This week saw Parliament approve historic legislation that will give same-sex couples the right to marry: the first time in Africa.

Just like that – with an impressive 230 votes in favour, 41 against and 3 abstentions – South Africa became only the fifth country in the world to give its gay citizens full and comprehensive human rights.

Shortly before the vote, lawmakers made concessions to raise the status of the unions outlined in the Bill to that of marriage – pleasing many activists who initially opposed it. Furthermore, all signs point to its upcoming passage through The National Council of Provinces and its signing by the President as being mere formalities. It is indeed cause for celebration.

But, while sipping that glass of champagne and making plans for the future, do consider some of the realities that came to light in the long process of making the Civil Union Bill law. Make no mistake, this was not a law that the majority of South Africans approved of. It was legislation that came into being because of the demands of our progressive Constitution. And its painful evolution revealed the vast and frightening antagonism towards gays and lesbians still prevalent in our country.

While we may marvel at the overwhelming scale of the vote in Parliament bear in mind that the ANC – which holds the majority of seats in that hallowed institution – forced its parliamentarians to vote for the Bill. Constrained by last year’s Constitutional Court ruling, and aware that many MPs would of their own free will vote against it, the party pulled rank. All had to attend, and all had to toe the party line.

“It is difficult to comprehend; this notion that we are something to be feared…”

The chaotic public hearings prior to the Bill being tabled in Parliament exposed an aggressive opposition among much of the public towards our demand for the right to marry. Misdirected anger, confusion about what the Bill proposed, and a general ignorance of the fact that we live in a country in which there is separation between church and state was expressed in vitriol and abuse. Few seemed to realise that the bill would only impact on civil marriage, and not compel any religious order to bless these unions.

The groundswell of vocal resistance to same-sex marriage cracked the fine and fragile veneer of social acceptance that many of us had come to believe in. Those who live in well-to-do suburbs rarely come across brazen homophobia – but here it was for all to see: raw and unflinching.

It seems clear that church leaders and many ordinary people are terribly fearful of our being allowed to marry. It is as if the extension of this right to us somehow diminishes their own unions. It is difficult to comprehend; this notion that we are something to be feared, that we aim to somehow destroy and corrupt the family. It is as if we are outside of family and society. It is truly perplexing and tragically sad.

So while some of us consider if we’d ever want to ‘walk down the aisle’, and others muse on wedding venues and who to invite, think about how you can make a difference in changing the hearts and minds of those who fear us. Laws can and will only do so much – the rest is up to all of us.

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