Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu: A Rock Star for Equal Rights

By Trudy Ring

Originally published on Advocate.com June 18 2012 1:40 PM ET

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.

Desmond Tutu awarded the Congressional Medal of FreedomBoth men say they were deeply moved by President Obama’s recent statements endorsing marriage equality. “My heart leapt,” Taylor says. “To have the president of the United States of America say that was just phenomenal.”

They recognize that much work has to be done before LGBT people enjoy full equality in the USA or elsewhere in the world. Post-apartheid South Africa has a progressive constitution enshrining gay people’s rights, and it also has marriage equality, but the nation still sees hate crimes against LGBT citizens, such as the practice of raping lesbians ostensibly to turn them straight. And some countries, in Africa and other parts of the world, give government sanction to discrimination and violence.

A key to fighting these outrages, Taylor notes, is for international leaders to speak out against them and support those working in each nation to improve the situation. He lauds Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address last year on LGBT rights to the United Nations’ human rights group, calling it “a defining moment in the history of human rights.”

On the individual level, he adds, LGBT people can advance the cause by sharing their stories and being their authentic selves, forging connections even with those not inclined toward acceptance. “When you start to tell these stories, you engage people differently,” says Taylor, who discusses this topic and others in his new book, A New Way to Be Human: 7 Spiritual Pathways to Becoming Fully Alive, to which Tutu wrote the introduction.

While recognizing that the day of full equality is some distance off, the two men believe that day will come. Martin Luther King, Taylor notes, said the arc of the universe bends toward justice; Taylor says it also bends toward inclusion.

Tutu maintains his hope that the world will change in other ways as well: that one day all children will have safe drinking water, that weapons development will take a back seat to human needs, that climate change will be addressed effectively. “There’s only one world,” he says. “Destroy that and we’re done for.”

In the face of all these challenges, he says, he takes inspiration from young people. “I think young people are my addiction,” he says. “I get a high when I’m with them. For the most part they are idealistic. … Young people are saying, ‘Hey, what kind of a world are you going to leave us?’”

Although he doesn’t say so, they undoubtedly recognize that Tutu has done more than most to leave the world better than he found it. He’s a rock star with a platinum record on social justice.