The Australian academic Dennis Altman has long contested the Anglo-American, northern hemisphere consensuses that have grown up around marginal sexual identities. He has pointed out how fundamentally unapt they are when applied to parts of the world separated from the West not only by race, religion and politics but also, critically, by health and sanitary conditions. Altman’s 2001 book Global Sex was a rallying cry. However, it was not a comprehensive response to the imbalances and cultural insensitivities often seen in LGBTQ studies. In The Pink Line, the South African author Mark Gevisser takes up the challenge set by Altman: radically to rethink the circumstances facing a set of communities (certainly not one ‘community’ at all, ever) around the world. He approaches this task with bravura, care and deliberation, leaving their diversity and individualism fully intact.
The Pink Line is an attempt to come up with a controlling metaphor that might hold all this together – and it almost works. Part of the problem is that the pink line is not a solid thing: it’s a battle line, drawn by progressives and conservatives; it’s something stepped over by those coming out; it’s internal and something to be wrestled with and navigated; it’s something to be walked along, like a tightrope. There is a “Tudor pink line” along which, we’re told, the Buggery Act of 1553 is staked, but also a pink line that two men cross as they have sex on the balcony of their cruise ship cabin as it docks in the island of Dominica. A book of this ambition needs an overarching meta-structure to give it coherence, but the pink line constantly shape-shifts, which means that it never quite provides solidity. That said, this is a meticulously researched book. The compassion for the people Gevisser encounters sings through the pages and the reader is richer for being introduced to every single one of them.
Such images of progress are tempered by stories from other places that are less encouraging. The freedoms being won by transgender people in the US, for example, are mirrored by the lack of freedom enjoyed by their colleagues in other countries. What keeps them going is an astonishing bravery, a willingness to be the first to demand freedom in a dark time. The Pink Line can see light and hope in this, but Gevisser is clear-eyed and wise enough to have a sharp sense of how tough the struggle has been, and how hard it will be now for those who have not succeeded in finding shelter from prejudice.