The Pink Line: A Q&A with Mark Gevisser

15 June 2020

Eye-opening, moving, and crafted with expert research, The Pink Line is a vital journey of epic scope, across the world’s new queer frontiers.

Mark Gevisser has written two previous books and writes frequently for GuardianThe New York TimesGranta, and many other publications. He helped organise South Africa’s first Pride March in 1990, and has worked on queer themes ever since, as a journalist, film-maker and curator. He lives in Cape Town.

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Marketing Director Niamh Murray interviews Mark Gevisser, author of The Pink Line.

NM: What is the Pink Line?

MG: The Pink Line is a new human rights frontier over LGBTQ rights that has come to define – and describe – the world in an entirely new way. This is a result of a new global conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity that was unimaginable a generation ago. Battles along this Pink Line have sparked new culture wars. On the one side are countries (or communities, or families) who have come to accept queer people as full members of society, and on the other are those finding new ways to shut them out. The Pink Line is constantly shifting, and not only separates countries, but runs through parliaments and courtrooms, through bedrooms and bathrooms, through bodies themselves, as the world comes to terms with new ways of understanding what it means to make a family, to be male or female, or to have human rights. 

NM: How does it affect real lives?

MG: In fact, the Pink Line is not so much a line as a territory, a borderland where queer people work to reconcile the liberation and community they might have experienced online or on TV with the constraints of life in the real world. Because politicians and patriarchs and priests weaponise queer people to fight their own battles – against the decadent secular West, for example, or against Muslim immigrants – queer people have acquired political meaning far beyond their claims ot equality and dignity. They have become embodiments of progress and worldliness to some, but stigmata of moral and social decay to others. 

NM: What stories of hope did you find?

MG: My book interleaves historical and analytical chapters with the stories of people I met on the front line, in ten different countries, from Egypt to Mexico to Uganda, from India to Russia to the United States. Many of them struggled deeply during the seven or so years I was following them, and in many cases, even they went into exile as “LGBT Refugees”, they have found new challenges in Canada, or Holland, or South Africa that continued to make their lives difficult. But all of them exercise agency: they make their own choices and live their own lives, they insist on being themselves, and this signals immense hope. 

NM: What work still needs to be done?

MG: If I can borrow the slogan that is inspiring people all over the globe right now: Queer Lives Matter. Even in societies that have acknowledged this legally, there is a long way to go in changing attitudes and behaviour. In the United States, the number of transgender women – usually of colour – who are murdered or who kill themselves is shocking. In countries like Brazil, the numbers are even higher. In my native South Africa, where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientaiton is outlawed in the constitution and same-sex marriage is legal, the number of gender-nonconforming people (particularly butch lesbians) who have been raped and murdered is horrifying. In many countries, the custodians of the law are a huge part of the problem: this is particularly true in Egypt, which imprisons more people on suspicion of homosexuality than anywhere else in the world. I could go on. The challenge is how to fight against such injustice in a way that is culturally sensitive and that does not draw accusations (and thus obfuscations) of “cultural imperialism” or “neo-colonialism”. And the answer to this challenge is to listen ot the voices, and follow the leads, of queer Africans or Asians or people of colour themselves. This is what I have tried to do in my book. 

NM: How can straight people be allies?

MG: There is a beautiful South African word that guides me: “ubuntu”, which means, roughly, “I am a human being because you are a human being”. I’m thus not a huge fan of the concept of allyship: we’re all in this together. 

NM: How has globalisation affected LGBTQ lives across the world?

MG: Two elements of globalisation have set this new global conversation buzzing. The first is, of course, the digital revolution, which means that ideas of human rights and personal autonomy can be downloaded anywhere, by anyone who has a smartphone and a little bit of privacy. The second is mass migration and urbanisation. As people travel from country to country, or to the city to work and back home again, they learn new ideas and carry them along with them. 

As global human rights categories such as “LGBT” have gained currency globally, this has created new possibilities for many people, but it has also created new conflict, and new risks, and in some cases shut down cultural and social space that accomodated homosexuality and gender nonconformity.