Much more than a piece of paper

22 February 2010 - 02:00 By Robert Mckay

Opponents of gay marriage often justify their position in abstract terms, contending that granting gay men and women equal access somehow erodes the institution and tears at the very fabric of society.

In South Africa, four years after the legalisation of gay marriage, no such catastrophe has come to pass.

Basil Jones, artist and theatre practitioner

"We've just celebrated our leather anniversary," says Basil Jones with a chuckle.

In 2007, he and his partner Adrian Kohler, founders of Handspring Puppet Company, travelled to Oudtshoorn for a small wedding ceremony at the Home Affairs office.

"We were the first same sex couple to be registered there. The officials were lovely and welcoming; they surprised us."

Their three-year marriage represents a tiny fraction of the time they've been together. "We met in 1971. This is our 39th year," says Jones.

So, what has changed since they finally tied the knot?

"We kind of honour each other more than we did before, we have a greater regard for our relationship. After nearly four decades of being boyfriends, being husbands has made a very big difference to the way we relate. We call each other husband. We love that.

"In terms of family and friends, we were taken aback by how many people who we thought would be indifferent or negative, supported us wholeheartedly. People were eager to celebrate with us."

Though a straight couple's decision to marry might be purely personal, for gay men and women it is also always political.

Of the early days of the gay liberation movement and its leaders, Jones says: "Our getting married was partially celebrating their fight. After we had won this right, we felt it would be churlish to say 'marriage is not for me', it's an incredibly hard-won right and extremely rare in Africa."

"I think that people have to do what makes sense for them. For me and Adrian it was the right thing to do, it was a way of coming out and affirming who we are and what our relationship is. I wanted the right to be able to walk into a hospital and be able to say what should happen to Adrian if he were lying there unable to speak for himself. As a lover I have status, laws of inheritance. It makes it easier if you're married. Turning away from that would be a pity."

Gay marriage might one day become an unremarkable fact of life, but Jones believes that day is a long way away.

"There's a tremendous amount of homophobia, here and abroad. Uganda is a case in point of how it can rear its ugly head suddenly.

"And with the current leadership in South Africa there's a question mark as to how deep the support is for that aspect of the Constitution. The alliances being made at the moment don't fill me with optimism. We must never be complacent about what we've won."

Mark Gevisser, journalist and author

Mark Gevisser was 17 years into his relationship with Dhianaraj Chetty when they decided to take the plunge.

"We needed to get the piece of paper for purely administrative reasons to enable me to move to France with Chetty," he says.

The consequences have been surprising.

"What's interesting to me about marriage is that in my experience it wasn't so much about us, it's about us in relationship to the state and society. The act of declaring our commitment with the state or with the community as witnesses surprisingly did create a recommitment between ourselves."

If Gevisser and Chetty are happier, it is only because they both now live in Paris.

"My philosophy of marriage is utilitarian rather than spiritual. Yes, we are happy. In many ways it's the same, with the caveat that there are problems we had before we got married."

One school of thought in the gay community denounces gay marriage as a capitulation to heterosexual morality, little more than a misguided attempt to mimic an outdated institution.

Gevisser held that view until a conversation between his sister-in-law and his four-year-old nephew changed everything.

"My sister-in-law referred to Chetty as my husband and Leo said, 'but they're both boys'. Justine said: 'That doesn't mean they can't be married. If two people love each other they can get married.'

I saw my nephew's eyes light up with understanding and it made me realise that we live in a society where the concept of marriage carries such weight and can facilitate acceptance, tolerance, and equality that it's kind of crazy to reject it."

For Gevisser's loved ones, the marriage was momentous. "It was extraordinary how moved and excited all our friends and family were. I'd even thought that we'd been ungenerous for not marrying earlier."

Gevisser and Chetty were married in a hasty, no-frills ceremony at Home Affairs in Edenvale, an event he fondly recounted for The New York Times. "We did it in a very quiet way - which people were very annoyed by."

The couple were obliged to hold another celebration with 20 close friends and family at the home of Gevisser's parents.

His family's reaction was another revelation. "I think that straight people often feel that we judge them because we're cooler, we don't do all the boring conventional things that they do. I had a distinct feeling that they saw our marriage as an affirmation of their values."

Commenting on the parlous state of gay rights in Africa, Gevisser says he is saddened by recent news from Malawi, Uganda and Kenya.

However, he is confident in the inexorable march of progress under way in South Africa. In fact, he says, even liberal, progressive France stops short of granting gay couples the exact equivalent of marriage. The French can enter into an agreement called Pacte Civil de Solidarité.

"The first time I had to deal with the authorities they asked me if I was Chetty's concubine and I took great offence. But that's what they call you in France."

By any name, Gevisser's intentions remain the same. "Our life paths are together"

Anna-Marie de Vos, former High Court judge and advocate

Getting married wasn't as big a deal for Anna-Marie de Vos and her wife, sculptor Suzanne Du Toit, as it was for their world. "We knew each other for 18 years before we got married, so obviously it's just more of the same," De Vos says.

"It did remind us what we mean to one another and how wonderful our lives are together, but it was more of a celebration of what we already had. It was the acknowledgement of our situation by society that made a difference. I think it made us both feel a little more accepted, it gave our relationship legitimacy."

De Vos and her partner became the first gay couple to win the right to adopt children in a landmark case in 2001 - a ruling widely regarded as the precursor to the legalisation of gay marriage.

Today they are the proud parents of two grown children aged 17 and 21.

Their daughter had reservations about their wedding three years ago. "She heard we were getting married and wanted it to be low key," remembers De Vos.

"She didn't at the time want the publicity that these things always come with. But that made me angry, so we decided to go all out.

"We had a real boere troue on the farm, with lots of people and food. It was wonderful for us and especially for the children. It was important to them to see 150 people from all walks of life - judges, artists, politicians - all together and give us their blessing."

Referring to Du Toit as her wife took some getting used to, but it's something De Vos now insists on. "I tend to be a bit aspris [deliberate] so I often say "wife".

"I remember a time we booked into a B&B in Pretoria and the nice Afrikaner Christian lady asked if I was married. When I said I had a wife she said she'd forgotten something on the stove and disappeared. She came back and, to give her credit, regained her composure, but I could see she was completely shocked."

De Vos, no stranger to marital strife, estimates that she has presided over 70000 divorces. Yet, despite the numbers, she insists that marriage is relevant.

"I like the concept; it's a way for society to help people stay together. It's not easy to stay together for so long. The first few years are fine and so are the last few. It's the 30 in the middle that are hard. I like that idea."