Standing by Ivan Toms: lesbians and gay men against apartheid #IDAHO

As today is IDAHO, the International Day Against Homophobia, I thought it was appropriate to reflect on the campaigning that the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group undertook to support lesbian and gay detainees in apartheid South Africa.  In particular, I want to focus on its work in support of Ivan Toms, a white gay man, who was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the South African Defence Force.

City Group had a declared position of supporting all those fighting apartheid in South Africa and it took what it called its ‘non-sectarian’ approach to solidarity work very seriously. Most frequently, this meant supporting people and campaigns from the Pan-Africanist and workerist traditions alongside those of the ANC and its allies, but City Group also looked for opportunities to support those detainees who overlooked for whatever reason by the mainstream anti-apartheid movement.  However, City Group’s support for lesbian and gay anti-apartheid activists was not purely opportunistic.  As a group, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was committed to challenging heterosexism (to use the phrase of the period) and supporting its lesbian, gay and bisexual members.  Indeed, the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy (and the social networks that were articulated through it) was a space where many young activists explored the boundaries of their sexuality and tried different identities and subjectivities on for size.  Pragmatically, City Group also saw campaigning in support of South African gay activists as a means of drawing British lesbians and gay men into anti-apartheid solidarity work.

In the late 1980s, City Group’s lesbian and gay subgroup were principally involved in supporting two gay detainees in South Africa – Simon Nkoli, an out gay man who was a defendant in the Delmas Treason Trial, and Ivan Toms.  In both cases, Peter Tatchell served as a key intermediary between City Group and progressive gay activists in South Africa.  Over time, the group also developed and maintained direct contact with those South African activists.

Ivan Toms was a doctor and a well-known gay activist in South Africa.  He had been a co-founder of the End Conscription Campaign in 1983 and was also a co-founder of Lesbians and Gays Against Oppression (which by 1988 had been renamed as the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Activists).  OLGA was a multiracial organisation that saw the struggle for gay rights in South Africa as being tied to the fight against apartheid.  In this respect, their position stood in stark contrast to the white-only Gay Association of South Africa, the main national gay organisation at the time.  Ivan Toms once described OLGA as

working within the struggle as a lesbian and gay grouping to bring about liberation in our country.

Although he had previously served as a non-combatant medic in the army, Ivan Toms’ decision to refuse further military service was shaped by this developing political perspective, his Christian faith, and also by his experience working as a doctor in the Crossroads squatter camp near Cape Town.  There, in February 1985, he treated many local residents after the army opened fire on a protest against the destruction of the settlement. Eighteen people were killed that day and nearly 200 were injured, many of them shot in the back.  At the time, Toms was showing his solidarity with local residents by undertaking a hunger strike in protest at the plans to bulldoze Crossroads. For much of his time working there, Ivan Toms was the only doctor serving a population of roughly 30,000 people in Crossroads – ironically, this fact had probably spared him imprisonment earlier.

Ivan Toms at an anti-apartheid rally (Source: Non-Stop Against Apartheid #28)

In sentencing him to a year and a half in jail for refusing conscription (of which he eventually served nine months), the magistrate, Mr A P Kotze both conceded Ivan Toms’ allegations of military atrocities in Crossroads, and acknowledged that “[You] are not a menace to society. You are the opposite, an asset”.  In the months leading up to his trial, Ivan Toms was subjected to a vicious and persistent smear campaign by South African security forces. Posters claiming he was HIV positive and giving intimate details of the break-up of his relationship were anonymously posted on major streets in Cape Town. In addition, both his house and his car were attacked, and he lived through a period where he was receiving 25 or more threatening and abusive phone calls a day.  This was nothing new, he had been the subject of homophobic smears and rumours since the inception of the End Conscription Campaign.

Throughout his trial and his imprisonment City Group organised special themed rallies on the Non-Stop Picket in support of Ivan Toms.  His name was regularly displayed on placards on the Picket throughout this time, and City Group arranged for cards to be sent to him via his solicitor.

In 1980s South Africa, the End Conscription Campaign was a powerful vehicle for liberal and progressive white South Africans to demonstrate their opposition to apartheid. From the beginning it attracted support from many gay men.  As Ivan Toms once said,

you can’t choose what kind of oppression you’re going to oppose.  Once must actually oppose all forms of oppression whether they be on race, sex, sexual orientation or religion.

Fine word, and ones that inspired me immensely as a teenage gay activist on the Non-Stop Picket.  The stand taken by people like Ivan Toms and Simon Nkoli, as gay men in the struggle against apartheid, as well as the quieter conversations that were taking place around that time with leading members of the ANC and the PAC (both inside South Africa and elsewhere) about gay rights, undoubtedly helped to lay the ground for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the ‘equality clause’ of the post-apartheid constitution.      Nevertheless, it is also worth remembering, as Ivan Toms reflected in his contribution to the book Defiant Desire: gay and lesbian lives in South Africa (1994) the loudest voices telling him to keep quiet about his sexuality at his trial came from other gay members of the End Conscription Campaign – never underestimate the negative power of internalized homophobia in defending relative privilege and derailing coalition building.

In post-apartheid South Africa, Ivan Toms played an important role in HIV prevention work, being a leading advocate of the use of anti-retroviral drugs to combat the disease.  He died, unexpectedly, of meningitis in March 1998 aged 54.  At the time, he was the Director of Health for the City of Cape Town.  In 2006 he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Baobab by Thabo Mbeki.  He is a worthy individual to remember on the International Day Against Homophobia.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Standing by Ivan Toms: lesbians and gay men against apartheid #IDAHO

  1. kellan says:

    amidst all the syrup surrounding IDAHO and gay marriage, its good to be reminded that gay activism can be and has been many things and many gay activists see their struggle as part of a wider stream of oppressions that need to be fought against.
    thanks gavin for telling me about this inspiring man

  2. Pingback: The power of sissies: Simon Nkoli and international lesbian and gay solidarity | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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