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S. Africa's Top Court Blesses Gay Marriage

Word of the ruling raced through the nation's tight-knit community of gay rights activists, who saw the case as crucial to curbing discrimination. One serious abuse, they said, is the rape of lesbians and even some gay men in a misguided effort to change their sexual orientation.

"It's really, really difficult to be black and a lesbian in South Africa," said Thuli Madi, director of Behind the Mask, a Web-based magazine focused on gay life and issues. "As a woman, you are constantly harassed by the males in your community."

Elsewhere in Africa, attitudes are even more harsh. Gay and lesbian sex is illegal on most of the continent, with the death penalty a possibility in some cases. Many religious and political leaders call homosexuality un-African.

In Nigeria, opposition to same-sex marriage is so passionate that Anglican leaders have broken off relations with their counterparts in Canada over the issue. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said last year that homosexuality was "unbiblical, unnatural and definitely un-African."

On Thursday, some South African religious leaders criticized the ruling, but reaction was generally muted. The South African Council of Churches said it provoked such diverse reactions that the body was unlikely to have a unified position.

Ray McCauley, a well-known pastor, said he believed most South Africans did not agree with the decision.

"It is a sad day for South Africa when the very bedrock foundation of society, the family, is redefined by a court," McCauley said, according to the South African Press Association. "This ruling totally undermines marriage as we know it and the cherished formation of healthy, loving families."

No law in South Africa has prohibited gay men and lesbians from holding weddings and living as spouses. Many have signed contractual agreements stipulating joint ownership of property or distribution of assets after death.

But they still run into barriers when seeking to open joint checking accounts or visit each other in hospitals. More broadly, activists said, the prohibition against marriage made them second-class citizens.

"I'm not really sure I want to get married," said Glenn de Swardt of the Triangle Project, a gay and lesbian rights group in Cape Town, speaking by phone. "We want it because it will give us an equal opportunity. Whether I want to access that choice is a different thing."

The romance between Fourie, a carpet cleaner, and Bonthuys, a nurse, began after the two neighbors each discovered the other was a lesbian, Fourie said. They bought a house together and lived as a couple, deciding to have a wedding only after the first ruling, in November 2004.

They exchanged vows in the church of Andre Muller, a gay pastor driven from the Dutch Reformed Church.

"In the past, gay people have always been ridiculed, belittled," Muller said from Pretoria. "Now that this ruling has come, they are on an equal footing. Justice has been done."


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