Perhaps it is selfish to write about my partner, but his experience has irreversibly shaped my outlook and time here in Cape Town: Two and a half weeks ago, two men assaulted, beat, and robbed my boyfriend in an LGBT neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, while shouting homophobic slurs. Heartbreaking, to have this happen to anyone, let alone someone so close to me. Perspective-changing, to feel that, suddenly, I need to return to a place where I have spent most of my life (the “lovely” Midwest), when I had only just arrived in a new place full of adventure and the potential to do work I feel passionately about.
Helplessness is a foreign word to a political advocate. The helplessness I felt when receiving an emergency phone call from halfway across the world was something I did not expect to experience during my time in Cape Town. And yet for days I could only open Skype, call and tell my boyfriend I love him, and ask him what else I could do to help.
I suddenly felt doubtful about my work in Cape Town for LGBTI refugees, where I could only hope to change the minds of a handful of administrative officers, appellate lawyers, and community members during my few months here: The other PASSOP interns and I visited the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), the administrative office that handles refugee and asylum seeker matters, around the time of the assault on my partner. We intended to hand out fliers, with information on PASSOP’s services and location, to the applicants who were visiting DHA that day. The moment that the administrative staff realized why we had visited, they called security to force us out of the suite. They would not even permit us to leave the fliers; a woman walked out from behind the main desk and directed me to take all the fliers I had left or handed out. I ignored her and walked out of the office. During our walk to DHA, one of our bosses, Tendai, told us about how she had visited DHA numerous times to inquire about clients’ cases, ask for better cooperation between PASSOP and Home Affairs, and inform refugee and asylum seekers about PASSOP and other organizations offering legal assistance. She then told us that DHA had been so uncooperative that she could not even enter the building (let alone the suite for DHA) because security would recognize her and demand that she leave. — This experience reified a memorandum that PASSOP had recently published, detailing the level of corruption and faulty decision-making, a process that has become institutionally biased against vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, in DHA.
Then, back in the “progressive” United States, something terrible and tragic had reached into the lives of me and my boyfriend (and those who love us), in the midst of an accepting, progressive neighborhood, and despite the efforts of countless advocates, students, parents, community members, and others.
These experiences reminded me that nonprofit, community-based, and advocacy work remains a constant, uphill battle. I relearned, very quickly, that it is difficult but necessary to work through feelings of doubt about the work that you, as one person, or as one part of one or a few organizations, can contribute to massive social, political, and economic problems.
My doubts did not last long, and I have my boyfriend, first and foremost, to thank for that (as well as countless others). He visited me in Cape Town during this past week. He should have felt afraid to go out in public at night, to walk around a new city that has problems of crime (like and yet unalike any other city), to show common, public affection where he had already suffered persecution when walking only by himself. And yet, he held my hand, leaned on me (or vice versa) as we watched sunsets on a public beach or in a beachside café, and ignored any cutting stares from onlookers (who, as prejudiced against LGBTI people, represent a minority in the progressive city of Cape Town). It felt silly to entertain my own doubts where this man had gathered his strength and grace so quickly, and felt confident enough to be himself and not entertain his own fears or doubts after experiencing physical assault just a few days earlier. He is an incredible person, and helped me to grow, and remember valuable lessons, in ways I did not anticipate over this past week.
New energy led to rapid and exciting developments. On Tuesday, I Skyped with my friend, Ahmed, who graduated from William & Mary’s business school with specialization in social entrepreneurship and net impact development. He and I discussed my efforts to put together a fundraising event for PASSOP, one that would bring together part of the LGBTI NPO sector and parts of the LGBTI business and politics sectors in Cape Town. I also reached out to one of PASSOP’s former interns who had organized a similar event last year. Based on information from last year and (hopefully) this year’s event, Ahmed and I will put together a “theory of change” based on indicators from the fundraising event (and perhaps other information from other organizations in Cape Town who do work identical or similar to that of PASSOP, i.e., providing housing, skills training, job search assistance, healthcare and STI testing, etc.). This report or “theory” would prove beneficial to PASSOP in that the organization can bring it to future investors or donors and show how investment in the LGBTI refugee community can produce positive social, political, and economic impacts for the larger LGBTI community.
On Thursday, I completed another appeal for the legal team, met with the LGBTI team and its director (Victor) to discuss recent developments, and interviewed an LGBTI client from Uganda. This client has his own business in South Africa, and creates necklaces, bracelets, and other jewelry or handbags by pressing recycled paper into decorative beads. He learned the craft from his family while growing up in Uganda, and had seen moderate success in South Africa before he became ill with a kidney disease. During our conversation this week, he discussed his struggles to revamp his business after his time in the hospital, find permanent housing, and securing other employment to supplement the income from his jewelry business. He also relayed the potential to export some of his older stock to a friend in Boston to sell during Boston’s Pride Parade celebrations. I hope to help him with these problems and opportunities, and possibly enlist him as a vendor to sell his wares during PASSOP’s fundraising event and network with other business owners.
My boyfriend left on Sunday, the eleventh, after a week of adventuring and enjoying the city (as well as a number of excellent South African wineries, with his friend [and her girlfriend], who lives and is from here in South Africa, but who attended undergraduate university with my boyfriend in the United States).
Reflecting on this week, and all of the thoughts detailed above, leaves me with bittersweet conclusions. New excitement and confidence in my work comes with a new, sharper sense of determination and focus qualified by the need for determined, focus responses to seemingly endless problems that do not permit for time to dwell on personal doubts. Advocates must work inexorably toward social, political, and economic change; but they can also find joy in their small parts played in the larger scheme of progress. In engaging with the clients and experiences here in Cape Town, I should constantly and conscientiously shape my work so that I come back to the United States with developed skills and a more well-rounded experience of working with diverse LGBTI people and communities, all of which is meant to prove compatible and useful for work with NGO and community-based work in the U.S. But in seeing the quick recovery and happiness in my boyfriend during our visit together, I remembered that I should take note of the small victories.
Remembering the struggles and experiences of LGBTI Americans while working in a foreign legal and sociopolitical system proved difficult this week, but reminded me of the resources and networks available back home. If anything, I can at least bring my knowledge of working with these resources and networks, even if Western-“tainted,” to organizations here in Cape Town while simultaneously learning about South African needs and experiences. I can also bring the new passion inspired by my partner’s experience to my work here in South Africa, and use the strength and focus to do the most diligent, most thorough job possible. Hopefully, I can also continue working diligently for global and local LGBTI communities after returning home with new perspective and a reminder about the nature of NGO, community-based, and advocacy work.
Endless thanks to the amazing and supportive Professors Christie Warren, Nancy Combs, Paul Marcus, Adam Gershowitz, and Jeffrey Bellin, at William & Mary Law School, as well as Professor Jeffrey Ferriell at Capital University Law School, and Professor Douglas Berman at Ohio State University College of Law.