Nelson Mandela lived long enough to achieve the kind of respect that few political leaders ever reach. But then, few political leaders were as transformative as Mandela, who not only fought against a system that institutionalized racism but oversaw its peaceful transition to a democracy.
One of Mandela’s most important legacies will be his support for LGBT rights. Mandela made a point of identifying LGBT issues as an integral part of the civil rights movement. Given the monumental task of healing the wounds caused by years of apartheid, it is to Mandela’s eternal credit that he was visionary to see that all forms of discrimination are connected.
Here are six examples of Mandela’s leadership that have earned him a place of honor in LGBT history.
Led South Africa to become the first country on the continent to ban antigay discrimination. Mandela was a vocal supporter of antidiscrimination protections from the very beginning of his presidency, in 1994. The country finally banned discrimination in 1998.
Was a leader for marriage equality well before it was popular. Mandela never had to evolve on marriage equality. He was supporting it almost 20 years ago. As a direct result, South Africa become the first country in Africa and fifth in the world to recognize marriage equality in 2006.
Put his words into action. Mandela didn’t just pay lip service to LGBT issues. He was willing to appoint gay people to high positions at a time when the country was far less accepting. Among his early appointees was Edwin Cameron, who has risen to become a judge on South Africa’s highest court. By comparison, how many openly gay justices are there on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Set an example for other countries. Homophobia remains a problem in many other African nations, but Mandela held such authority that he is a shame-inducing counterargument to state-sanctioned repression.
Showed the U.S. how it can be done. The nation that Mandela helped forge from the ruins of apartheid had marriage equality years before the U.S. and has formally banned antigay discrimination (which has yet to happen in the U.S.). In many ways the country has been far ahead of the U.S. on gay rights, at least politically.
Mandela had his flaws. For example, he was late to the fight against AIDS, despite the country’s high transmission rate. (He later became much more involved in the fight, admitting that his son had died from the disease.) And South Africa is not exactly a gay paradise. Murders and homophobia remain troubling parts of the nation’s fabric. But there’s no question that the country — and the world — has come a lot further on LGBT rights than it would have it Mandela hadn’t embraced them. For that, the community owes him an enormous debt.
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