Supreme Courth Judge Edwin Cameron also just happens to be one of South Africa’s most legendary LGBT and Aids activists. Here he talks to Brian Finnegan about the African LGBT struggle, the anger of white male patrirarchs, the issues around tackling record gay HIV infections, and how his own coming out and subsequent diagnoses with HIV determined the course of his career.
This article was originally published in the March 2017 Issue of GCN (Issue 327) which is available to read online here.
Like you, I was born gay,” says Edwin Cameron with a twinkle in his eye. “You said that on your website, and I like it.”
The Supreme Court Judge, who was first appointed to South Africa’s High Court by Nelson Mandela in 1994, and whose LGBT and Aids activism is legendary on the African continent, is the only interviewee I’ve ever come across who has done research on me before meeting.
He’s read my blog and pieces I’ve written for GCN, and before I can get any questions of my own out, wants to know if my parents have read my books, and if they are proud of me.
I assure him they are indeed proud, somewhat disarmed by this 63 year-old’s charisma, by his open-faced curiosity, despite the fact it’s supposed to be the other way around.
“Let’s talk about you,” I say, and he acquiesces with another smile. “But I want to know more about your writing later,” he adds, not letting me off the hook.
He’s got what might be called ‘winning charm’, and I guess it’s been a key part of his arsenal in fighting for human rights over the decades in South Africa, against enormous odds.
“I’m a white lawyer in a suit,” he tells me. “It’s my drag. We all protect ourselves in different guises, and I’ve always been a man in a suit.”
As with all good drag queens, there’s a huge element of inventiveness involved. Cameron spent much of his childhood in an orphanage after his father was jailed for car theft and his mother was unable to look after him and his sister.
After winning a scholarship to attend Pretoria Boys’ High School, one of South Africa’s best state schools, he reinvented himself, he says, “in the guise of a clever schoolboy.” From there it was to University, first in South Africa and in Oxford, where he graduated in civil law. He came home and after completing further studies, specialised in defending human rights, his own journey out of the closet marking his professional development.
“I grew up in the deeply homophobic, repressive society of Apartheid South Africa,” he says. “I came out just before the I turned 30, just as Apartheid was reaching its crisis in the 1980s. At the time I was dealing with 95 percent of anti-Apartheid cases, and I began campaigning for gay rights.”
Cameron downplays his pivotal legal role in helping South Africa become the first country in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996. “My real role in it was to oversee the legal elements of the negotiating process,” he says, pointing towards activist Simon Nkoli for the lion’s share of glory.
“He was a young man from a township who took part in a massive anti-apartheid uprising in September 1984 and was arrested for murder and treason. He was eventually acquitted, but he was on trial for his life. He came out to his fellow prisoners, saying he was from a township, fighting Apartheid, but that he was also gay. Simon and I were comrades in the fight for constitutional protection, but he was the really important one because he legitimated the idea of LGBT rights.”
Just two years after the new post-apartheid constitution was put in place, Nkoli died from Aids-related illness, and Cameron was diagnosed with HIV. It led him into another major struggle for human rights.