Certificate Ceremony for U.S. Government-Supported HIV & AIDS Programs

Remarks of Ambassador Patrick H. Gaspard
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town
October  27, 2014

As prepared for delivery 

  • Master of Ceremonies, Dr. James Lees;University of the Western Cape Vice Chancellor, Professor Brian O’Connell;
  • Representatives from the Department of Basic Education;
  • University of the Western Cape Education faculty members and staff ;
  • Community members, students, parents, the final year trainee student teachers;
  • Brothers and Sisters

It is a great pleasure for me to speak on behalf of the U.S. government on this uplifting occasion.  I am impressed by the number of participants here who have received training through the University of the Western Cape that is targeted on the key issues that fuel new HIV infections in South Africa.

Furthermore, I am thrilled by the number of parents who are taking the lead to support their children and to ensure that they remain AIDS free.  It is gratifying to note that South Africa has a trained group of teachers who are prepared to make a contribution in local schools, to increase students’ knowledge on HIV prevention.  You all demonstrate great commitment and passion.  Congratulations on receiving your certificates today!

Your university deserves tremendous credit for introducing its “Sexual Diversity and the Role of Educators” course.  But we all know, and it’s important to acknowledge, that nothing this transformative occurs in a community without bold, values centered leadership. We’ve all been fortunate to have that in the person of Professor O’Connell who is concluding this phase of his illustrious service.

What a contribution he has made in the eternal fight against ignorance, injustice and inequality. He stepped out into the breach when it was hard, when it was lonely, when South Africa needed men and women who were prepared to shout into the silence of denial that threatened to consume a generation.

Professor O’Connell is known to often say that universities need to be centers of human sense-making. He and his management team have met that high bar by opening the University to create partnerships with local communities – the kind of partnership that required both sides to move out of their comfort zones.  He has been an inspiration, not just to the University community, but to all who have engaged with him.  And we Americans like to claim an enduring bond with him whether through his years at Columbia University, in New York City, through his role as a Fulbright Scholar, or given his honorary degree from the University of Missouri, awarded for his exceptional work in the field of higher education.

UWC has maintained a 28-year linkage with the University of Missouri to advance academic excellence between the two institutions.  Professor O’Connell’s leadership helped UWC to overcome post-apartheid disenfranchisement and emerge as a leader in higher education and South Africa’s response to HIV/AIDS.

I say all this not just to commend Professor O’Connell but to lift up an example of social networking in our age of globalization for the young people here today who need to assume their space in the African Renaissance. Whether it’s the scourge of HIV/AIDS or emerging terrors like Ebola, we need to all understand that going it alone is a high risk strategy that inevitably fails.

Our societies cannot build moats around us and pull up the drawbridge. We all survive by opening the borders of our hearts and minds and by aggressively networking with our neighbors, even if they look and sound different than us. It’s our only chance.

I think that young people know this instinctively, but our popular media and too many of our politicians sometimes work to erode that communal orientation when it’s most needed. They make us small at times when giants are needed. But the students here are to be applauded for reversing that tide. You’ve earned your laurels for instance by requesting this course after recognizing an increase in both bullying among school students and hearing unresolved questions about the issue.

Your course is one of the first of its kind on the African continent to help teachers learn how to navigate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, or LGBTI, matters in their classrooms and schools in caring, sensitive, and appropriate ways.  We all hope that the knowledge and skills from the course will increase the safety of all students and strengthen their commitment to become allies to LGBTIs.

It is impressive that the university has created the space and opportunity to have this program grow and expand in depth and quality.

Why does this matter? Why will I choose to focus on this particular aspect of your scholarship? Sadly, it doesn’t take much to recognize the ever increasing media reports about the increased acceptance of gay marriage in some parts of the world, juxtaposed by the draconian laws enacted in some countries – on every continent – aimed at punishing homosexuality.

As we stand here today recognizing this new course, just an hour away in Ceres, David Olyn was brutally murdered for his sexuality. He was beaten to death with stones and lit on fire while a group of young people watched.  He is just one of over 30 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or LGBT, individuals murdered for his sexuality in the past two years; including two more in the past few months in Gauteng. This dehumanizing murder recalls the worst horrors of political terror in our recent past.

The Tambos and Sisulus struggled so South Africans could be free, but there are South Africans who still live in fear. While concerns remain for the treatment of women and girls, the plight of the LGBT communities is particularly acute.  South Africa may be the most progressive country with regard to LGBT rights on the continent, but much like in the United States, there are still pockets of intolerance and hatred.

For those LGBT individuals that dare to come out in conservative communities, they run a daily risk of being disowned by their families, or their families being disowned by the community. They run the risk of harassment, attacks and even death, simply for being true to themselves. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is outlawed in the South African Constitution, but it is alive and well in too many hearts.

Again, this type of intolerance is not unique to South Africa, but we have a responsibility to the communities where we are living and as such, you and I both must stand up for our neighbors.

A few months back I met with Jody Huckaby, the director of the U.S. NGO PFLAG – formerly known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, when he was here in South Africa.  He challenged me, as he challenges everyone – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, queer, questioning – but most importantly – straight – to speak out against intolerance in our everyday lives.

It can be as simple as confronting someone who makes a homophobic joke at school or going to a pride event to show your support. He also issued a unique challenge for the LGBT community – to be patient with your fair-minded straight colleagues who may not be familiar with esoteric terms like sexual orientation, gender identity or heterosexism and take the time, when appropriate, to make yourself available to educate them. You may have more allies than you think. We all have a role to play in stamping out intolerance, but we can’t do it alone. We need alliances between the LGBT community and the Straight community to be successful and those alliances start with you and me.

As I said before, these issues of intolerance are not limited to South Africa, and the fight to become more inclusive is one that is being waged around the world.  The United States government has been one of the leaders in pushing for these rights both internally and across the globe.  In a groundbreaking Presidential Memorandum, President Barack Obama directed all federal agencies engaged abroad to ensure that the United States promotes and protects the rights of LGBT people.  The 2011 Presidential Memorandum required all U.S. agencies to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

That is one of the reasons why I’m here today.  Because there are more than 70 countries that criminalize homosexuality – and in seven of them, it is punishable by death.  Across the globe, LGBT people are barred from getting an education, seeking jobs, running for office, raising families and starting businesses.

South Africa has been a leader in human rights not only on the continent but in the world community.  Your constitution is held up as one of the best modern examples of a document that outlines the human rights that all societies must uphold for its citizens.

But it doesn’t end with the adoption of the document.  It doesn’t happen when you put words on paper.  The delivery and defense of these rights is something that has to take place every day in every community. We are all responsible for “human sense-making” And when we fail the response must be a clear and swift repudiation of our failing to uphold what we strive for and a strong commitment to make it right.

While he was here, Jody Huckabee shed tears with the parents of gay and lesbian children here in South Africa who were murdered because of who they were. And he remarked that it was incredibly similar to the tears he shed with the parents of Mathew Sheppard, an American college student who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie Wyoming in 1998.

Matthew was targeted because he was gay, and it was a wake-up call in the United States. Since that time, we have made progress and amazingly enough, just last week, Wyoming became the most recent state in America to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples.  But we know that in America we still have vast room for improvement towards creating a society where everyone is equally empowered to secure better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities.

It is appropriate that today we are celebrating not only your achievements, and your receipt of the resulting certificates, but the long-lasting partnership between the United States and the University of Western Cape.

Both the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, have worked closely with the University to advance education and prevention around HIV/AIDS.

I also want to make sure that everyone knows, that through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, the U.S. government has provided more than $4.2 billion in South Africa to support the response to HIV/AIDS.

It is the largest health initiative ever initiated by one country to address a disease and we are very proud of it.  Our partnership underscores our enduring commitment to advancing the health, safety and prosperity of the world’s most vulnerable people.

I regret that I will have to depart now for another pressing appointment in Pretoria, but will request our new Consul General for the Western Cape, Teddy B. Taylor, take on my role in handing over your certificates.  As you receive these certificates for your good work, I ask you to reflect on how you can become a voice for equality in your communities.  I challenge you to leave here today committed to being a leader in this process, to be an advocate for your brothers and sisters, and to be the voice that opens the doors of change.

And to all those who receive certificates this afternoon, and those who supported and guided them in this endeavor – congratulations, and thank you for your continued commitment and work.