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Ryan Thoreson, 22-year-old gay activist and newly minted Rhodes scholar, went to South Africa at the urging of a visiting Australian sociology professor who told him it was the next big thing.
"Dennis Altman told me, 'South Africa is going to be really big soon. Things are happening there that no one outside the country is really hearing about. It's the place for work to be done.' "
That was a few months ago. Now South Africa, having in 1994 become the first nation to write gay and lesbian protections into its constitution, is making headlines as the fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
Despite South Africa's history of racial oppression--and despite up to 80% of its generally conservative populace being opposed to gay rights--no major movement, a la the U.S. religious right, has risen up to oppose equality.
Thoreson believes this unique history offers lessons for the United States. Before entering Oxford, the Harvard senior is writing his thesis on what he calls "the weird disconnect" between South Africans' often-staid personal views and the freedom they grant others to live their lives.
"People there understand that human rights struggles are really intertwined," he said.
They realize that if you start amending the constitution against one group, you can amend it against others."
It's significant, Thoreson said, that the ruling African National Congress, which generally allows its MPs voting latitude, ordered them not to obstruct the so-called Civil Unions Bill that sailed through parliament on November 14.
"They were not allowed to discriminate," Thoreson said.
It helped too that several prominent anti-apartheid figures were gay or gay allies, including out gay man Simon Nkoli, codefendant in a high-profile treason trial against ANC members; jurist Edwin Cameron, whose self-disclosure as HIV-positive emboldened many others to step forward; and Zachie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign, who helped win the equality clause in South Africa's 1994 constitution.
Thoreson, of Fargo, N.D., expects he'll go back to South Africa as part of the social anthropology degree he'll pursue at Oxford. He plans eventually to work in international gay and lesbian rights law.
"South Africa is such a powerful model of progressive politics," he said. "It's a really promising place to work, especially if you're interested in doing scholarship that makes a political difference." (Barbara Wilcox, The Advocate)