The personal is political
The row over the appointment of a homosexual as Bishop of Reading reminds me of two friends who are now living in Brazil, having—with some help from the Dutch authorities—effectively turned traditional attitudes towards homosexuality upside down in South Africa.
Hans Glaubitz, a Dutch diplomat, was appointed to Pretoria in 1997. At the time it must have been seen by some like an act of deliberate provocation by the Dutch government.
Hans and his partner, Raul Garcia Lao, were not only gay, but of mixed race (under apartheid Hans would have been considered white and Raul black).
To top it all Raul was from communist Cuba, with whom a bitterly anti-communist South Africa had been at war only a few years earlier.
But the country’s new, ANC government proved equal to the challenge and the next edition of the Directory of Diplomatic Missions duly carried Raul’s name under “partner” and he was issued with diplomatic ID.
Taking up residence in Pretoria’s poshist suburb, Waterkloof, Raul caused much bafflement wandering around the suburb in shorts, as opposed to the blue overalls, or pink dresses which tended to be the uniforms of gardeners and domestic servants.
There were some hiccups, but nothing serious. They did have some difficulty when they tried to join the local tennis club, membership of which seemed to be largely made up of elderly retirees. The chairman was much relieved when Hans said Raul would need some lessons. “Oh, but we do not take beginners,” he said happily.
“Yes, I can see that,” commented Hans casting a sardonic eye over the predominately octogenarian crowd which had gathered about them.
Although South Africa had abandoned apartheid some time before their arrival, the attitudes still lingered. When Raul—a dancer with an athletes’ body—went to a beach which had been “whites only”, he found there was a need for other bathers to have an explanation for his presence.
“Hey, aren’t you the one who won the 1500m steeple chase in the Atlanta Olympics,” two surfers demanded of him ?
“No, you’re wrong, I’m just relaxing,” said Raul.
“OK, guy. We accept you like to be incognito, but you don’t fool us,” said the surfers, knowingly.
It was in Cuba, Hans’s first posting abroad, that the couple met and Hans realised he was gay. He came out to South Africa as Dutch cultural attache after a stint in Poland and 18 months as Charge d’Affaires in Sarajevo.
Now consul general in Sao Paulo, Hans and Raul find Brazil is a country where anything goes, where sexual orientation is concerned. More than one million are estimated to have attended Sao Paulo’s annual Gay Pride a couple of weeks ago.
Hans and Raul are not married—they have a contract of cohabitation which they find sufficient for practical purposes. They have no complaints about their treatment by the Dutch government, receiving tickets to fly home twice a year—for annual leave and to attend the Heads of Mission conference together - in the same way as straight couples. The Dutch civil service pension fund has long recognised gay couples.
Perhaps the most telling test of Hans and Raul, and of Holland, came recently when the Dutch Royal family, led by Queen Beatrix, descended on Sao Paulo as part of a state visit to Brazil. Raul suddenly found himself having to play the part of the official hostess, looking after the crown prince, Prince Willem-Alexander, and his new wife, Princess Maxima.
When he first arrived in Sao Paulo Hans’s deputy threw a reception to meet prominent members of the Dutch community living there. Hans decided to grab the proverbial bull by the horns. “Maybe you’re accustomed to see as the Head of your diplomatic mission here a decent couple who are man and wife. Well, you’d better quickly adapt to the fact that for the next four years you’ll have to do with a decent couple who are man and man, because that’s what you have got.”
It was a lesson about priorities. - Guardian Unlimited Â