By Thom Senzee
Originally published on Advocate.com May 30 2014 8:31 PM ET
On Wednesday, South African member of parliament Zakhele Mbhele made history when he was sworn in, becoming the first openly gay black member of parliament in any African nation, according to South Africa's Mamba Online.
That news outlet, which caters to South Africa's gay community, obtained an exclusive interview with Mbhele after he was sworn in as a member of the South African National Assembly, which is the fifth democratic parliament of Nelson Mandela’s free South Africa.
"One of the most damaging things about homophobia is its destructive effect on a young LGBT person’s self-esteem," Mbhele told Mamba. "That was certainly one of the issues I grappled with when I was coming to terms with my sexuality in my teen years."
Mbhele’s arrival on the African political scene, such as it is, could not be more timely for those looking for any sign of good news for LGBT people facing brutal, draconian policies targeting LGBT Africans — like Uganda’s crushing new antigay law, which imposes lifetime prison sentences for repeated consensual sexual activity between two adults of the same gender.
"Having more openly gay achievers in society can counter that damage by giving young LGBT people role models to inspire them to build their self-confidence and work ambitiously to achieve their dreams,” Mbhele told Mamba.
Ironically, Mbhele wasn’t aware of his historical-first status until a friend asked him how it felt being the first black, openly gay MP to be sworn into office in African history, according to BuzzFeed’s J. Lester Feder.
As Washington Post contributor Andrew Reynolds noted, Mbhele is the 203rd openly gay parliamentarian elected worldwide, since Coos Huijsen of the Netherlands became the world’s first in 1976.
Reynolds, a political scientist and LGBT history researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the newly minted parliamentarian is following in the footsteps of the late American LGBT civil rights leader, Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the U.S.
"The events of the last decade validate the plea that Harvey Milk made in his election speeches in California," wrote Reynolds. "In 1978, he defined his run for office in San Francisco with the mantra that for gay people to be treated equally, they must have a seat at the table. Visible gay leaders, out of their closets, needed to run for and be elected to public office to shatter the fear generated by the myths swirling around their invisibility."
Another oft-cited mantra of Milk’s advocacy urged LGBT people to, "come out, come out, wherever you are." Now, with the election of Zhakele Mbhele, Africa has indeed heeded Milk’s call.