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South Africa struggles with civil union bill

Religious conservatives brand queer blacks as 'un-African'

South Africa’s government is preparing to pass a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions despite intense opposition from queer and human rights groups, who argue the proposed law will further marginalize homos.

Queer advocates there are upset because the bill defines queer relationships as different, rather than equal to, opposite-sex marriage. Legal experts are also watching as one of the world’s most progressive constitutions is put to the test.

“Creating a special separate status for lesbian and gay couples sends a clear message that they are second-class citizens,” wrote Scott Long at New York-based Human Rights Watch in a letter published last week. “It violates South Africa’s constitution, and it flouts international human rights.”

The open letter was addressed to Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, the speaker of South Africa’s parliament, urging the government to reconsider the legislation.

The ruling African National Congress party drafted the Civil Unions Bill in response to a constitutional court decision last December that declared the traditional definition of marriage unconstitutional because it excludes same-sex couples. The court gave parliament until Dec 1, 2006 to rewrite the law. The national assembly was scheduled to vote on the bill last Friday, but the decision was postponed until later this week.

A series of public hearings on the bill, held in Cape Town last week, have given religious conservatives an opportunity to speak out against the bill. At similar hearings throughout the country, gay delegates report that a climate of intolerance successfully scared many same-sex marriage advocates into silence.

“The public hearings provided a platform for all to speak, or at least that was the view of the subcommittee that made the arrangements,” says Dawn Betteridge, director of the Cape Town-based organization the Triangle Project. “However, their understanding of the issues fell short of understanding the emotional and physical dangers for people. There was no consideration for the trauma experienced by people who were exposed to messages like, ‘Homosexuality is an abomination,’ and, ‘Homosexuals will never be accepted by God.’

“I came out of a two-day process of public submissions feeling mentally kicked and bruised,” says Betteridge.

In 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to explicitly protect sexual orientation rights in its constitution. Betteridge says that even if the bill passes, the government will find itself back at the constitutional court because the legislation does not comply with last year’s ruling, which stated “it is precisely because marriage plays such a profound role in terms of the way our society regards itself that the exclusion from the common law and Marriage Act of same-sex couples is so injurious, and that the foundation for the construction of new paradigms needs to be steadily and securely laid.”

A longtime gay rights activist, Betteridge says queer organizations have been unified in their opposition to the legislation, but adds that many queers are still scared or uncomfortable speaking publicly in favour of same-sex marriage.

Most of the country’s queer organizations have joined the Joint Working Group (JWG), an umbrella group of 17 LGBT organizations that has also written a letter to speaker Mbete-Kgositsile asking her to intervene. The JWG members have accused the government of not understanding how negative public perceptions of homosexuality are in South Africa and of creating a public consultation process that doesn’t take into account the danger homos face in openly discussing their sexuality. In Cape Town,pro-same-sex marriage demonstrations have been small, drawing approximately 50 people, although similar events in Pretoria have had bigger turnouts.

The letter addresses comments from the chair of the portfolio committee on home affairs, Patrick Chauke, who recently told a news reporter he was surprised that LGBT community members were invisible during hearings in village and rural areas.

“In taking the public hearings to remote areas such as villages and rural areas, where there are no gay and lesbian organizations in operation,” the JWG letter states, “[Chauke] disadvantaged the potential for LGBT organizations and individuals to raise their concerns with the bill. There are gay and lesbian people living in these areas, but they are understandably not publicly open about their sexual orientation; for them to come and speak at these hearings, in a climate of intolerance and without support, could pose a physical danger.”

Betteridge says that in South African townships, butch lesbians and effeminate men are vulnerable to rape or violent attacks. Among black South Africans, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the unspoken rule, and so queers who are out to family and friends but aren’t identifiably gay aren’t targeted as much.

Religious conservatives have also tried to exploit racial tensions during public hearings, branding queer blacks as “un-African” and denouncing white people for poisoning traditional values with “foreign” abominations. Betteridge says this divisive tactic has been somewhat effective in patriarchal South Africa.

But not all church groups are against equal rights. The secretary general of the South African Council Of Churches has called for the government to amend the Marriage Act in accordance with the Constitutional Court ruling and Betteridge says pagans have come out of the woodwork in favour of equal marriage.

In spite of the fiery rhetoric flying around parliament, religious groups are at least acknowledging the existence of queer and people — something they’ve long avoided.

“There are benefits to the debate, and the space that it has created on public platforms for discussion of LGBT issues,” says Betteridge. “The debate itself has also been a difficult one, and with many groups it is impossible to move beyond Bible-quoting to any real discourse. But on some level, I do think that most publicity has a benefit, even if it is as simple as letting people realize that there are other LGBT out there.”