ENERGY FOR LIVING – An interview with Judge Edwin Cameron

I walk with Judge Edwin Cameron through his Johannesburg home as we make our way out to the spacious garden. I spot a pile of classical CDs as we pass through and ask whether there’s any Madonna on the pile. “Not here,” he laughs, but he assures me that the Madonna albums are somewhere else, accompanied by those of ABBA and Queen.

An openly gay legal professional, Cameron founded the AIDS Law Project and the AIDS Consortium, and has done extensive work on the Charter of Rights on HIV/AIDS, and the inclusion of sexuality within the Bill of Rights. Cameron became a judge of the High Court in 1995 and made world headlines in 1999 when he disclosed his HIV-positive status. Since then he has been invited to speak at conferences and summits around the world. His duties as a Supreme Court of Appeal judge lead him to spend part of each year in Bloemfontein.

“I confronted my sexuality after a failed marriage more than twenty years ago,” Cameron begins as we sit in the garden, “I came to the realization that I had to integrate my sexuality with the rest of my life. I was just starting as an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar and I was determined to be very open about it. I was very frontal about being openly and proudly gay.”

“We formed political activist groups,” he says of the early struggle for gay and lesbian rights, and makes mention of the positive inroads that have been made within the last few years. “There have been so many cases,” he elaborates, “About nine court decisions on the equality of gays and lesbians. We haven’t eliminated gay and lesbian discrimination but we’re way along the road.”

Being gay today is vastly different to what it was in the early days of Cameron’s coming out, and he stresses one fundamental change. “Young gay and lesbian people have got role models,” he says, “When I was growing up that was not spoken about.” On the subject, what of the notion that high profile gay and lesbian people should come out and be open about their sexuality, with a view to establishing themselves as role models? “I think it’s an intensely personal issue and I’m not moralistic about telling people to come out,” Cameron responds, “But if people can make that choice it’s preferable, particularly with prominent people. We’ve got fewer black [gay] role models. But I think that’ll change.”

“Instead of wasting life’s energy keeping secrets, I can use my life’s energy for living.”

In terms of gays and lesbians in the media – from Will and Grace to more serious representations of gay people – Cameron comments, “I think that’s enormously positive. In a way being gay and lesbian is becoming a non-issue.” This, he adds, is both a good thing and a bad thing. “One doesn’t want gay and lesbian to become too normalized,” he explains, “Gays and lesbians pose questions about the heterosexual world. That’s why I admire drag queens because they’re showing courage to be different. I’ve never had the courage to go in drag myself”, and he adds with a smile, “But I’m going to one day!”

There are a number of gay and lesbian issues that have reached prominence of late, but perhaps none more prominent (or controversial) than the issue of same-sex marriage. “The debate about gay marriage has been interesting within the gay community and without,” Cameron says, “I’ve still got an open mind on that debate. I had reservations. I’m a lawyer, I express myself with caution! I’ve got an open mind, open to persuasion either way.”

Onto the 1999 disclosure of his HIV status, Cameron candidly recollects his feelings around this moment in his personal and professional life. “It was a wonderfully healing and energizing thing to do,” he says, “Once you’ve done so there’s an enormous gain of energy and a great healing that takes place. For me it was an enormous step forward. Instead of wasting life’s energy keeping secrets, I can use my life’s energy for living.” Depending on personal circumstances, of course, he strongly urges HIV-positive people to do the same. “I’d encourage people with HIV to talk to their friends, to their colleagues, to their families,” he comments, “It’s a longterm manageable illness and we must see it as such.”

When he reflects upon the public reaction to his disclosure, Cameron says, “I knew there would be publicity. I didn’t know if it would be positive or negative. I was overwhelmed.”

Much has changed since 1999, and Cameron speaks positively about the developments that have been made regarding AIDS in South Africa. “The debate about treatment has been won,” he says, “What now lies ahead is implementation. It’s going to involve the whole community, at every level. The more we involve HIV-positive people the better.” But what about the stigma around HIV that still forces so many South Africans to keep silent? “That’s a very good question,” Cameron responds, “I think stigma is the largest continuing problem with HIV. The more we de-exceptionalise AIDS the better. Dealing with stigma, dealing with discrimination, is all part of it. People don’t see me as sick because I live a normal life.”

Based upon the all the work he’s done both locally and internationally, I ask whether he’d consider himself to be an activist. After long and careful thought he makes his reply: “I suppose I have been an activist in human rights and HIV. I feel I have to out of moral compulsion due to the terrible period of denialism we went through in South Africa.” It’s noticeable that Cameron uses the past tense here – does this mean that the period of denialism is over? He confirms his belief that denialism has most certainly come to an end.

“Homosexuality continues to be a flash point in Africa,” Cameron then comments, “Gays and lesbians in South Africa should really appreciate the openness and inclusivity. We as South African gays and lesbians almost have a political responsibility in Africa to exercise our rights with dignity and sensitivity and try to set an example for the rest of Africa.” He makes mention of all the African countries where homosexuality is criminal and he adds, “A lot of current gays and lesbians don’t have that conception of how we struggled to get where we are.”

In discussing memorable moments in his career Cameron says, “Being a judge involved with South Africa’s new constitution felt very significant to me. I enjoy being chairman of the Wits Council. It’s a huge job. And I was invited in my personal capacity to meet Bush and Blair and Colin Powell at an AIDS summit. I believe both leaders are committed but I urged them both to follow their words with actions. And I had a very warm response from Bush.”

“Everyone should feel welcome to express their sexuality.”

With regard to other issues facing South Africa’s gay and lesbian community Cameron comments, “I think there’s a terrible risk of racial segmentation with the gay and lesbian community. Every gay and lesbian person who frequents commercial venues should speak out against prejudice. Everyone should feel welcome to express their sexuality.”

And does he go to clubs himself? “Absolutely,” he responds, “No one has ever disputed my entitlement to go to openly gay venues. What I have not done is march in the gay Pride parade. A judge shouldn’t take part in a political demonstration.” Cameron mentions that Pride has become more social than political in recent years, but adds that “it’s still an assertion of gay equality and I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me as a judge to participate. I was one, however, of the founding speakers in 1990 and spoke for five years.”

“I enjoy going to bars,” he says, continuing on the subject of his social life, “There’s a feeling of affirmation in a gay bar which I really enjoy. I enjoy gay bars more where women are welcome.” This, he says, is because all gay men should fight against any patriarchal force that segregates women. He takes the opportunity to mention that, while he’s spent much time abroad, his roots remain in South Africa. “I’m very committed,” he says, “My choice is for South Africa. It always has been.”

Cameron turned fifty last year, which he regards as a major turning point in his life. “I didn’t feel that thirty was a landmark,” he smiles, “I didn’t feel that forty was a landmark, but I did feel that fifty was a landmark. It’s made me reflect on what I want to do with the next twenty, twenty-five years of my life. And having survived AIDS when I thought I’d die young.”

“I’ve found this an intense year of adjustment,” he continues, “Both personally and professionally. Reaching fifty you finally leave your childhood behind you. I was a very late developer. I still had my adolescence right into my forties!”

And looking ahead to his goals for the future, Cameron sits back and simply smiles, “To find some serenity. That’s my goal.” And to get into drag? “And to get into full drag one day,” he confirms, “At a date, time and place unspecified.”

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