A State of Doubleness – Ten years of Same-Sex Marriage in South Africa

South Africa is credited for having one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. This is partly because of the inclusion of sexual minorities protection against discrimination along with race, religion and gender in the constitution. The progressive laws in South Africa lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage amongst other legislations. Although the country has progressive laws, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and intersex (LGBTI) people’s lived realities mostly do not mirror the progressive laws. It is in this context that I explore same-sex marriage in South Africa by speaking to married same-sex couples. Married same-sex couples are grappling with what it means to be in a same-sex relationship and married in the South African context. The legalization of same-sex marriage enables same-sex couples to marry, but it also necessitates that same-sex couples think about what does marriage mean to them. If they marry they are forced to think about how to “do” marriage. This inevitably necessitates an engagement with the history of the institution, whether to partake in its norms or to reject them. It is evident that married same-sex couples inhabit a complex world where they have to navigate hostile heteronormative families of origin, their heteronormative communities, all while trying to create a life for themselves. Same-sex couples like most LGBTI people in South Africa live in world that is structured by heterosexist institutions. The daily navigation of same-sex couples in this society is in collision with heteronormative institutions, which compels me to ask; how do married same-sex couples navigate this world? My contention is that same-sex couples experience a sense of doubleness as they navigate South African society as married couples. Same-sex marriage is experienced as doubleness because it is at once assimilationist and subversive in the South African context. I explore the tension created by the state of doubleness experienced by same-sex couples between queerness and the (potential) loss of queerness through marriage. Married same-sex couples in South Africa are not just assimilationists to the institution of marriage, but they are also not rejecting it. Same-sex couples experience tension between balancing what they perceive as giving into societal norms like marriage and how to retain what they see as queer. The ways in which same-sex couples deal with the tension are divergent and reveal how couples themselves are figuring things out as they move along. One important way same-sex couples deal with the doubleness tension is to create a life for themselves that is forged out of what works for them as a couple from “traditional” marriage and to discard all that doesn’t work. There is a journey that same-sex couples undertake when they decide to get married. It is the couple’s journey of self-discovery. It is also navigating the latent homophobia within their families who supposedly “accept” them but the announcement of marriage awakens dormant homophobia, where couples that were accepted in their families as same-sex partners, suddenly experience backlash from their families when they want to marry. It is evident that marriage remains a contested institution. At the centre of the anxiety that is produced by same-sex couple’s intension to marry and then living as a married couple is the changing definition of marriage. What does marriage mean when same-sex couples can access it? Are heterosexuals no longer custodians of this institution? The tricky business with the backlash from family members is that heterosexuals are forced to re-examine what marriage means to them. What heterosexual family members have to deal with, whether they like it or not, is that marriage is not what it used to be. For me, this makes same-sex marriage subversive, and not just an assimilationist project because it unsettles the heteronormative order, this is especially so in conservative environments where marriage is held in high regard. It is in this environment that married same-sex couples experience a state of doubleness. State sanctioned same-sex marriage is a “new” phenomenon and 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of same-sex marriage in South Africa. After ten years of marriage, it might be a good time to look back and think through the past ten years. This paper is part of a bigger PhD research project to better understand the state of same-sex marriage in South Africa by asking why do same-sex couples decide to marry.


Part of panel What's Actually Happening After Marriage? LGBTQ Couples and Families
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00