South Africa: 500 gay couples married in first country in Southern Hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage

New York Times

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.

The legal protections in South Africa stand in stark contrast to the antigay sentiment that has recently been on display elsewhere in Africa, whether in the trial of a gay couple in Malawi or the legislative proposal in Uganda to make homosexualitya capital crime in some cases.

But even as human rights advocates praise the country’s legal openness and the economic windfall that has accompanied same-sex nuptial tourism, they fret that the law, like so much of the new South Africa’s promise and prosperity, has bypassed many of the country’s citizens, particularly in the black majority.

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.

Melanie Judge, an author of “To Have & To Hold: the Making of Same-Sex Marriage in South Africa,” was far more blunt, accusing white middle-class South Africans of ignoring their black brethren in their rush to the altar.

“Marriage is a commodity that’s been branded and packaged,” she said. “The law hasn’t gotten to the depths of prejudice if gay marriage ignores our collective trauma in favor of clothes, makeup and honeymoons.”

Others say change in the socially conservative townships will take time, and they point to a shift in attitudes among Afrikaners — the white minority that once imposed racial apartheid on the nation — and within the mixed-race population known as coloreds. Mr. Brits, for one, said it was striking that 80 percent of the South Africans he has married have been Afrikaners, who come from a community that has long condemned homosexuality.

Perhaps most astonished are the same-sex couples who expected far more resistance among their families. When Jens Von Wichtingen, a German, and his Afrikaner husband, Daniel, who took his surname, married in February after 17 years together, they were surprised at how readily Daniel’s deeply religious parents accepted their union.

“Afrikaners do not talk about sex and definitely not about gays,” Jens said. Yet at the wedding “they were so damn proud.”

He added that Daniel’s parents might not feel comfortable with the notion of “gay rights,” but they accepted their marriage and their decision to adopt a black child.

But white South Africa is still a long way from fully embracing gay marriage. While some mainstream businesses have been happy to capture part of the gay market, others — photographers, clerics and catering hall owners — have rejected same-sex couples citing “Christian principles,” some industry members say.

James Cussen, co-founder of an online same-sex wedding directory, said that even as his listings had grown to include more than 60 service providers, others still balked when asked to list their companies. “They say, ‘No, we’re not gay; why would we do that,’ ” he said. “Others hang up on me.”

Seon Kilian, a Cape Town-based event planner who has done a number of same-sex weddings, says that after the country’s long struggle against racism, it is painful to see another group of South Africans facing bigotry. She says she tries to buffer clients against uncomfortable moments by vetting the waiters, floral designers and videographers she hires.

“The last thing you want is two grooms kissing on the dance floor and a waiter drops a tray in disgust,” Ms. Kilian said.

To some gay South Africans, the law has allowed them to dwell on questions they might never have thought possible, like guest lists, wedding vows and their lives as husbands and wives.

“We just want it to be a truthful mirror of our intentions and how we feel about each other,” said Paul Botha in the midst of arranging the final details the day before marrying his partner, Albert Marton.

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.”


July 27, 2010