Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, key player in bringing down South Africa’s apartheid system, might invite comparison with a variety of figures — Martin Luther King, perhaps, or Frederick Douglass. But Lady Gaga?
Tutu is “a rock star” on a par with Gaga, says his close friend Robert Taylor, an author, human rights activist, and Episcopal priest who rose to become one of the church’s highest-ranking openly gay clergy members.
The comparison comes up on a recent evening in Los Angeles as Tutu and Taylor visit with journalists before having an onstage conversation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Taylor, who lives in Seattle, mentions an appearance by Tutu at a stadium in nearby Tacoma where Gaga had given a concert not long before.
“He was as much of a rock star as Lady Gaga was,” if dressed a bit more conservatively, says Taylor, recalling how Tutu inspired the crowd.
One has only to know Tutu’s record to understand how he could inspire rock star–style adulation. But upon meeting him, it becomes clear he’s much more accessible than most rock stars. He’s warm, witty, and down-to-earth, like a kind and wise uncle or grandfather…who just happens to have helped change the world.
Through the South Africa–based Desmond Tutu Peace Centre and other efforts, Tutu, now in his 80s, is continuing to work for peace, social justice, and human rights. He makes it clear that he believes, as some political figures have stated recently, that LGBT rights are human rights. And the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, once the primate of his church in South Africa, also makes it clear that he believes LGBT people are equal to their straight brethren in the eyes of God.
“We have strange images of God,” he says. “One is of a God who is waiting to club us. We don’t seem to understand the image of a God who says, ‘I created you because I loved you.’” Later, he elaborates, “God’s dream is to embrace all of us, an embrace we are not allowed to escape out of, including the gay, lesbian, and so-called straight.”
Taylor has long been out to Tutu, whom he first met in 1980. Taylor, then 22, was unwilling to join the South African military, as was required of all the nation’s young white men, because he did not wish to defend apartheid. He knew he would be given a desk job because he had physical problems, but he still did not wish to serve. He sought advice from Tutu as a leader of his church and of the anti-apartheid movement. Tutu contacted friends in New York City and arranged for Taylor to move to the United States and attend seminary here.
Taylor, who says he had “one and a half feet” out of the closet during seminary, eventually came all the way out, and when he was appointed dean of Seattle’s Episcopal cathedral in 1999, he was the first openly gay man to hold such a post. He first brought up gay issues with Tutu “obliquely,” he says, in the late 1980s, and during the anti-apartheid struggle, he and others urged Tutu to address gay rights. Tutu promised that he would once that battle was won, and he was true to his word.