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My life as a reluctant activist

An upcoming LGBTQ season at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse prompts Karin Johnstone to reflect on her own part in an historic struggle for civil rights…

KarinFeb10_014A few months back I went to the cinema to see a film called Freeheld. The biographical film follows the battle of Laurel Hester a Police Officer who was dying. She wanted her pension and death benefits left to her female partner Stacie Andree.

The couple went to court to fight the state of Ocean County. In one scene Hester’s partner looked at the number of people in the court and said ‘wow I can’t believe what we are doing’.

This comment was a bolt of realisation for me. I had been through something similar and never given a second thought to it.

This film took me back fifteen years to when I was a resident in South Africa. Me and my partner were fighting the Government to allow same sex partnerships to be recognised. Home Affairs had already stamped my passport declaring that I was a homosexual. When travelling I had to give my passport to an Australian bank cashier to change money. She said, ‘that was a bit more information than I needed’. It was more than I wanted to give.

This stamp was not what you needed when travelling to other African counties where homosexuality was illegal. The stakes for the outcome of the case were high. If we lost I would have to leave my partner, my job and my home. The stakes for the country were higher. Leading our fight was Zackie Achmat a film-maker and political activist. The lawyer working on our behalf was the prosecutor in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, Gerrie Nel. Our trial was held in the High Court of South Africa.

On the day of the trial the heat was stifling. The judges were streaming with sweat under their wigs. It was like being in a movie, extremely surreal but hyperreal at the same time. Proceedings were in slow motion. Thanks to Advocate Gerrie Nell making Home Affairs look like a bunch of clowns, we won the case. I was deflated when declaring our victory to the press outside the High Court a journalist instantly said, ‘yes but Home Affairs will be appealing.’

the vicitmThe case went to the Constitutional Court, at which point I knew that we could not lose. South Africa had created one of the strongest constitutions for human rights in the world. 1st December (my birthday) 2005 Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie –  it was ruled unconstitutional to discriminate against same sex couples.

Only recently did I realise the enormity and impact of what I had been through. To celebrate wins like this and to consider discriminatory practices that still exist the Errol Flynn filmhouse is having a three- day festival LGBTQ+ film festival. It will showcase LGBTQ+ stories from around the world. One film which is being previewed jumped out at me.

A South African film called The Wound follows the initiation ceremony of a young man going from boyhood to manhood. In the South African culture, what goes on at this time is a closely guarded secret so it will be amazing to see part of this story. Young men who you may know in the community are clothed in a hoodie and jeans, then disappear for a short time. When you see them again they come back dressed in a suit, shirt and tie often adorning a trilby hat. They are men.

A film which gave me my sinister impression of homosexuality in my childhood is The Victim (1961). A married lawyer, in the closet, played by Dirk Bogarde, is blackmailed. This is the type of dark terrifying feel that gay films in my youth had. It would have been better if I had some positive role models like Norman in the animated feature film Paranorman. Norman who happens to be gay has to battle zombies. If you do want to go and enjoy some of this film festival there are special deals on the tickets. Hopefully see you there – where I don’t have any more life changing realisations.  

The Wound Sun 22 October 7:30pm

The Victim Sun 22 October 2:30PM

Paranorman Sun 22 October 11:00am

Errol Flynn Filmhouse 

Paranorman

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