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Awaiting a Full Embrace of Same-Sex Weddings

The New York Times

27 July 2010 - Original Source

CAPE TOWN — It was another picture-perfect wedding at the foot of Table Mountain, recalled the Rev. Daniel Brits. Inside the chapel, a female vocalist sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” before he led the nervous couple through their vows surrounded by family and friends a few weeks ago.

That the betrothed were two men gave few of the guests pause. For Mr. Brits, it was all in a day’s work. After all, he says, he has married more than 500 gay couples in the four years since South Africa became the first country in the Southern Hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage. (This month, Argentina became the second.)

More than 3,000 same-sex couples have been married in South Africa, with about half of those couples including at least one foreigner, the government says. The law permitting same-sex marriage has begun to pave the way for greater tolerance of homosexuality, advocates contend, and the weddings have provided a shot in the arm to companies catering to those tying the knot.

“Apartheid suppressed tolerance, but once that was out of the way our society has moved so fast and most people just go with the flow,” said Mr. Brits, a nondenominational minister. 

The weddings frequently take place on Table Mountain, the vast, flat-topped landmark that looms over the city, and at hotels like the 12 Apostles, a resort perched on a cliff above the sea where Arianne McClellan and her bride, both London police officers, said “I do” last fall. The couple chose Cape Town for its stunning natural beauty and gay-friendly culture.

The legal protections in South Africa stand in stark contrast to the antigay sentiment that has recently been on display elsewhere in Africa, whether in the trial of a gay couple in Malawi or the legislative proposal in Uganda to make homosexuality a capital crime in some cases.

But even as human rights advocates praise the country’s legal openness and the economic windfall that has accompanied same-sex nuptial tourism, they fret that the law, like so much of the new South Africa’s promise and prosperity, has bypassed many of the country’s citizens, particularly in the black majority.

Anthony Manion, director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, said the law had largely failed to benefit blacks living in the impoverished townships that stretch for miles outside cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg. In them, gay men and lesbians often face unabashed discrimination and violence; advocates say that a growing number of lesbians have become victims of so-called corrective rapes aimed at ridding them of their sexual orientation.

“The vast majority of gay people in South Africa are still shut off from marrying the partner of their choice because of the deep economic inequality, social isolation and cultural exclusion,” Mr. Manion said.

He and others complain that the focus on wedding cakes and floral arrangements distracts attention from far more serious challenges.