By Clare Nullis
Friday, December 1, 2006
CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Nov. 30 -- South Africa on Thursday became the first country in Africa, and the fifth in the world, to legalize same-sex marriages.
The Civil Union Act went into effect a day ahead of a Dec. 1 deadline set by the country's Constitutional Court, which required that the marriage law be changed to ensure equality for gay men and lesbians.
Gay rights groups have welcomed the law, although they criticized provisions allowing clergy and civil marriage officers to turn away gay couples for reasons of conscience.
Some couples began hurrying to make preparations for long-awaited nuptials.
"There will be a huge response from same-sex couples who have waited such a long time for their relationship to be recognized," said Melanie Judge, a program manager for the South Africa-based gay rights group OUT.
Janine Pressman, a pastor with the Glorious Light Metropolitan Community Church in Pretoria, said she hoped to marry a couple Saturday, provided the paperwork could be rushed through.
"We are ready to go," said Jacky Mashapu, a spokesman for the Home Affairs Ministry, where altar-bound couples will need to apply for permission to wed.
South African leaders, determined to bury all forms of discrimination, recognized the rights of gay people in the constitution drafted after apartheid ended in 1994.
The constitution, the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, provided a powerful legal tool for gay rights activists, even though South Africa remains conservative on issues of sexuality.
Influential traditional leaders said the legislation violated African cultural norms.
The Roman Catholic Church and Muslim groups denounced the law as violating the sanctity of marriage. In the days leading up to the signing of the law, radio talk shows aired strong opposition to the legislation.
The public reaction, said Judge, "forced us to confront the deep-seated prejudice and intolerance against gays and lesbians. It's a day-to-day reality. . . . It's been quite a frightening process to see the level of hatred that has been openly expressed against this minority."
Homosexuality is still largely taboo in Africa. It is illegal in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and most other sub-Saharan countries. Even in South Africa, gay people are often attacked because of their sexual orientation.
Denmark in 1989 became the first country to legislate same-sex partnerships, and several other European Union members have followed suit. To date, only four other countries -- Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain -- allow same-sex marriage.
In the United States, only the state of Massachusetts allows gay marriage. Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions, California grants similar status through a domestic-partner registration law, and more than a dozen states give gay couples some legal rights.