice – betraying the party’s commitment to civil rights.

Despite a solid majority’s support for the end of marriage discrimination in Massachusetts, Sen. John Kerry opposed nuptial equality. Although Clinton now says she’s “evolved” and not opposed to marriage equality, she shirks making a case for same-sex marriage. While Obama generally inspires, his stance on marriage equality is frustratingly equivocal.

Asked last month whether they considered gay acts immoral, both initially dodged the question. Then, Obama issued a statement saying he did not believe homosexuals were immoral. Clinton said on her Web site: “I have heard from many of my friends in the gay community that my response to a question about homosexuality being immoral sounded evasive. Homosexuality is not immoral. . . . That is what I believe.”

The equivocation of our national leaders (on this and other important issues) reflects their own cowardice, true, but it also reflects the LGBT community’s willingness to compromise too much. Many donors and activists, for example, are giving a pass to elected officials who fail to stand up for full marriage equality, maintaining that “civil unions are enough.” “Enough” suggests that there can be “too much” fairness for LGBT people. If only.

In stark contrast, South African LGBT activists were unyielding in their struggle, drawing strength from and giving strength to the country’s courageous moral leaders. Refusing to settle for civil unions, South Africa’s social movement for full marriage equality triumphed.

If people are looking for role models, and proof that seemingly unimaginable change can happen, I would encourage them to look south.