The death has been announced of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who played a major role in bringing about the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, and paving the way for a new democratic state that recognised the rights of LGBT people. He was rewarded for his determined push for human rights when, in 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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On November 14, 2006, the National Assembly passed a law allowing same-sex couples to legally solemnise their civil unions, and the law came into effect two days later. South Africa was the fifth country in the world and the first in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described his death at the weekend as:

Another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa.”

From the pavements of resistance in South Africa to the pulpits of the world’s great cathedrals and places of worship, and the prestigious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Arch distinguished himself as a non-sectarian, inclusive champion of universal human rights.

Tutu, who retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, has, in more recent years, became known for his strong advocacy on issues of sexuality, in particular the rights of lesbian and gay people, according to a 2020 report in The Conversation.

In 2013, he made global headlines with the clear and succinct statement, in typical Tutu fashion, that:

I would rather go to hell than to a homophobic heaven.

Writing for The Conversation, Adriaan van Klinken, Professor of Religion and African Studies, University of Leeds said:

Tutu is by far the most high-profile African, if not global, religious leader to support lesbian and gay rights. This has added to his international reputation as a progressive thinker and activist, especially in the western world. But his stance has been met with suspicion on the African continent itself. A fellow Anglican bishop, Emmanuel Chukwuma from Nigeria, even declared him to be ‘spiritually dead.’

Shortly after the end of apartheid in 1994, Tutu wrote that:

If the church, after the victory over apartheid, is looking for a worthy moral crusade, then this is it: the fight against homophobia and heterosexism.

In the 1980s, Tutu and other Christian leaders had used the concept of “heresy” to denounce apartheid in the strongest theological language. They famously stated that ‘apartheid is a heresy,” meaning that it is in conflict with the most fundamental Christian teaching.

In the 90s, Tutu used very similar words to denounce homophobia and heterosexism. He wrote that it was “the ultimate blasphemy” to make lesbian and gay people doubt whether they truly were children of God and whether their sexuality was part of how they were created by God.

Unfortunately, said van Klinken, legal legal protections enacted after the apartheid era did not automatically translate into a change of social attitudes towards lesbian and gay people at a grassroots level. Homophobia remains widespread in South African society today.

Tutu’s own church, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, continues to struggle with gay issues. In 2015 his daughter, Mpho Tutu, had to give up her position as an ordained priest after she married a woman. Tutu gave the newly wed couple a blessing anyway.

Van Klinken concluded:

The question of same-sex relationships and the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people continues to be controversial across the world. In this context, Tutu is an influential figure who uses his moral authority to help shape the debates.

His equation of racial and sexual equality is particularly important, as it foregrounds how the struggle for justice, equality and human rights are interconnected: we cannot claim rights for one group of people while denying them to others.