South Africa has provided full marriage equality for four years now. A report in the NYT featuring weddings in Cape Town has prompted some reflection on what makes the Saffer version of gay marriage special.
First, the story of marriage rights is totally tied up with the story of “the struggle”, as South Africans describe the long, slow path to democracy and freedom. When the new constitution was negotiated, it was a fundamental principle from the start that a strong bill of rights would be at its centre, providing protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, language or gender. Far-sighted negotiators were also able to introduce age, disability – and sexual orientation. In the early years of the new government, the government had many other priorities, so that legislating protection for queer citizens languished on a back burner. (Sound familiar?)
However, the protections guaranteed in the constitution were backed up by a Constitutional Court. In a series of landmark judgements, the court forced government and employers to deliver, on employment rules and spousal benefits, on immigration policy for same-sex partners, on adoption – and on marriage. The government delayed, but was ultimately compelled to comply. When they did, the law was a good one – providing for a choice of either civil unions or full marriage, on exactly the same terms as those for between-sex couples, in church or out, presided over by a religious minister or by a civil marriage officer.
For many people, the roots of marriage equality in the Struggle provides an emotionally powerful, symbolic backdrop to the wedding festivities, especially in Cape Town, with the Houses of Parliament and Robben Island at hand, and possibly even in view (Table Mountain is a popular venue). But in South Africa, politics is never far away: some progressives complain that “weddings” remain too much a middle-class, capitalist package, distracting from the realities of survival for the poor.
Anthony Manion, director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, said the law had largely failed to benefit blacks living in the impoverished townships that stretch for miles outside cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg. In them, gay men and lesbians often face unabashed discrimination and violence; advocates say that a growing number of lesbians have become victims of so-called corrective rapes aimed at ridding them of their sexual orientation.
“The vast majority of gay people in South Africa are still shut off from marrying the partner of their choice because of the deep economic inequality, social isolation and cultural exclusion,” Mr. Manion said.
He and others complain that the focus on wedding cakes and floral arrangements distracts attention from far more serious challenges.
(This has never prevented the hetero couples from throwing themselves into the concept with relish: some of the most spectacular weddings can be seen in the Black and “Coloured”, i.e. mixed-race, townships.)
The religious component is also striking. The NYT writer notes that Rev Daniel Brits, who has married over 500 gay couples, says that over 80% of these have included at least one White Afrikaans partner (I can add that his suburban base in Fish Hoek and Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs is overwhelmingly English speaking). This doesn’t surprise me. The Afrikaans people take religion, and their religious community, extremely seriously. Whereas English speaking gay men might simply ignore the need for legal recognition, depending on the inherent constitutional protections for legal protections and security, Afrikaans couples want their unions to be witnessed by friends and family – and God.
Now, the strong constitutional framework here is important not only for South Africans, but also has a lesson for the wider world. As long as legal protection and LGBT equality is sought piece-meal, one isolated victory at a time, there will always remain additional problems unsolved, one more hill to climb. Until total protection is guaranteed in a constitution, a bill of rights, or a Basic Law, the battle will not be won, full equality will remain elusive. That will necessarily take time, and until then, the war must be waged one battle at a time, but the end goal remains – full, guaranteed equality.
Meanwhile, some foreigners may still get a taste, as these New Yorkers did:
And for many foreign gay and lesbian couples, South Africa offers a legal tolerance often denied in their own countries. In 2007, Damon Bolden married his partner at Constitution Hill, the site of an apartheid-era prison that now houses South Africa’s Constitutional Court and several human rights groups. The American couple, who lived in Johannesburg for five years before returning to New York in 2008, married in a ceremony that blended American and African traditions, including jumping the broom, a wedding ritual used by slaves in America, who were forbidden to marry.
“It was an honor to get married in a democracy so young and progressive,” Mr. Bolden said from New York. “If it can happen there, it can happen here.”
And do you know what? If you choose Cape Town, the physical setting could be superb, too.
This is some of the NYT article:
CAPE TOWN — It was another picture-perfect wedding at the foot of Table Mountain, recalled the Rev. Daniel Brits. Inside the chapel, a female vocalist sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” before he led the nervous couple through their vows surrounded by family and friends a few weeks ago.
That the betrothed were two men gave few of the guests pause. For Mr. Brits, it was all in a day’s work. After all, he says, he has married more than 500 gay couples in the four years since South Africa became the first country in the Southern Hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage, a distinction that ended only this month when Argentina did the same.
More than 3,000 same-sex couples have been married in South Africa, with about half of those couples including at least one foreigner, the government says. The law permitting same-sex marriage has begun to pave the way for greater tolerance of homosexuality, advocates contend, and the weddings have provided a shot in the arm to companies catering to those tying the knot.
“Apartheid suppressed tolerance, but once that was out of the way our society has moved so fast and most people just go with the flow,” said Mr. Brits, a nondenominational minister.
The weddings frequently take place on Table Mountain, the vast, flat-topped landmark that looms over the city, and at hotels like the 12 Apostles, a resort perched on a cliff above the sea where Arianne McClellan and her bride, both London police officers, said “I do” last fall. The couple chose Cape Town for its stunning natural beauty and gay-friendly culture.
-(Read the full story here)