Marriage for all

In a moderately conservative Afrikaans environment I unwittingly grew up with the benefit of a pair of formidable gay role models. Both senior academics at Stellenbosch, they were old friends of my grandparents and were regulars at our family soirées. Most years on New Year’s Day we’d all pile into the car and visit them at their beach house in Hermanus.

They were colourful, witty and interminably jolly.
And, with the wisdom of hindsight, I now realise they were quietly devoted to each other. When one of them passed away a few years ago, I couldn’t attend the funeral, but through reports I got a sense of it.

It was surely the surviving partner’s choice to maintain the unstated, implied nature of their union even at the 12th hour, but in my mind’s eye I couldn’t help conjuring up a scene where the NG dominee goes on an off-the-cuff frolic of his own, calling all those present to celebrate loudly and joyously the truly extraordinary relationship they had shared for so many decades.

In an age where marriage is the exception and divorce the norm, it seems deeply disingenuous and cynical for Christian fundamentalists to prognosticate stridently that the proposed legalisation of gay marriage will sound the death knell for this institution. No less cynical, of course, than those Christians brandishing posters emblazoned with the slogan “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” while marching in step with traditionalist Muslims, for whom marriage often means one man and several women.

It doesn’t help to argue with that type of Christian or Muslim. In the case of the Bible-belt Christians, they’re fond of firing off supposedly damning verses from the Book, entirely forgetting historical and cultural context. And, most startlingly, forgetting the values personified by the figure of Jesus Christ, who associated most closely with the outcasts of society.

But in a secular democracy such as ours, it’s not the representatives of organised religion who should have the casting vote in this debate. Their own freedoms—to worship as they wish, within the confines of the law—are protected by our Constitution. They have no place denying gay South Africans the right to equality and dignity promised in the Constitution.

And that’s, in essence, what it’s all about, plain and simple: the equality of all human beings, and the right we all have to be treated with dignity.

Which makes Jacob Zuma’s reported comments at a recent Zulu rally all the more distressing. Of all people, he who struggled so valiantly against the inhumanity of apartheid should surely be in the vanguard of those speaking out for the rights of gays.

From every podium he bestrides, he should proclaim loudly and clearly: As much justification as there once was for Afrikaners to defend racism as part of their culture, just so much excuse is there today for Zulus—or anyone else—to flaunt homophobia as a cultural value worth championing. My people, he should be trumpeting, we didn’t uproot apartheid to plant another tree of inequality in its stead.

For the gay couple whom I knew as a kid, the right to marry never will be. It would, however, be a bitter irony if in 2006 South African gays were relegated to a second-class, discriminatory regime of civil unions.

I can already picture the park benches, sprayed with a twist on that hoary old prohibition: Straights only.

Jean Meiring is affiliated to the faculty of law at Cambridge University

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