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"When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in he has no choice but to become an outlaw." - Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom (1995)

The eyes, ears, and hearts of the world are turned toward South Africa this week as we bid farewell to Nelson Mandela, a man who led the largely peaceful transition of a nation ruled by the violent hand of a racist state to a nation governed by the African National Congress. For those of us who came of age after his 1990 release from prison, Mandela is a soft-spoken, fatherly figure of peace and forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion. What some of us did not know until now is that, following the 1960 Sharpville Massacre, he and many other ANC members became convinced of the necessity of armed resistance. Mandela himself helped to establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). You can watch a 1961 interview on the subject here.

Nelson Mandela: speaking in 1961
Nelson Mandela addresses the All in Africa Conference in Pietermaritzburg, 1961. Photo from Christian Aid archive (courtesy of International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa)

"When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in," said Mandela, "he has no choice but to become an outlaw." This statement resonates for lesbians, gays and other queers, too. In too many places around the globe – Russia being only the most recent – to be queer is to be made outlaw.

100% Lesbian
Image by Lauren Barkume September 25, 2010.

Mandela understood that freedom is more than a ‘race’ issue. It was also an economic issue, a woman’s issue, and an issue for lesbians and gays. Under his leadership, South Africa’s 1996 constitution was the first in the world to include protection for lesbians and gays.


Credit for Mandela’s forward thinking on lesbian and gay rights has been given to Cecil Williams, ANC member and Mandel’s driver during the years before his last arrest. Williams was gay, and the story of their relationship is told in a little known documentary The Man Who Drove With Mandela. Read more about this at the GLBT news network.


Portrait of Cecil Williams, by Aran Shetterly

To find out more about Mandela’s role in the advancement of lesbian and gay rights, I share with you some posts from South Africans who have penned memorial pieces that acknowledge his work on this front:

THANK YOU NELSON MANDELA feature from mambagirl.com

Nelson Mandela: Statesman of LGBT Equality by Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson

A controversial reprint of an article from earlier in the year, Comment: South Africa is not a ‘Rainbow Nation’ if you’re gay via pinknews.co.uk

Did you know that Mandela played such a key role in raising the profile of lesbian and gay rights at home and around the globe? Why is this getting so little media attention?

crossposted to [community profile] fromoutlawstoinlaws

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