/ 21 December 2006

Same-sex marriages: What next?

Trou is nie perdekoop nie, goes the old Afrikaans saying: marriage is even harder than buying a horse; it shouldn’t be a rushed decision or taken lightly. After all, it’s till death — or divorce lawyers — do us part. And there is one kind of marriage that has most certainly not been taken lightly, nor has its advent been quick: that between man and man, or woman and woman.

This year, South Africa became the fifth country in the world — and the first in Africa — to legalise gay marriages, following a circuitous legal journey through the highest courts of the nation. The Civil Union Act allows same-sex or opposite-sex couples to register a voluntary union — by marriage or civil partnership. Same-sex couples can be married by civil marriage officers, or by religious marriage officers who do not object to this duty.

Opposition to the new legislation was predictably fierce. Motsoko Pheko, MP for the Pan Africanist Congress, called the Bill ”repugnant”, and African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe warned MPs that they would face divine wrath because they rejected God’s laws.

Despite eventual votes of support from some Cabinet heavyweights, it is not known how much more opposition would have sounded from the ranks of the African National Congress had the ruling party not instructed its members to vote in favour of the Act.

Still, the Act’s passing was a logical and unavoidable outcome, from a constitutional perspective. ”It would have been a surprise if indeed this hadn’t gone through, because it would have contradicted what the African National Congress had committed itself to [in the Constitution],” says Tim Trengove-Jones, a University of the Witwatersrand lecturer who has commented and published widely on gay politics in South Africa.

What next?

As gay couples start sending out wedding invitations, the traditional concept of marriage has been shunted into the spotlight. Some fear the worst: that burly men exchanging rings will bring morals crashing down and tear families apart. Gay couples may feel like a city kid who got a pony for Christmas: it’s great to have, but what do you do with it?

Local soap opera Isidingo wasted no time in screening a gay wedding, complete with passionate kiss — going far beyond the limits of anodyne gay characters on similar shows. But are gay and lesbian relationships really suited to marriage? It’s uncharted territory for gay couples, with myriad challenges — not just the conundrum of finding two perfect wedding dresses or tuxedoes. It turns out men may not be suited to marrying each other after all (and that’s not even according to the Bible).

Gay couples can now go, boldly, where no one has gone before. Unfortunately, a lack of research into South African gay issues, including marriage, makes it hard to predict the road ahead, and the findings of substantial international research projects may not be applicable in the South African context.

”We need to highlight the complexities surrounding gay men and lesbian women living in a patriarchal society like South Africa,” says Eileen Rich, a research psychologist at the University of South Africa’s Centre for Applied Psychology in Pretoria.

The centre is part of the Joint Working Group, an informal network of non-profit organisations and their partners working on a national, coordinated approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Activate, Behind the Mask, OUT and Triangle Project are among eight organisations on its management committee.

As the city kid may be forced to give up his pony to his cousin on the farm, some gay couples will have to face the truth that marriage is not meant for them — and if it is, it may have to undergo a little nip and tuck. New conversations need to take place in the gay and lesbian community, says Melanie Judge, programme officer at OUT, a non-profit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organisation

”Is marriage the best institution for us? Don’t we want to, for example, almost take away this huge symbolism that is associated with marriages? Don’t we want to open it up a little bit and recognise there are many forms of families?” she asks.

Judge feels marriage has a bad heterosexual track record in terms of what it has come to symbolise, and there is now an opportunity for gay and lesbian people to develop marriages ”based on equality, that are not based on rigid definitions of gender roles, that are not based on duties, but on commitment and intimacy”. It’s an exciting challenge, but it’s daunting to fly fearlessly in the face of tradition.

On the other hand, gay and lesbian couples might just stay in a comfort zone and do what their parents did. An easy way out, undeniably, but it neatly ignores that Mom and Dad is now Dad and Dad.

”For gay and lesbian people to want to ascribe to a heteronormative, gender-defined form of marriage — would be very sad, I would say, particularly as a feminist. It would be a sad day if we simply saw the adoption of a heterosexual model on to gay and lesbian couples,” says Judge.

Also, as the rainbow flag flies high, there is the rainbow nation to consider. In the multicultural South African society, gay or lesbian couples may struggle to adapt marriage traditions from their respective cultures, such as the paying of lobola.

For decades gay and lesbian people have been celebrating, even flaunting, their diversity and unique relationships — any gay Pride parade sees a bewildering collection of couples in all kinds of attire marching down a city street. Therefore, these varied relationships should now not be shoehorned into the ”ideal” of traditional marriages, says gay psychologist Casper Human.

”It is our responsibility to use our uniqueness to contribute to changing a system that has become a source of frustration and repression even for many heterosexual people. The danger is that we can become lost in trying to achieve what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’ without making our own claim on what gay marriages should be.”

New challenges

Many gay couples have straightforward relationships — suburban, urbane and utterly predictable, keeping up with the Joneses. Other gay relationships endure for years despite being ”open” — committed but not monogamous. Though the idea of an open relationship is not a uniquely homosexual one, adding marriage to the mix brings new challenges.

Trengove-Jones says the traditional understanding of marriage involves exclusivity. Now, the negotiation of new and different forms of marital relationships will involve issues such as open relationships. ”We look here at a refusal to suggest that I have exclusive access to this person’s body, and that challenges absolutely every kind of traditional notion of a serious relationship, and those go back again to understandings of marriage,” he says.

”I am worried about the sorts of prejudices that are still in place. If people have the emotional or psychological solidity to negotiate satisfactorily some kind of open relationship, it’s all well and good, but the traditional understanding will suggest that this is an aberration.”

The ”aberration” will likely survive the transition into marriage — but what will the neighbours say? ”I think it is very difficult to get married without taking on some of those societal expectations, such as that marriage is about monogamy,” says Judge. ”But who says it should be?”

Previously, a long-term relationship, sharing a home and possibly a few cats, was the ultimate reward for many gay men. Now marriage could become the cherry on the cake, but it’s not to say that the ship has sailed on these well-established relationships.

Says Trengove-Jones: ”I’m not into this hierarchical thing [that marriage is a higher level of commitment in a relationship]. I’m more into a kind of horizontal thing [with marriages and non-marital arrangements on the same ideological level]. It is much more difficult, and we have no role models for this; we have no history. It is exciting, and worrying.”

With few role models, sexual minorities have little guidance in developing their own relationship dynamics, Rich says. This makes it harder for such minority groups to obtain advice or validation from others.

It’s not all gloomy, however. Marriage should strengthen most committed gay relationships, she adds. Those who are not meant to live happily ever after will fail anyway, married or not. Also, marriage provides a new level of social acknowledgement, recognition and acceptance in society.

”The fact that you can be married means you have total acceptance and recognition from society, from your family, from colleagues. You are a recognised, equal couple; you are no longer different. The fact that marriage is recognised means you are accepted into society. I think it will strengthen relationships that can now come out of all that secrecy and fear of social isolation,” she explains.

It’s an odd contradiction: unity through diversity is one of the mantra of gay identity, and yet gay people often strive to be just like everybody else.

”I fear that gay people do not know what is expected of them now,” says Human. ”Should their relationships start looking like heterosexual ones? Is that the ideal? I believe both broader society and gay people should be educated about what such a marriage means. It is important that gay couples negotiate and renegotiate their own rules within a marriage.”

Popping the question

Doubtlessly more than a few gay and lesbian twosomes will rush down the altar at the first twang of Cupid’s bow, just because they can — fabulous, yes, but not wise.

”I don’t necessarily think people should get married; they should be deciding if a marriage works for them so that they can determine the grounds for that marriage, the manner in which that marriage takes place and becomes a lived reality,” says Judge. ”I think it is easier now for gay and lesbian people to say, ‘I choose to exercise my right not to get married.”’

”Marriage is a fine institution — but I’m not ready for an institution,” said Mae West famously.

Trengove-Jones agrees. He does not see marriage as a higher step in the evolution of a relationship, or a reward for fidelity and love.

”Does the validation of one’s sense of oneself and the validation of whatever relationship one happens to be in hinge on this kind of legal recognition?” For him, the only real advantage of gay marriage is at the all-important legal level.

Already in the heterosexual world, marriage is not what it used to be. Odd families have sprung up all around us, sporting step-uncles, ex-aunts and foster grandmas. Increasingly, heterosexual couples don’t even tie the knot; they throw caution to the wind and move in together. Many gay couples may be happy to do just that — as they have been forced to do for so long.

Traditional marriage had well-defined gender roles and duties (with women often materially excluded or subordinate) and the inevitability and desirability of offspring. Now marriage is losing ground in the Western world as more women gain financial security and thus better control over their lives.

In many gay male relationships, however, both partners have independent incomes — and they go into marriage on an equal footing. American research says heterosexual couples still have more stereotypical sex roles than gay couples do.

Also, gay couples’ household responsibilities often merge, says Rich. Their behaviour is less differentiated according to gender roles, whether it’s washing the dishes or fixing a leaking tap, and this could lessen conflict about issues such as finances, household matters or even child rearing.

Still, there are those who say men and marriage go together like a cat and water. The conventional sense of marriage simply doesn’t fit two guys shacking up in a Sandton suburb — because boys will be boys.

”I’m utterly certain that especially with gay males the psycho-sexual dynamics of how we interact are completely antithetical to what marriage understands,” says Trengove-Jones.

American research appears to back this up — partly, at least. The rate of co-habitation and sexual exclusivity is lower among gay male couples than among their lesbian and heterosexual counterparts. Men are from Mars, after all: straight and lesbian women value monogamy, emotional intimacy and romance more than men of all sexual orientations do.

In South Africa, more gay single men were sexually active than lesbian women, according to recent research commissioned by the Joint Working Group and carried out by the Unisa Centre for Applied Psychology in collaboration with the Triangle Project in the Western Cape.

Also, slightly more gay males were in committed relationships than were lesbians, but considerably more women than men were in strictly monogamous (thus more emotionally committed) relationships. However, slightly more men than women were in relationships lasting five to 15 years or more.

OUT has already started marriage education in the gay community, looking at such issues of commitment and intimacy through group discussions and workshops.

”We are trying to explore what this means at the level of intimacy for gay and lesbian people. I think that is going to be quite challenging, because many, many gay and lesbian people do, in fact, want to get married, and for us the question is really creating a space for people to exercise the whole range of choices that are before them,” Judge says.

A hostile world

While the gay community may celebrate the Civil Union Act, it is a bittersweet victory for many of its members. Some couples, especially in rural areas, still won’t be able to get married for fear of victimisation.

”Marriage is not going to change the experiences immediately of the majority of gay and lesbian people in South Africa, which is one of ongoing victimisation, marginalisation and exclusion,” says Judge. Some gay and lesbian people may even be negatively affected by the shift in the law, as conservative communities would still refuse to accept gay marriages socially.

”There is still a gap between what has happened at the legislative level and social reality, and for outreach organisations that is very concerning. The work has to step up concerning homophobic violence, around addressing hate speech. You can still read hate speech every day of the week in our newspapers even though gay and lesbian people can get married,” she says.

Rich agrees, saying many same-sex couples still won’t come out to their friends, family and colleagues because they fear rejection — or worse. For these couples marriage remains but a dream. The values of our society do not always match the progressive values of our Constitution, as Independent Democrats spokesperson Lance Greyling said during the Civil Union Bill debate in Parliament.

Hopefully, though individual views on the matter are likely to remain set in stone, broader public opinion may well shift from stimulated to subdued as news amnesia sets in and the headlines on gay marriage fade from the newspapers.

”The high-profile representation of this thing in the mainstream press has pushed the political and constitutional angles, which I think are very important, but it has presented moffie as spectacle,” says Trengove-Jones.

Such media coverage, combined with the sense that marriage as we know it is under fire, has led to fear and uncertainty among many conservative and especially religious heterosexuals — the pienk gevaar bringing about the end of times. Their objections to gay marriage now aren’t even legal any more.

”If prejudice is protected by legislation, it adds wonderful fuel to the fire, and that is why the legal reforms are so absolutely significant. Now the prejudice is going to be couched in so-called cultural and religious terms,” says Judge.

Not too long ago, the idea of a black man marrying a white woman in South Africa and elsewhere also upset the conservative applecart. Though such couples may still at times complain about being victimised when holding hands in public, it has become a much less contentious issue. Likewise, gay marriage could boost the acceptance gay and lesbian people in the long run.

Rich also likens the legalisation of gay marriages to the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, when many white people were afraid of their future under a black government.

”People have ingrained ideas,” she says, ”and when society changes, people resist change, they fear lack of control, they fear the social order changing. As soon as social order changes, you’re insecure, you’re afraid, so therefore you got to have some control.”

A nice day for a white wedding could be a nightmare come true for the opposition, who also argue that gay marriage devalues the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. But what is it that they are so hell-bent on protecting? The nuclear family has left the building. If divorce destroys the sanctity of marriage, then heterosexual couples have been happily devaluing marriage for many years.

”If it is marriage in the traditional sense where the man is the head of the house, the woman is subordinated, where marriage becomes a piece of the patriarchal order, then absolutely, let’s all of us undermine it as quickly as possible,” says Judge. ”The progressive among us want to embrace a culture of human rights that pits people against each other from an equal basis.”

The battle against fear can only be won through education. Prejudices often stem from a lack of information — those who would block gay marriage may have in mind effeminate teen drag queens clad in lace, not knowing that the friendly, tanned and muscled Afrikaner boys sharing a house down the road are already celebrating their engagement.

It’s time for South Africans of all sexual creeds to start thinking critically about marriage, and allow new and equal forms of relationships, marriages and families to evolve over the next couple of decades. It won’t be easy — but neither was democracy.