IN THE EARLY MORNING of December 11, my taxi sped down Massachusetts Avenue from Dupont Circle to Washington National Cathedral, a route popularly known as Embassy Row, I saw visual evidence the world mourned for South African President Nelson Mandela. Virtually every embassy had its flag at half mast in honor of the late leader, who had died December 5.
As a gay man, I expected to hear a speaker at the memorial service praise Mandela for his groundbreaking accomplishments on GLBT rights in South Africa, such as his constitutional ban on discrimination against gays and his support for legalizing same-sex marriage, and, after his presidency, his AIDS activism fueled by his eldest son’s death from the disease. These were significant achievements for an African leader in the 1990s on an issue that wasn’t popular anywhere on the continent. Not one of the main fourteen speakers at the memorial was sufficiently impressed by these accomplishments as to mention them in their eulogy, though there were multiple opportunities.
During his fifteen-minute tribute, Vice President Joe Biden had several such opportunities. When he spoke of Mandela having “a vision of a new South Africa,” he could have said an inclusionary vision for GLBT South Africans. When he remarked that Mandela, after release from prison, displayed a loyalty to all his people, including blacks, Indians, and whites, it was the perfect moment for him to mention gay rights. When he spoke of South Africa’s transition to democracy, this was a chance for him to mention that Mandela presided over the enactment of a new constitution for South Africa that expressly recognized GLBT equality and protection from discrimination.