/ 26 August 2009

Affairs of the heart

A homosexual couple wed using the same system that once denied their union.

‘Same sex or opposite sex?” barked the young woman, gold hoops in her ears to match her attitude.

I was at the Edenvale home affairs office, on a strip of motor repair shops and scrapyards, to book my marriage. It took me a moment to comprehend: “Same sex,” I said, a little too loudly, looking around to see if anyone of the other clerks in the room would look up in shock, or perhaps just interest. They did not.

“The marriage officer likes to do the same-sexes early in the morning,” the woman said briskly, consulting her book. “Too much paperwork, you people—”

Three years previously, Parliament passed a law permitting same-sex marriage, upon injunction from the Constitutional Court. My partner and I had been together for nearly two decades, but we had little interest in the rites of marriage. We had decided to do it now solely because it would facilitate our move to France, where he had been offered a job.

It was, we told each other, merely an administrative matter.

We could have done it more easily — through a gay judge who is a friend — but we wanted to see the system work for us.

Thus far, I was not encouraged. Like all home affairs offices, Edenvale was grimy and arcane, contemptuous and chaotic; the last place on earth you would want to get married. In the old days home affairs was the processing room of apartheid: it told you who you were and where you could (and could not) be. It was still a place of profound alienation; of a million frustrations and rages a day. And I was about to have one of them.

But the woman pre-empted my lecture on public service and constitutional rights by shoving a form across to me that noted the time and date of our appointment. Pulling out a pink highlighter, she underlined a reminder that at least two witnesses were required. “We have room for 20,” she said, “so bring all your friends and family.”

“No, no,” I protested. “It’ll be just two. We don’t want to make a fuss.”

“Why not?” she demanded. “A marriage is a big deal. Make a fuss. And don’t forget the rings.”

When I said I did not think we would be doing rings, she really thought she had my number. She looked up at me, in counselling mode now: “Do you think you are a second-class citizen just because you are gay? You have full rights in this new South Africa. You have the right to make a fuss.”

Here I was, an entirely empowered middle-class, middle-aged white man, being lectured by a young black woman about my rights.

And here we were, three weeks later, with rings but, alas, only two witnesses, in “Room 9: Marriages” at the back of the building.

We entered a parallel universe. The room was draped in lace in the same colour palette as the orange-and-brown dried flowers set in vases between white porcelain swans. There were wedding photos of various couples tacked to the walls and, on every available surface, cascades of what, on closer inspection, turned out to be empty ring boxes. It was inexplicable at first, then comical, then unexpectedly moving.

“You like it?” trilled a voice behind us. An older Afrikaans woman had entered. She introduced herself as Mrs Austin: she was actually in finance, but she loved marrying people so much that she had applied for a licence and now did it two mornings a week. “This is all my work,” she said of Room 9, explaining that every couple she married was invited to leave its ring boxes behind.

Our actual marriage was a sideshow. The main event was Mrs Austin herself. She’d had to “go on a training” to learn how to marry gay people, she told us, but it had been well worth it, and she was proud of the fact that she had done nearly 200 “same sexes” already; more than anyone else in the region.

She made no secret of her disappointment at our lack of campery: where were the feathers, where was the champagne? After presiding over the swapping of rings, she extracted a red heart-shaped ring box from her installation and balanced it between our two hands, which she delicately arranged for a photograph. We spent more time on this ritual than we had on the actual ceremony.

Even though Mrs Austin kept on referring to us as “same sex” and heterosexuals as “normal”, we were swept out of Room 9 on a tide of hilarity. Even the fact that she could not furnish us with a marriage certificate — the computers had been down for six weeks because someone had stolen the cables — did not tamp the good feelings.

We were a white man and a black man, free to be together in the country of our birth, treated with dignity and humanity by a system which had denied both for so long. Well worth the fuss.

Mark Gevisser’s lastest book is Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred. He is writer-in-residence, University of Pretoria, and divides his time between France and South Africa