Mark Gevisser’s Long Mission of Queer Visibility

In his most recent book, The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, the South African journalist and activist shows a world in redescription. And he has been doing that for decades, engaging power and who wields it and who is abused by it.
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Mark Gevisser (R) and Tiwonge "Aunty" Chimbalanga (L) at the Khlulisa Community Garden, where she works. Credit: Ellen Elmendorp.

Mark Gevisser (R) and Tiwonge "Aunty" Chimbalanga (L) at the Khlulisa Community Garden, where she works. Credit: Ellen Elmendorp.

Months after marrying his husband, Mark Gevisser opened his Internet and saw a troubling news item. The story was Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a trans woman whose engagement to her man in Malawi got her a 14-year jail term with hard labour. There was international outrage: the singer Madonna, who’d adopted children from Malawi, started a petition that garnered 30,000 signatures; UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon visited the country; and eventually the pressure paid off and Chimbalanga received a presidential pardon.

It was early 2010. Gevisser was in Paris when he read the story, living with his husband and enjoying spousal benefits, and he began to wonder how different his experience, as a privileged White male South African, was from Chimbalanga’s.

He thought of this again later that year when for the first time he visited India, and, in the southern fishing village of Devanampattinam, he encountered the Kothis, a community of “women’s hearts in men’s bodies.”

“The first time I had only just met them at an introductory level but they stuck with me,” he tells me on Zoom in December.

Between Chimbalanga and the Kothis, he knew he had a story. They were, he determined, the new vanguard on “the Pink Line,” a term he coined to describe, on the one hand, the difference in attitudes between countries and cultures accepting of LGBTQ rights and those enforcing stricter discriminatory laws, and, on the other hand, the “new frontiers of the culture wars,” such as the issue of bathrooms for trans people. They were often in the stream of global forces moving towards acceptance but at odds with local social norms or national politics.

“I thought to myself that I needed to begin this book with them,” he says of the Kothis, “and I ended up ending with them.”

Mark Gevissers The Pink Line. Credit: markgevisser.com.
Mark Gevisser’s The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers. Credit: markgevisser.com.

Writing The Pink Line, which opens with Chimbalanga’s story, took Gevisser on a listening tour of countries. In Egypt, he follows a lesbian couple, Amira and Maha, “the very first Egyptians to be open in public,” who took part in the Tahrir Square protests that led to the 2011 revolution and would flee after the 2013 coup and settle in the Netherlands. In Israel, he follows a gay couple, Fadi and Nadav, who are Palestinian and Jewish, respectively. In Russia, he meets Pasha Captanovska, a trans woman fighting for access to her son. In Kenya, he connects with Michael Bashaija, a gay Ugandan teen in a safe house.

Through the swirl of languages—Chichewa, Arabic, Tamil, Spanish, Russian—he relied on interpreters. And alongside the personal stories are analyses of identity politics, religion, human rights, and geopolitics. In a review in The Guardian, Colm Toibin writes that, in how he renders his subjects in complexity, Gevisser “becomes almost a novelist.”

Gevisser tells me: “I don’t think any of them described themselves as victims. They acknowledge and understand that they had been victimized, but they don’t live the lives of victims.”

He described them both how he saw them and the way they wanted to be described. “When I am writing about people who are vulnerable, it is very important for me to make sure that they are comfortable. I went back to them many times with those sorts of questions.” It was about “understanding and accepting their agencies,” he says. “I know that they also have power and I want to establish that power.”

When Gevisser first sought out Chimbalanga, in a township outside Cape Town where she was known as Aunty, she had made her peace with the humiliation, with being stripped by the police to confirm her male genitalia, with the man she was engaged to publicly denouncing her as “bewitching” him. She told Gevisser: “I want all visitors to my home to know what love means, then they will know I did nothing wrong.”

Tiwonge "Aunty" Chimbalanga, whose story opens The Pink Line, and Mark Gevisser at the Khlulisa Community Garden, where Aunty works. Credit: Ellen Elmendorp.
Tiwonge “Aunty” Chimbalanga, whose story opens The Pink Line, and Mark Gevisser at the Khlulisa Community Garden, where Aunty works. Credit: Ellen Elmendorp.

Gevisser’s path to journalism is recorded in his 2014 memoir Lost and Found in Johannesburg, in which he assembles photographs, maps, and newspaper clippings to show a city he is in love with. Raised in an anti-Apartheid family, he thought along his parents’ belief in social justice, but when he became a young adult and turned attitude into action, his parents became upset.

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“They were very worried that I was going to get into trouble,” he tells me. “It was a signal to me of what could be hypocritical in traditional liberalism.”

After high school in Johannesburg, he started at a university in Cape Town. Shortly after, he left for the US, for Yale. “It was very much my parents’ dream for me other than my own,” he explains, “and it was partly because they were anxious about the future in South Africa.” With tension growing between the anti-Apartheid movement and the increasingly-repressive government, the country was tense.

At Yale, Gevisser joined in organizing the school’s Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days. The education, he says, “gave me the space to think about my sexuality.” On his first visit home, he came out as gay to his parents. It was 1983 and he was 19.

Mark Gevisser's memoir Lost and Found in Johannesburg. Credit: markgevisser.com.
Mark Gevisser’s memoir Lost and Found in Johannesburg. Credit: markgevisser.com.

Coming of age in early ’80s North American gay culture, after Harvey Milk’s assassination and before the AIDS epidemic, meant, for him, that “the only way to be is to be out of the closet, proudly and openly gay.” In years to come, he would understand how, as people tried to align their identities with their cultures, this was difficult.

The year he returned, 1990,was the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In 1991, Apartheid fell. That year, Winnie Mandela was on trial for the death of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a 14-year-old activist said to be gay, accused of being an informer, and abducted from the home of a White Methodist minister. A new conversation, enmeshed in racial politics, surged about gender and sexuality.

Gevisser, now working for Weekly Mail, helped organize South Africa’s first Pride march. He was part of a group lobbying the country’s governing party, the ANC, hoping for the next government to “consider gay rights as part of the human rights project.” His mission to “make space for journalism to convey the gay experiences in South Africa,” and the collective group’s aim “to disperse this idea that homosexuality was just a White thing,” formed the backdrop for the first book he worked on: Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, coedited with Edwin Cameron, an openly gay human rights lawyer who went on to become a judge.

Defiant Desire, co-edited by Mark Gevisser. Credit: markgevisser.com.
Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, edited by Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron. Credit: markgevisser.com.

“There was an underground homosexual sub-culture in Black culture, in South Africa,” Gevisser says of the time. “It was coming out with a bang. It was like a new thing in the world and one of the purposes of that book was to try and understand all of that.”

Defiant Desire took two years to curate and came out in 1994. Two years later, the ANC passed the law that made South Africa’s constitution the first in the world to explicitly prohibit anti-gay discrimination.

Over the next 15 years, Gevisser did political journalism. He published his first solely authored book, Portraits of Power: Profiles in a Changing South Africa, which shows the country in transition through the journeys of 40 prominent personalities playing political, cultural, and intellectual roles. The idea came from brief profiles he wrote for Weekly Mail, which were getting popular.

“Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring,” he says of the time. “It was very terrifying. There was a lot of very difficult violence.”

It was with the profiles that he became committed to the kind of narrative nonfiction that we see in The Pink Line. “It’s a belief that if you really want to understand society and social transition, the best way of doing it is to sit on the shoulder of somebody negotiating that transition and see it from their perspective. See how change affects them and they affect change.”

Mark Gevisser's collection of profiles, Portraits of Power. Credit: markgevisser.com.
Mark Gevisser’s collection of profiles, Portraits of Power. Credit: markgevisser.com.

The rave reception of Portraits of Power turned Gevisser into one of the country’s leading writers, and soon his new status lured him to a formidable subject: Thabo Mbeki, vice president to Nelson Mandela, enigma to the South African public. It was 1998, Mandela was stepping down after one term and Mbeki was taking over, and Sunday Times approached him with the proposal. “‘Who is Thabo Mbeki?’ was a question that everybody was asking,” Gevisser recalls.

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Backed by the paper’s resources, he wrote a five-part series on the prospective president, traveling to Sussex, where he studied, and Russia, where he was trained as a Communist party leader in the ’70s. The series was published just as Mbeki took power and got more attention that anything Gevisser had done previously.

He proposed it as a book to a publisher, hoping to simply add an introduction, but he ended up working on it for 10 years, expanding it into a 900-page tome, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, published in 2007 and reissued in 2009 as A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream.

By then, South African politics had changed and, within Mbeki’s ANC, Jacob Zuma was challenging for party leadership. Gevisser tried to convince his publisher to hold back the book, “to wait until after the showdown, because that way we were going to be able to put a full stop on the story.” His publishers insisted on putting it out when the interest was so high.

Publishing the book at that time, Gevisser says, “was a blessing and a curse.” It became a runaway bestseller and Times Literary Supplement called it “probably the finest piece of non-fiction to come out of South Africa since the end of Apartheid,” but not even its “very kind of measured, if not dispassionate” tone, he says, could dispel the perception of him as “a soldier in the war, someone defending Thabo Mbeki.”

Mark Gevisser's biography of Thabo Mbeki, A Legacy of Liberation, became a bestseller. Credit: markgevisser.com.
Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki, A Legacy of Liberation, became a bestseller. Credit: markgevisser.com.

Thirteen years on, he regrets nothing. “I have got to write with some empathy, even if I disagree fervently with his position on things,” he argues. With powerful people, “I may listen to you and be empathetic, but I also have all my facts with me.” So “rather than writing an enraged work talking about what an evil man he was, I wrote trying to understand him. Even many of my friends were upset about that.”  

I asked him if his perspective could fly today in liberal circles, if in 2020, the peak year of cancel culture, one could write an empathetic book about politicians perceived as dangerous and be allowed journalistic benefit of doubt.

“Interesting. I haven’t thought of that.” He pauses. “But thinking aloud, given the power of social media and the way it can be toxic and creates its echo chambers where people are just bouncing off their own received truths, that could have made publishing a book like this much more difficult.”

The experience made him stay away from big political journalism. He accepted a publisher’s proposal to do a book on the transition from Mbeki to Zuma, but left it because “it was increasing becoming a biography of Zuma,” it was “such a torturous story of power and corruption that doesn’t interest me to write about.” He also didn’t want to “become involved in yet another political battle over a South African president’s legacy.”

Was he also worried about how he, a prominent White journalist writing about two Black presidents, would look?

“One of the things to remember is how much race and politics have changed globally,” he responds. “There is a south African critic who I respect who recently published a nonfiction which had a long chapter about my Mbeki book, and he contends that I would never have been able to write that book today.”

What Gevisser produced in A Legacy of Liberation is a psycho-biography, and his analyses of Mbeki’s childhood and absent father infuriated Mbeki himself. The president wrote him an angry letter. He resented, Gevisser says, the “attempt to psychologize him, and he said people like me have been trying to get into the heads of people like him ever since colonization began.” It was, Mbeki summarized, “an act of colonial appropriation.”

Gevisser says he has become more aware of his privileges as a White writer, but, he continues, “I think it raises very interesting questions about nonfiction generally and appropriation and empathy. And what the line is between empathy and appropriation, and whether you can write about anybody other than yourself without trying to imagine how they think.”

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One early morning, at the peak of the ANC power struggle, Gevisser was in his Johannesburg apartment when he heard someone break in. He was terrified. But the intruder took only his laptop. He suspects it was Zuma’s people, looking for “what I had on Thabo Mbeki that he could use to get him out of power.”

It would happen again. Lying on his bed one evening, he heard the intruder break in, heard them searching in his sitting-room. He lay still.

Mark Gevisser in his house in Kalk Bay. Credit: Tommy Trenchard.
Mark Gevisser in his house in Kalk Bay. Credit: Tommy Trenchard.

Gevisser is speaking to me from the house he shares with his partner in Kalk Bay, a mixed-race community of fishermen. From the window behind him, I can see the Atlantic Ocean. The water is part of his daily routine. In the mornings, he swims, and in the evenings, he takes a walk along the contour path above the house. During Apartheid, Kalk Bay was one of the few places around Cape Town that was not forcefully removed—people were moved out of their homes into state housing, though. But it was the physical beauty, the access to nature, that drew him and his partner. With this “little bit of distance” from the rest of South Africa, he could reach out across the oceans, to different continents, to collect stories. (It might have been from there that he called me in 2018, our first long interview, to ask about Nigeria for a piece he was writing, about the queer revolution that had happened in our literary scene, the social climate.)

A month before we speak, in November, TIME named The Pink Line among its “100 must-read books of 2020.” It would later be longlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize. Before these, Gevisser committed to donating his royalties from its sale in South Africa to COVID projects for LGBTQ people.

With the book, his trajectory comes full circle. He’d gone from an anthology, Defiant Desire, to a nonfiction collection, Portraits of Power, to a biography, A Legacy of Liberation, and to a memoir, Lost and Found in Johannesburg. He’d traversed politics as an openly gay man, and in leaving that heated arena and returning to the freedom of seeking more queer visibility, he has picked decisive lessons on power dynamics, empathy, and the very nature of biographical nonfiction.

“A person’s life gives you plot and character, it gives you a narrative,” he says. “For me, it is really about establishing rapport and developing the kind of relationship with them where I can really see past the mask. Another thing I have learned is to be self-conscious about who I am in the process, so I don’t pretend I can see everything objectively. But I want you the reader to trust me as I lead you through the swamp.”

Gevisser tells me that some people who knew him from political journalism expect him to return. “I was already tired of being a political oracle and South African politics was becoming depressing,” he says. “This book was a breakaway for me.”

The Pink Line is his first book to not be about South Africa. “And I love it. It was exciting for me to be branching out, being global and having the excuse to travel. It’s fascinating to learn through these persons. Their lives don’t end because the book ends.”

Telling their stories changed Gevisser. In the Indian village of Devanampattinam, on a shack on the beach, the Kothis wrapped him in a sari, an experience he says “signaled the expansion of my consciousness about gender and even my own fluidity.” One night in Cairo, in 2013, a year before his subjects, Amira and Maha, fled Egypt, he sat in a café along the Nile, watching young queer people being free. He reflected on the progress made in the last three decades. He pinched himself. What a gift, he thought.

Buy The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers HERE.

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Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is the founder and editor-in-chief of Open Country Mag. He is a writer, culture journalist, curator, former academic, and media consultant. Until recently, he was editor of Folio Nigeria, CNN’s exclusive media affiliate in Africa, where he profiled innovators in over 20 fields, including art, music, tech, sports, cuisine, fashion, beauty, health, and activism. He sat on the judging panel of The Morland Scholarship, a British grant for African writers, and currently chairs the panel of The Gerald Kraak Prize, a South African initiative for storytelling about gender, sexuality, and social justice. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among “The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians” by Avance Media. Website: otosirieze.com.
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