Change in the wind on gay marriage
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Cape Town - For us, being married, that’s the big thing in a relationship, it weighs more, says Erna van der Westhuizen as she spoons pineapple into her adopted daughter’s mouth.
The baby claps and reaches for their dog Frida. The sun is casting long shadows in the Van der Westhuizen’s small home in Sunningdale just outside Table View. Erna smiles. “If you say marriage, people attach more to that.”
Erna and her wife Liezl have been together since 2001. The y come from conservative Afrikaans families who have offered constant support.
The Civil Union Act in 2006 opened doors for the two women and many others. Although the Department of Home Affairs does not report specific statistics on same-sex marriages, there were 867 civil unions registered from 2007 to 2011. Gauteng and the Western Cape had the highest number registered in 2011.
It would appear that change is in the wind for South Africa’s stance on gay rights. The government this month launched its first programme to fight discrimination and prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, just in time for National Day Against Homophobia on Saturday.
However, despite legislation, tolerance is not holistic. Sixty-one percent of South Africans say homosexuality is not acceptable, according to a Pew Research Global Attitudes Project report last year.
Liezl says: “If someone still has a problem, it’s theirs. I’m not uncomfortable in my own skin and my life. I’ll be patient and open for dialogue, and I’ll understand if they still don’t understand.”
The two women say that Cape Town is hospitable to the gay community and their neighbourhood especially is a “potjiekos”, the Afrikaans word for stew, of races, genders and sexualities.
However, the couple stay away from the northern suburbs where “people look at you differently”, Liezl says.
Despite the Civil Unions Act, it took the couple two years to obtain a marriage licence from Home Affairs. They were turned away from several marriage venues and adoption agencies as well.
“There are simple forms we need to fill out, that still ask for husband and wife,” Erna says. “We joke around, like when we bought the house, who will be the husband this time? Who will be the wife?” Liezl says. “Even if it’s just on paper, it’s made to exclude same-sex couples.”
Chad Pretorius, a gay man newly married to his husband Neil, moved to Cape Town from Joburg because he wanted to be somewhere he would feel safe.
“I am lucky enough to be in South Africa for the fact that I can call Neil my husband. It’s not a civil partnership, it’s a real marriage,” Chad says. “I like that I can hold his hand in public if I want to.”
However, they also came up against logistical obstacles when planning their wedding, and were turned away from a venue because they were gay.
Chad agrees though that South Africa exists in a dichotomy. Afrikaans conservatism and the patriarchy of Zulu and other traditional tribal cultures can be at odds with the country’s anti-discriminatory constitution.
Chad speaks of President Jacob Zuma’s public support of Uganda. “For a country that has gone so far forward with gay rights to then accept and support another country that is on the opposite side of it is pathetic.”
While the legalisation of same-sex marriages has brought change, it is by no means a panacea.
The Reverend Gordon Oliver, a former mayor of Cape Town, fought hard for legalisation in 2006. He has officiated at more than 200 same-sex weddings.
Oliver is something of an anomaly in the religious community. “There are 10 or 12 of us on the fringe of being more liberal when it comes to religion and secular weddings, but formal churches, will not let same-sex marriages occur.”
He adds that it will be a slow process towards holistic acceptance, especially from a religious standpoint. “Humankind digs in its heels... but there will be a time when churches will accept same-sex marriages. The church reflects the struggles of human nature, and we still can’t accept that two men would want to marry.”
Despite the homophobia that remains in more rural areas, the ability to wed continues to bring hope. Oliver recalls a wedding between two men, one whose father was a conservative Afrikaner and had disapproved of his son’s sexuality. “He stood up at the wedding reception, with tears running down his cheeks, and he said ‘my son you have my blessing’. He had transcended the discomfort and had openly affirmed his son and his partner. It is those very human experiences that have come through past society’s difficulty with the issue.”
The Rev Judith Kotze, director of the Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, a non-profit body that works for dialogue and inclusion of LGBTI people within the church, says that although same-sex marriage is legalised, it is by no means the end of the struggle.
“For sexual minorities it is very harsh because of the prejudice and the biases. There is a lot of resistance to being gender non-conforming,” she says. “The violence and the backlash on the ground is no different than Uganda or Nigeria. We are dealing with a deep-rooted conviction that this is ‘un-African’.”
Arnold Motsau, IAM’s Gugulethu process coordinator, believes acceptance is concentrated in urban areas.
Race and cultural upbringing have a lot to do with perceptions of homosexuality, he says. “Gay marriage on TV, in the media, is a completely different thing than how it is on the ground. In the cities where gay culture is a lot more developed it’s a lot easier, there are support structures, a language to articulate dialogue, versus in the rural areas where it’s a different story.”