While the U.S. only recently legalized same-sex marriage, South Africa has been at the forefront of progressive sexual and gender policy for nearly two decades. Obergefell v. Hodges marks a tremendous accomplishment in U.S. history, and its effects can move beyond speculation when placed in conversation with South Africa. In shifting from apartheid theocracy to secular democracy, South African policy has already contended with questions of whether clergy should be compelled to marry same-sex couples against their conscience, whether homophobia or homosexuality is a Western import, and how bureaucratic same-sex marriage procedures fail to account for trans and intersex people. Coming from a “decolonial” perspective, I argue that South Africa’s concrete accomplishments and ongoing challenges suggest Obergefell v. Hodges does not mark a “won and done” moment for the United States. Instead of celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage as the triumph of progressive politics, the U.S. might anticipate a conservative religious backlash. Thus, rather than buttoning up a hard-won victory, the legalization of same-sex marriage initiates a long series of negotiations. Academic analysis of recent events in South Africa’s history poses a helpful aid for the United States, where we presently inhabit a rare occasion for rigorous engagement in academic, religious, and activist communities.
In 1996, South Africa became the first country to constitutionally protect LGBTIQ people against discrimination; in 1999 it issued immigration rights, benefits, and pensions to same-sex couples; in 2002 it legalized adoption for same-sex couples; and in 2006 it became the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Taken together, these changes have positioned South Africa at the forefront of progressive sexual and gender policy for nearly two decades.
However, during this time LGBTIQ South Africans faced increased gender-based violence and homicide – including the so-called “corrective” or “curative” rape of black lesbians and trans men. The Human Rights Watch Report (2011) deemed South Africa the “rape capital of the world,” where black lesbian and trans men are told “we’ll show you you’re a woman” while being assaulted. As such, scholars and activists struggle to understand why democratic South Africa has the highest rates of rape and homicide globally.
It has been argued that religion motivates these hate crimes, perhaps in part because religious commitments surprisingly increased after apartheid. While the correlation between religion and hate crimes has not been documented or corroborated, what is evident is that same-sex couples are choosing to marry according to custom – meaning that they are preserving traditions such as lobola “bride prices” – more frequently than innovating queer kinship relations. My research uniquely focuses on the role of religion in this gender-based violence and the implementation of same-sex marriage.
The evidence presented in this paper disrupts the binary that secular progressive policy adequately secures sexual liberation over and against Christianity. While progressive policy is a helpful accessory, it is not an indication of full recognition or equity for LGBTIQ citizens. In pursuing marriages officially recognized by their churches, government, and tribal groups, same-sex couples in South Africa demonstrate the post-colonial complexities particular to this moment in history. In light of this research, I assert that scholars, religious groups, and activists in the U.S. must seize this occasion to influence the future of civil and religious marriage because Obergefell v. Hodges has opened a long as series of negotiations ripe for intervention.