Cape Town - Laurie Gaum is delighted and relieved. A gay activist and ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, he has been on something of a high since learning last week that policymakers in the church, which is notorious for having backed the apartheid state, had ruled its clergy could be actively gay and could bless same-sex unions between congregants.
His angular, handsome face is wreathed in smiles, when I catch up with him via Skype in a hotel lobby in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he is due to address a Parliament of World Religions this weekend as part of a US speaking tour.
He described the new policy adopted by the church’s synod as a “relief for me and a cause for great celebration”. “The move makes a huge difference for me,” says Gaum. “On the highest level, they have affirmed the possibility of me no longer being celibate and have removed that basis for discrimination. Some progressive congregations can call (active gay and lesbian) ministers.”
Although he makes it clear that the change in the church’s position on gays has been “a collaboration of many people”, Gaum, 44, acknowledges the key roles that he and his father, Frits, a prominent church elder, played in the policy shift.
Ten years ago, Gaum was the subject of an exposé in Die Son newspaper after his then partner outed him as gay – posting letters to congregants at St Stephen’s Church (the only coloured Dutch Reformed congregation in Cape Town), where Gaum was dominee, and sending salacious photographs to the paper.
In a typical example of tabloid titillation, Die Son scurrilously alleged that Gaum was promiscuous, while inviting readers to stare at his bottom in a front-page nude photograph of him lying on a beach.
As a result, church elders launched an investigation into whether Gaum was in a gay relationship and advised the congregation at St Stephen’s, who had been “rocked by the revelations”, to fire him – which they did. Sadly, Gaum’s partner, Douw Wessels, killed himself.
Gaum describes his case as a “catalyst” for change in the church. “It was no longer just an issue on paper but a real-life story. My case was part of a broader process that was there, but it made the church have to deal with, and own up to, (gay) sex among ministers and same sex unions”.
With the help of his father, a former general secretary of the church’s policymaking body, the General Synod, Gaum pushed the issue and was reinstated as a minister, albeit without a congregation, in 2007.
At the same time, the body eased its position on gays in the church, acknowledging that ministers could be gay – although they still had to be celibate, which Gaum refused to accept. The policy shift came as pressure also mounted on the Dutch Reformed Church to join the wider ecclesiastical community by agreeing to the Belhar Confession – a Christian statement of belief written in 1982 which proclaims that individual, racial and social segregation is a sin.
Although the church’s latest revised policy represents a major step, he acknowledges that its implementation will be quite another matter. He can, literally, count the number of openly gay ministers within the church on the fingers of one hand. And since he was fired, none has a congregation.
Gaum explains that the numbers have been limited because the church has refused to ordain gay and lesbian ministers who do not accept its celibacy rules
The wounds are fresh, despite the church’s revised position: “The LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) response has been some anger on the length of the community’s exclusion.”
The new policy will encourage more openly gay and lesbian ministers to join the church, but their acceptance by local congregations may still be a long way off.
“It all depends on how the decision will filter down. Congregations have the freedom to choose (ministers) for themselves. At grassroots level the reactions are bubbling in all different directions.”
And he predicts a backlash from many congregants, particularly outside the provincial church in the Western Cape, which he says is relatively progressive. “Some are up in arms, which will be quite damaging. Conservatives will make hurtful remarks. It is sad that the LGBTI community will bear the brunt of conservative reactions.”
Nevertheless, he says, the new policy is “a huge step given the church’s apartheid past. That the church of injustice has taken such a step makes it a leader in sexual orientation on the continent and beyond”.
Gaum is in some ways an unlikely activist for such change given his family history. He comes from the heart of the old Afrikaner establishment. His father was in the Broederbond, an associate of FW de Klerk, and a church opinion-former who largely supported a policy of reform from within the apartheid regime during its dying days.
His brother, André, was the last Nat in Parliament before defecting to the ANC in 2005. Gaum himself was brought up in a “closed” community in Wellington and was educated at Jan van Riebeeck High School before studying theology at Stellenbosch University from 1990 to 1995, when it “was not the most open place in the world”.
It was only when he accepted a four-year posting to a Presbyterian church in Gugulethu, that he was, in his own words, “exposed to broader relations and realities”.
“That was for me the start of dealing with the legacy of apartheid, including the Dutch Reformed Church with its sordid history. It was an exciting time as the country woke up to the new dispensation. I was also looking for suitable responses to apartheid guilt – how to shoulder responsibility for the sins of the father, and mother.”
Meanwhile, he also “came out” to his family. “(They) gradually came to terms with it, the Bible and faith being important to them. When they finally did understand it after a long dialogue they gave me full support. I would not have survived the 2005 thing if they had not been fully behind me.”
With his father, Gaum wrote a book on the experience, as well as discussing the apartheid legacy of the church. The tome, ‘Dialogue Beyond Boundaries’, is due to be published in English this year.
Gaum’s very public outing in 2005 changed the course of his life. “I was stepping into my own truth. I felt ‘this struggle has come to me’. So it had a positive outcome. I had to stand up for myself and for a lot of others that had stood by me.”
Now, Gaum works within a pan-African network promoting LGBTI rights, and is a facilitator at Gender Reconciliation International in Cape Town, “bringing together women and men of various sexual orientations to meet and share, to understand where the other sex is coming from”.
He sees his network, which includes the Free Gender group in Khayelitsha, as promoting a grassroots educational programme that aims to “address gender wounding that has been pervasive for millennia”.
The pursuit of LGBTI rights in South Africa is key to this. “Our constitution understands that discrimination is not only on the basis of race and gender, but also sexuality. We need to reclaim our constitution.”
It is a mission in which he believes everyone has a role to play: “(It is important to have) direct encounters with LGBTI people and get to know them on a personal level – to meet each other authentically.”
Church’s decision to allow gay priests lauded
In a landmark decision, a majority of the Dutch Reformed Church’s synod – 64 percent – last week allowed active homosexual ministers to join the church and recognised the statuses of civil unions between people of the same sex that are “characterised by love and fidelity”.
It also apologised to people who had been hurt or offended by homophobic language, conduct or attitude previously displayed by the church.
The move has been welcomed by gay activists.
Reverend Judith Kotze, who has been a civil union marriage officer for the Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church in Cape Town since 2008, has married 85 couples since then and tied the knot with her wife in 2007.
“(Marriage entails) protection under the law and becoming next-of-kin to my partner brought me deep affirmation, security and access to all the rights and privileges taken for granted by heterosexual couples getting married.
“All over the world, churches are grappling with ignorance around the full diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a lack of exposure to diverse interpretations of sacred text and the lived realities of sexual minorities. Especially on the African continent, we have seen the negative impact of homophobia and transphobia on the full realisation of human rights for all.”
Matthew Clayton, of the Triangle Project in Cape Town, said the church’s decision sent a message of acceptance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. “We hope this decision forms part of a larger movement away from negative and restrictive ideas around religion and towards greater acceptance of LGBTI people.”
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