Controversial and fiery, Melanie Nathan, a South African-born attorney and LGBT rights activist, has been selected as a Community Grand Marshal for this Sunday’s San Francisco Pride Parade.
Grand Marshals are public emissaries who have made significant contributions to the LGBT community. They are selected annually by San Francisco Pride’s Board of Directors.
Nathan says that she was “stunned” when she was called to ask if she would accept the nomination to become a Grand Marshal.
“I did not expect it all. It is such a huge honour,” she tells Mambaonline. “It is so special, especially because of how my own work relates to this year’s San Francisco Pride theme, ‘colour our world with Pride.’ It’s important for me because it provides my work with an extremely visible platform, both here and abroad.”
Nathan received her law degree from the University of Witwatersrand. After immigrating to the US, she founded a mediation and human rights advocacy firm in California and became involved in the struggles of LGBTI people.
She has testified at Senate hearings on immigration discrimination, and has used her influential blog as a platform for her advocacy work; in recent years focusing on the plight of LGBT Ugandans and Africans. Nathan is also co-producing Gay U.S.A. the Movie, a documentary on gay rights in America.
Nathan says that her quest is to “decriminalise homosexuality globally, with a focus on Africa, and to categorically state that human sexuality is a very basic human right.”
During the San Francisco Pride Parade, she will ride in a sponsored BMW convertible with her two daughters, who are 17 and nine years old. They will be cheered on by the 1.5 million people expected to line the streets. “Hopefully, my daughters will see it as recognition for the many hours of hard work and feel pride for the cause,” Nathan comments.
In addition, Nathan has been asked by Pride to write an article that will be widely distributed and to give a keynote speech, together with distinguished American LGBT personalities. She will also take part in a Pride fundraising brunch, and various media, promotional and press events.
She had hopes of bringing a number of African LGBT activists to attend San Francisco Pride but she’s been stymied by the US government refusing to grant them visas. Immigration authorities presumably fear they might not return to their home countries.
“If President Obama’s administration does not open the door for LGBT people from Africa to come and march in San Francisco Pride, to in effect ‘colour our world with Pride,’ then what does that say for all the rah-rah about supporting our LGBT brothers and sisters in countries that persecute them?” she asks.
“To my way of thinking it’s like knowing that Ann Frank is in hiding but refusing to allow her to come to a Jewish festival in the USA. Yes, the chances are great she would not go back to Nazi Germany,” she notes.
Nathan believes passionately that LGBT people living in anti-gay countries should be more easily granted refuge in the US and other nations where they can live openly.
“We have one life to live and we should be able to go anywhere to be free. The refugee pipeline to America and other countries is damn slow and asylum is virtually impossible because people have no money or ways to leave their countries if they want to. That is just not right in my opinion. The UN and the world are not doing enough.”
She recently launched a “rescue fund” to help persecuted LGBT Africans “escape” from their countries; supporting safe housing, and their efforts to be granted asylum. It’s a campaign that’s been criticised by some South African activists.
Nathan responds to her critic by describing them as “armchair Facebook trolls or privileged South Africans with a Constitution that gives them a fighting tool.”
She argues: “Look in the eyes of the 37 plus people who my relief fund has impacted with urgent safe shelter, food and medical assistance and ask them how they feel about my fund. Ask the young woman who was beaten up under the mistaken belief that she was a well known activist if the $200 we sent her for her brain scan was helpful. Ask the man who needed to get from Kampala to Entebbe so he would escape the community who wanted to beat him up. Ask the Nigerian woman who was gang-raped and needed food and shelter as she was warned not to go back to her neighbourhood.”
Crowds line the streets for the 2013 San Francisco Pride Parade
Nathan adds: “To people who are offended by me using words like ‘escaping’ Africa, those are not my words. Those are the words of the people who have asked me to help them. To those who characterise me as a would-be ‘white saviour: I have never seen myself as such and if they see me as such that speaks to their own racist issues. I have no such issues. I see myself as a member of the global LGBT minority with a strong duty to step up to the plate, and a huge obligation to act in ways that I best know how.”
“The bottom line is I am coming from a place that cannot stand to see people suffering. I don’t buy into allowing myself to be thwarted by draconian binaries. I feel sorry for people who cannot simply see us as all members of the same global LGBTI community. I do not believe in borders. We are one global LGBT community,” she says.
Nathan remains deeply connected to South Africa and occasionally visits the country. “My dad still lives in Johannesburg and I have aunts and cousins. I owe a lot to South Africa. I have people there who I will always love. And also my connection remains rooted equally in the things that please me and disappoint me.
“South Africa will always feel like home in a way that no other country will. That said, I feel a deep love for America and a strong patriotism to this country, even though there is much about it that angers me too,” she asserts.