Changes to law will see ‘gay unfriendly’ officials forced to perform civil unions

2018-09-13 00:14

Tired of being turned away by “gay unfriendly” officials, members of the LGBTQI community can’t wait for the Civil Union Act to be amended.

The Civil Union Amendment Bill recently got the go-ahead from Parliament’s portfolio committee on home affairs when it recently adopted a motion of desirability on amending the Civil Union Act.

The act, passed in 2006, was hailed as a big victory for the LGBTQI-community as it extended marriage rights, albeit in the form of a civil union, to same-sex couples.

The euphoria over the act was short-lived as it did not necessarily mean a happily-ever-after for many same-sex couples who were turned away from certain branches of the department of home affairs.

For some, the road to Cope MP Deidre Carter’s private members’ bill was a long and often humiliating one.

For Sue* and Lia* it started off by being snubbed by a wedding venue Schoongezicht in Paarl.

After the couple went for a viewing and discussed dates and prices for the venue they asked whether the venue was “gay friendly”.

The management told them it most certainly was not. Sue recalled the moment as “incredibly humiliating”.

That was only the start of their troubles.

Sue told Parlybeat that officials sent her from pillar to post when she tried to find a home affairs branch where they could get married. She approached the Stellenbosch branch but was told “we do not do that here”.

“They told me to go to Bellville. There nobody assisted me, and I was sent from the one official to another. After an hour, I gave up and left. The situation left me discouraged and angry. At the Stellenbosch offices I felt like a second-class citizen,” she says.

“In Bellville, I insisted on speaking to someone in charge but the official told me the person was on a lunch break. I asked for a telephone number and the official told me they do not give out telephone numbers. I only got the general email address. This was just after our incident at Schoongezicht and by then I was so deflated because there already I learnt complaining gets you nowhere anyway.”

For the longest time, according to Sue, she never wanted to get married.

“I always maintained I don’t need papers to show who I love but it was important to Lia. As a Catholic, getting married was important to her but also because she feared that, should something happen to either of us, our families would keep us from money and property and funeral arrangements.”

Sue refer to her parents and sister as “gay hating”. “Both Lia and I have friends who lost loved ones whose families forced them to stand aside. Lia did not want that to happen to us.”

Last year, then minister of home affairs Hlengiwe Mkhize confirmed there were 1 130 designated marriage officers in her department and 421 of them had applied for exemption.

On couples being “turned away” she said it did not mean the service is not offered in many Home Affairs offices but that exemptions enabled the department to at least plan better.

She said her department had prepared a list of offices with marriage officers willing to solemnise same-sex marriages so people would know which offices to visit.

However, in response to a parliamentary question in 2013, then home affairs minister Naledi Pandor, said “all offices of the department of home affairs are required to have at least one marriage officer to perform same-sex marriages”.

Pandor said in offices where officials applied for exemption, the department should deploy a marriage officer willing to solemnise the civil union.

But, as couples like Sue and Lia can attest, this didn’t happen.

After their experiences in Stellenbosch and Bellville, Sue got hold of a list of home affairs branches where civil unions were solemnised.

“That is how we ended up at the Paarl branch where everything was done ‘matter of factly’ and our booking was fast and easy.”

On the day of their wedding at the Paarl office, they still had some trouble.

“The official at the door just looked at us and said we must wait outside – in the deaths and marriages queue. I told him we would be late and that he must let us in, but he wouldn’t budge. It was only when another couple arrived, that he let us in. I just got that feeling that he was discriminating against us because he was much happier to oblige when the straight couple showed up.”

But once they were inside, the experience was “a real joy”, Sue recalled.

“The marriage officer even asked us if we had personal vows. Our daughters were there, and she even waited for us to take pictures, smiled and congratulated us afterwards. It felt like a real wedding.”

All political parties, except for the ACDP, supported the proposed amendment of schedule 6 of the act. According to this schedule marriage officers employed in the public service and based on their personal and religious beliefs could not be compelled to solemnise a civil union. In terms of the act these marriage officers (magistrates and designated officials in the home affairs department) could raise their objections in writing to the minister and would so not be “compelled to solemnise such [a] civil union”.

Now, 12 years later, this may change with the Civil Union Amendment Bill that was introduced by Carter as a private members’ bill earlier this year.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on home affairs adopted a motion of desirability for this private members’ bill – which means the committee in principle agreed with the need for legislative amendments – and the bill would now go through the Parliamentary process which would include opportunities for public input.

Repealing this schedule would also affect other pieces of legislation, which the committee would deal with in their deliberations.

According to Sue it was a disgrace that civil servants could refuse to solemnise same-sex marriages based on their religious convictions.

“They are employed by the government and not the church. And it is the government’s law that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex or sexual preferences.”

Attempts to get comment from some of the marriage officers were unsuccessful.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union and the Public Service Association, which represent most of these officials, had mixed reactions to the proposed amendment.

Labour relations officer at the Public Service Association, Motjatji Maila, told ParlyBeat they already consulted with their members.

“They were not happy with it. The PSA’s view on the amendment is that marriage officers should be allowed to enjoy their constitutional right by exercising their conscience, religion and belief to solemnise a civil union between persons of the same-sex.”

Cosatu and Nehawu, however, supported the amendment.

Cosatu coordinator at Parliament, Matthew Parks, told ParlyBeat they supported the bill because it was ‘in line with the values of the Constitution”.

“Public servants serve the public. They do not have the right to choose which members of the public to serve as that would be discrimination.”

The bill will now be advertised to get public input.

* The couple asked for only their first names to be used.

This article is used with permission from ParlyBeat.

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May 19 2019