An Archbishop for All: Desmond Tutu Sees Gay and Lesbian Rights as Part of the Larger Struggle in the Fight for Freedom and Dignity for All

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It looked like bad math: four reporters and five cameramen wedged into a small conference room with one renowned South African Anglican archbishop and only 15 minutes for questions. Desmond Tutu was at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to accept the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Outspoken Award, and "every minute of his time is mapped out," warned IGLHRC's communications coordinator, Hossein Alizadeh. Luckily, as befits a man wearing a deep-pink cassock, Tutu had a sense of humor about the need to stay on schedule. "I'm not as young as I look," he quipped. "I'm about to expire here."

The 76-year-old may have come to be honored for his support of gay and lesbian rights, but the big news on the evening of April 8 was Tibet. That morning protesters had scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl a pro-Tibet banner, and more protests were expected the next day when the Olympic torch was to arrive in the city. Archbishop Tutu would speak later that night at a candlelight vigil downtown with Richard Gere.

As Alizadeh predicted, the small group of reporters primarily wanted to know what the archbishop thought of the ongoing crisis ("One would have hoped China would take this opportunity to improve its human rights record") and South Africa's lukewarm pressure on Zimbabwe to host a free election ("On the whole, African leadership has not done themselves proud on this one"). It seemed almost trivial to break in with a gay-themed question.

Born in Klerksdorp in the Transvaal area of South Africa in 1931, Desmond Tutu wanted to become a doctor. Though he was accepted to medical school, he couldn't afford the college fees, so he followed his father into teaching. For four years he taught high school English and history in classrooms crammed with up to 80 students before resigning in protest over the 1953 Bantu Education Act, which prohibited the teaching of science or math to nonwhites. Tutu described it as "education for perpetual serfdom." With few other professional options available to him, Tutu enrolled in theological school and was ordained in 1960 as an Anglican minister.

For nearly 50 years in the clergy, Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, has patiently and consistently advocated nonviolent change. From his early days, when South African police killed at least 69 unarmed black demonstrators in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, to his momentous appointment as the first black Anglican dean of Johannesburg in 1975, he has used the pulpit to articulate the "aspirations and the anguishes of our people. …