More than seven years in the making, Mark Gevisser’s The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers is an exploration of how the conversation around sexual orientation and gender identity has come to divide ― and describe ― the world in an entirely new way over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. No social movement has brought change so quickly and with such dramatically mixed results. While same-sex marriage and gender transition are celebrated in some parts of the world, laws are being strengthened to criminalize homosexuality and gender nonconformity in others. As new globalized queer identities are adopted by people across the world―thanks to the digital revolution―fresh culture wars have emerged. A new Pink Line, Gevisser argues, has been drawn across the globe, and he takes readers to its frontiers.
Eye-opening, heartfelt, expertly researched, and compellingly narrated, The Pink Line is a monumental ― and urgent ― journey of unprecedented scope into twenty-first-century identity, seen through the border posts along the world’s new LGBTQ+ frontiers. Get to know more about the author and the book below.
I grew up in a home with books and started reading before I was toilet-trained! I (hand-)wrote my first novel in a school exercize book when I was ten — it was called Operation Taken-At-Sunrise and was a torrid thriller — and worked on both fiction and non-fiction while studying. I started an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, working on a novel, but it soon became clear to me that I didn’t have the novelist’s confidence to create a whole world on the page, and that while I remain an avid reader of novels, I was more interested professionally in the dance between the world and the page that is non-fiction. Because of South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s and my intense interest in politics — and because I needed to earn a living — I became a journalist. I love being in the field, and the opportunity my vocation gives me to meet people and discover places outside of my own experience, and I love being at my computer, in that sweet spot of crafting prose. The anguished part for me is the time in-between: trying to figure out how to get the world onto the page.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006, and when my partner and I married in 2009, I thought about another marriage that year in the country of Malawi, to the north. Here, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Stephen Monjeza were sentenced to 14 years hard labour for ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ after they held a public engagement ceremony. It struck me that there was a new polarisation in the world, around what came to be known as ‘LGBT Rights’, and that a new global human rights frontier was being staked. I call it ‘The Pink Line’. This was as a result of a new global conversation about sexuality and gender identity unimaginable when I was a kid coming out as gay in the 1980s. Barack Obama has said that no social movement has brought about change so rapidly, and I wanted to understand why this was, and what impact it was having in different parts of the world, from India to Mexico, from Russia to the United States, from Israel to Egypt.
I received an Open Society Fellowship that enabled me to travel extensively. The first step was to meet activists, and figure out what the issues were in different countries. Through them I met people on the Pink Line ‘frontline’ who best exemplified those issues, and then got to know them, through at least two visits and a lot of time online, over years! I wanted to see how they moved through a world changing so rapidly (or not, in some places); what effect this was having on them, and vice-versa.
I can use my Indian experience as an example: I first came to India in 2012, and travelled to many places, including Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore. My friend the journalist Vikram Doctor told me that he thought I should visit Chennai, because of the way Tamil Nadu has been at the forefront of transgender rights and because of extraordinary activism there. On that trip, my brilliant researcher and interpreter Lavanya Keshavraj said that she was worried I was only getting the ‘urban perspective’, and insisted on taking me on a road-trip south! We stopped at an AIDS initiative in Cuddalore called SCOHD, where we met a young woman named Lakshaya who told us about the temple she and her fellow ‘kothis’ had set up in a nearby fishing village, to worship the goddess Angala’amman. We went to visit, and I was blown away. Thus began my eight year relationship with Lakshaya and her community. I went back twice, once to observe the ‘Mayan Kollai’ ceremony the transgender community ran. And I’ve been in touch with them ever since. It’s their story I tell in the Indian chapter — a story about what happens when globalised notions of transgender rights and transition come into contact with age-old South Asian ways of experiencing gender.
The biggest challenge was finding a way of telling a story that took in the global dynamics of the Pink Line and yet was able to get really specific and intimate: to make this about people and their communities rather than disembodied ideas. The way I did this, in the end, was by interleaving deep profiles of people in nine countries with more analytical or historical chapters. There were other, practical challenges: communicating with my subjects (I don’t speak very much Tamil, for example!), and staying in touch with them. I didn’t want to be one of these foreign correspondents who swoops in, swoops out, and talks with knowing authority. And of course, since I did this work over years, and since the people I write about are young, and often live in very challenging environments, their circumstances changed dramatically too. It was sometimes difficult to maintain my professional distance, when I saw them struggling — but when I ‘crossed a line’, for example, by helping get a homeless Ugandan teenager back into school — it had consequences too. In that case, it definitely complicated my relationship with Michael Bashaija, whom I write about in ‘Michael’s Story’, and who came to see me as a benefactor — and the way I deal with it is to write about it, and to understand the role that I might play, myself, in the politics of the Pink Line.
The Pandemic and Beyond
I’m feeling the way I know many of my Indian friends are feeling: grateful for the comfort of my own home, and the presence of my family (my husband usually travels all the time, but he’s now working from home), while deeply distressed by the suffering and hardship outside. Struggling with coming to terms with the way this pandemic has accentuated the terrible inequality that exists in South African, as in Indian, society, and what to do about it. It’s been hard to release my book into a world so preoccupied with other issues, and with not having the opportunity to meet readers — from India to the U.S. — personally.
On the upside, this pandemic has accelerated our use of communications technology so dramatically, and I love the fact, for example, that I could do two India launch events last week from my living-room (they are on my website, www.markgevisser.com) and that your readers can now view them at their leisure. I live in Cape Town, my mother lives in Johannesburg, and my three brothers live outside of South Africa — I love the fact, too, that we can have weekly Zoom calls. It’s a ‘new normal’ that I hope we keep up with. So much of my book is, in fact, about what happens when we need to toggle between online ‘freedom’ or community, and the challenges (but necessity) of offline life. I imagine I will travel more mindfully, in the future. I love the idea of never going back into a shopping mall! But I don’t want to lose offline life. I cherish it. And I fear for us, as a species, as we become increasingly dependent on a technology that brings us closer together, but also disembodies us.
Currently, I have two wildly different proposals I’m developing. One is a biography of a fascinating historical figure; the other a book about young people, their parents, and politics. We’ll have to see what happens……