As 2019 drew to a close, Merriam-Webster declared the pronoun “they,” reconfigured as a non-binary gender identifier, its “word of the year.” The authoritative choice to cement a once-contentious usage affirmed the expansion of both the language and the politics of gender and sexuality in recent years. As of this summer, the United States has had five years of nationally legalized same-sex marriage, an openly gay presidential candidate, the expansion of federal workplace protections for transgender employees and many pop-cultural firsts. In the mainstreaming of LGBT identity, the 2010s could be seen as the lived promise of the rainbow-tinted arc of justice once denied to those confined to the emotional and physical violence of closets.

But beyond the privileged capitals of the United States, where pronouns are being respected and applied, the political and personal borders of LGBT life remain far more complicated, as the extraordinary new book “The Pink Line” reveals. South African journalist Mark Gevisser’s account of the global fight over LGBT rights is a hugely ambitious and exceptional work of long-form journalism. Eight years in the making, with stories from Malawi, South Africa, Egypt, Russia, India, Mexico, Israel and the Palestinian territories, this is a landmark study of unprecedented frontiers in the battle for civil rights. Gevisser, who is gay and came of age during the 1980s AIDS crisis, acknowledges in the introduction that reporting this story was also a personal quest to understand the dramatic shift between his generation and the current moment. But instead of a triumphant celebration of progress, this is a layered and surprising work about those living along these cultural fault lines — what Gevisser calls the world’s new “pink lines.”

He shows how the unapologetic queer demands for dignity are colliding with moral panics and nationalist politics. Entrenched ideas about family and religion are being forced into conversations with rapid shifts in norms and discourse. As the recent debate over J.K Rowling’s comments about trans women reveals, social media identity politics are even igniting culture wars among progressives. To find through-lines in this swirling and shifting story, Gevisser focuses on case studies. He embeds with activists, lawyers, parents, LGBT refugees and those who are living and moving along the world’s LGBT frontiers. Migrations and technology have allowed for trends that seemed impossible in his own generation. “It was no coincidence that the notion of LGBT rights was spreading globally at the exact moment that old boundaries were collapsing in the era of globalization,” he writes. “The collapse of those boundaries meant the rapid global spread of ideas about sexual equality or gender transition — and at the very same time, a dramatic reaction by conservative forces, by patriarchs and priests, who feared the inevitable loss of control that this process threatened.”

In a chapter titled “Pink Dollars, Global Gay,” an international gay cruise sails into the harbors of the Caribbean nation of Dominica, where authorities arrest an American gay couple seen having sex on their balcony under stringent local homophobic strictures. In later sections, a Russian transgender mother struggles to be recognized as a rightful parent in painful custody battles for her daughter. A lesbian couple from Cairo, awakened by the Arab Spring, flee the country as the Tahrir Square revolution collapses and a spirit of rebellious freedom is brutally crushed. Gevisser’s book feels especially revelatory in this globalist approach, making thoughtful comparisons that illuminate just how privileged Western societies have become in the application of LGBT legal rights.

What makes Gevisser an especially compelling narrator and guide to this subject is his awareness of his privilege as a White, upper-middle-class South African from a country with one of the most progressive post-apartheid constitutions in terms of human rights. He writes openly about his struggles with “the white man’s savior complex” as he considers how to help an impoverished teenage gay Ugandan refugee seeking asylum in Canada, or how his passport allows for the freedom of movement unavailable to many queer people in the world. (Along with his considerable travels, Gevisser has studied and lived in the United States.) His self-disclosure liberates him from the sometimes insular and patronizing Western gaze on LGBT communities in postcolonial societies, understanding how American or European cultural power may have galvanized LGBT movements but can also serve to destabilize and in many cases endanger local struggles for sexual and gender diversity. These gray zones make the book riveting and morally complex.

I was deeply moved by these nuances in “The Pink Line” to reflect on my own coming-of-age and coming-out story. I began the last decade still in my 20s, still in the closet, and watched the 2010s unfurl with the most extraordinary transformation of the politics, culture and inclusion of LGBT lives in the United States. I remember the anti-gay-marriage mandates and frequent homophobic slurs in college in the early 2000s, now replaced with pop-cultural icons and sprawling pride weekends. I have friends whose pronouns are “they” and who are thriving professionally and personally. But I have also spent the past few years living outside the United States, married to my husband, and have experienced the humbling checkerboard of LGBT rights in different parts of the world, the unexpected moments one has to slip back into closeted skin — and the stories of enduring inequity and struggle. Like every queer person who crosses a border, I too have been living and thinking along pink lines.

Gevisser gives language and form to those experiences. As he explains, “The Pink Line” is a shifting border, sometimes porous but too often marked by defeat, discrimination, otherization and loss. His stories reveal how loves are disrupted, families torn apart, jobs lost and exiles enforced. But as he reiterates, there are daily triumphs, breakthroughs and, in some of his most moving stories, unprecedented transformations in families from the Palestinian territories to Malawi whose hearts and doors are opening where that once seemed impossible. While the author’s own sexuality certainly makes him a partial observer, this is by no means a memoir or a polemic. It is a work of clear-eyed analysis and exceptional reporting, and it deserves a wide and non-LGBT readership that wishes to understand these frontiers. What elevates the book is Gevisser’s poetic and queer gaze, his searching language about why he has dedicated almost a decade of his life to understanding a generational transformation. Dedicating his book to his husband, Gevisser notes, “Writing about it seemed, to me, to be my debt to love.”

The Pink Line

Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers

By Mark Gevisser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
525 pp. $28.99