Queer eye ― no straight answers

02 August 2021 - 07:24
By Jennifer Platt


The winner should demonstrate the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion; elegance of writing; and intellectual and moral integrity.

An exploration of how the conversation around sexual orientation and gender identity has come to divide - and describe - the world in an entirely new way over the first two decades of the 21st century. In The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World's Queer Frontiers (Jonathan Ball Publishers), Mark Gevisser observes that no social movement has brought change so quickly and with such dramatically mixed results. Fresh culture wars have emerged, and a new "Pink Line", he argues, has been drawn across the globe.

How did the idea of the book come about and how did you arrive at the title 'The Pink Line'?

In 2006, SA became the fifth country in the world to permit same-sex marriage. Three years later, I married my male partner of 20 years- mainly so that I could get the spousal benefits on his new job in France! A few months later, I read of a couple from Malawi arrested and charged with "carnal knowledge against the order of nature", just for holding a public engagement ceremony. Whereas I got a ticket to Paris as my wedding present, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Stephen Monjeza got a humiliating trial, a sentence of 14 years hard labour, and - for Tiwonge, after the president was pressurised to pardon them - a life in exile in SA. It came to me that Tiwonge (who is transgender) crossed a "Pink Line" when she fled to SA: a new human rights frontier that has come to describe and divide the world in an entirely unexpected way. I wanted to understand the new global conversation that had established this frontier, how it had happened with such unprecedented speed, and what effect it was having on the queer people who actually live along the Pink Line. I begin and end my book with Tiwonge's story.

You write in your author's note that you had to be specific in describing people's different ways of identifying themselves. Why was it so important, and how did you manage this?

I use the word "queer" in this book because I like its connotation - a "queer" perspective means seeing the world from an angle - and partly because it's convenient. Still, I describe the people I write about in the way they describe themselves. This seemed particularly important given the way queer people have been instrumentalised by larger geopolitical forces: either as "agents" of a corrupting foreign influence, or as "victims" who need to be saved from homophobic laws and customs. Lost in all this is their own agency. I hope my work goes some way to restoring it - even if this does mean getting my sentences, and my readers' minds, around a singular "they" pronoun!

Which country do you believe has the best gay rights record?

There are so many ways to measure a country's record when it comes to recognising the rights of people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. What's fascinating is that the ones out front aren't only in the traditional "West", as you may think. Real frontrunners include Argentina and Nepal.

This is a South African book as well as a global one. How is SA shaping up in this regard?

SA is up there too - on paper. But my book examines the very awkward dance between legal reform and social change, so visible in our home country. In the past four months alone, more than 10 people have been murdered in anti-gay and anti-trans hate crimes in KwaZulu-Natal alone. A Pink Line runs right through our beloved land. The gap between our excellent laws protecting queer people and an inability to enforce them or change attitudes on the ground is indicative of so many problems in our society.

You write that one of the precepts of this book is to draw a line between sexual orientation and gender identity. Can you briefly explain this?

I learnt some fabulous slogans from the queer and non-binary and trans kids I met in my research for my US chapter: "My gender is between my ears, my sex is between my legs"; "My gender identity is who I go to bed as, my sexual orientation is who I go to
bed with"; "Sex is what I do with my clothes off, gender expression is what I do with my clothes." Still, I note that while these might work well in America, they don't begin to capture the complex swirl of sexualities and genders in other places. If my book has one overarching agenda, it is to show that there is not one way to be in the world.

As always your research is exhaustive. How did you prevent it from overwhelming the narrative? And when do you know a book is ready to be sent out into the world?

In my writing and in my teaching too I conjure the image of an infinite swamp of data facing writers each time they embark on a story. You can get lost in that swamp, or find a narrative channel through it. For me, the best possible channel has always been someone else's own experience of the swamp, and the best way of surveying the swamp is by sitting on that person's shoulder as they row their boat through life. I hope I put that into practice in The Pink Line, by telling the stories of the people I meet. As to when a book's ready, I'm hardly known for short books turned around in a month or two! This one took
nearly eight years. What takes so long is a concern not just about rigour but about readability. It might be an effort for me, but I don't want it to be so for you.

In what way do you think the book "illuminates truthfulness"?

I set out to write a book that would illuminate the truths of the people I met. I wanted to be faithful to their experiences, but also truthful about my own subjectivity: how this might influence the way I see things - and even influence things too - despite my best intentions. For this reason I am present in the book, not as a subject but as the reader's guide - and to appreciate a journey, it helps to know where your guide is coming from! I also wanted to be truthful about what I observed about human behaviour and social change, even if this complicates my activist tendency: a faith that a fight for "LGBT rights" will necessarily bring about positive change. It's so much more complicated.

What impression do you want readers to take away after reading this?

Wonder, and understanding. The world is infinitely complex and varied and fascinating, and there are no easy answers. Also, just how difficult it is for people to be themselves in so many parts of the world, and how inspiring they are, just for trying. That there is hope, alone, in this exercise of agency, despite the odds.