South Africa’s LGBTQ community hails rainbow warrior Desmond Tutu

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The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu is revered for opposing apartheid, but his battle against injustice included an unwavering defence of gay rights. LGBTQ people are thanking, and mourning, the man who gave them a voice.

Desmond Tutu saw his defence of LGBTQ+ rights as part of his lifelong fight against discrimination.

"I oppose such injustice with the same passion that I opposed apartheid,” he said in 2013 at the launch of a UN campaign against LGBTQ discrimination.

He concluded with his most famous comment on inclusion: "I would not worship a God who is homophobic [...] “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, 'Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place’."

For Nate Brown, executive director of Pan Africa ILGA, “Desmond Tutu was the voice of the voiceless. He sat at tables where the LGBT community was not invited, so he spoke on our behalf".

Brown, a gay activist, says Tutu's now infamous 2013 speech had a real impact. "When he says he wouldn't pray to a homophobic God, it challenges all the Christians who are against the LGBT community. We felt understood and loved."

Keval Harie, director of the Gala Queer Archive, also feels the loss of Tutu’s free speech.

"The archbishop was a real ally of the community. It was very important that as a member of the clergy, wearing his religious robes, he was able to show that there was a place for LGBTQI+ people in the Church,” she told RFI’s Claire Bargelès.


Tutu was renowned for speaking his mind, even when he knew it would make him unpopular, both within the Anglican Communion and beyond.

In early 2014 he compared Uganda’s proposed law criminalising homosexuality with the horrors of Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa that banned inter-racial sexual relations.

He repeatedly clashed with Zimbabwe’s former ruler, the late Robert Mugabe and in 2013 Mugabe told a political rally: “Tutu should just step down because he supports gays, something that is evil.”

Before his death last Sunday age 90, most African religious leaders rejected his LGBTQ positions, and those who agreed with him were often cautious.

“Most of them are unwilling to offer their contrary views due to fear of reprisal and backlash for not conforming with ‘African values’,” Kenya-based researcher Yvonne Wamari of outright Action International LGBTQ-rights organisation, told AP.

“As long as the religious leaders are unwilling to interpret the Bible from the lens of love for all, as Tutu did, homophobia and transphobia will remain a part of our lives.”

Limited impact

Phumi Mtetwa, a long-standing gay activist in South Africa, praises the archbishop’s courage.

"He did not hesitate at times to stand up to religious leaders, never doubting and standing by his belief that the dignity of many of us was more important."

Yet Tutu’s LGBTQ advocacy across the continent has had limited reach.

South Africa is the only African country to have legalised same-sex marriage, and its constitution protects against anti-LGBTQ discrimination. But even there, violence against LGBTQ people still exists.

Beyond South Africa’s borders, gay sex is a criminal offence in 30 of the continent’s 54 countries.

In October Human Rights Watch reported on a prominent LGBTQ activist in Tunisia assaulted by police and in November the case of an attack by a mob on an intersex person.

Meanwhile, at a governmental level, lawmakers in Senegal are trying to introduce tougher legislation to punish homosexuality and in Ghana to criminalise the promotion and funding of LGBTQ activities.

Signs of hope

But activists take heart in some recent progress, which they see as a direct result of Tutu’s relentless campaigning for inclusion.

Nate Brown cites Botswana where “after two years of struggle with the government” the Court of Appeal recently upheld a 2019 ruling that decriminalised consensual same-sex activities.

Angola and Mozambique have also decriminalised same-sex relationships he pointed out.

Brown says those steps forward are part of Tutu’s legacy.

“His death is a setback, because he is irreplaceable. But I would like to think that as a community we will be able to continue the fight for gay rights.”

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