On November 30, South Africa became the first country in Africa, and the fifth worldwide, to legalize same-sex marriages. The Civil Union Act was signed into effect by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a day ahead of the deadline set forth by the Constitutional Court to ensure equality for lesbians and gays.1 This was the final step in a process that started when the National Assembly passed the Civil Unions Bill with a vote of 230 to 41 on November 14, followed by passage in the National Council of Provinces on November 28. The bill provides for “voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnized and registered by either a marriage or a civil union,” without specifying whether they are opposite-sex or same-sex partnerships. The bill also offers both religious and civil officers an “opt-out” clause giving them the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples on moral grounds.2
The passage of the bill is very much in line with South Africa's progressive legislation towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, which was introduced in 1996, was the first in the world to specifically outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation , which has provided a powerful legal tool to gay rights activists .
Gay rights groups have welcomed the law, although there is criticism about the provisions that allow clergy and civil marriage officers to turn away couples for reasons of conscience. Keketso Maema, a lawyer for the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project said, “It's a bit disappointing. It feels like its one step forward and still another one step backwards.”3 Conversely, church groups have protested saying that the new law goes against South Africa's traditionally conservative stance on marriage. These groups argue that the issue should be put to a referendum as they believe that most South Africans would oppose the legalization of same-sex marriages.4
Same-sex civil unions also became legal in Mexico's federal district in November. Mexico City's assembly legalized same-sex civil unions on November 9 by a vote of 43-17, becoming the first jurisdiction to do so in Mexico's history. The law gives same-sex couples, as well as unmarried opposite-sex couples, the right to make medical decisions for their partners and to list their partners as beneficiaries of pensions and inheritances. The law's jurisdiction extends to the 9 million residents of Mexico's federal district.5
Supporters of the Mexico City law hope that the there could be a snowball effect, causing a measure to pass at the national level. Alejandro Brito, director of the activist group Letra S: Health, Sexuality, and AIDS, said, “This is a historic day, it will reinvigorate our movement.”6 However, the bill has been criticized by the Catholic Church and conservative civil groups who feel that legalization of same-sex marriages is a direct attack against the family. The Mexican Bishop's Council has issued statements warning that the law is just the first step on the road to legalizing gay marriages and adoptions by gays across the country, while the conservative pro-family group, the National Parents Union, has characterized the new law as “aberrant.”7
A similar bill is being debated by lawmakers in Mexico's northern state of Coahuila, which borders Texas.8
- Clare Nullis, “Same-Sex Marriage Law Takes Effect in S. Africa,” Washington Post , 01 December 2006,A20. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/30/AR2006113001370.html>.
- South Africa Bill Approves Same-Sex Marriage , CNN (12 November 2006), accessed 21 November 2006, <http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/11/14/safrica.gay.marriage.ap/index.html>.
- South Africa to have Gay Weddings , BBC (12 January 2006), accessed 20 November 2006, <http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4487756.stm>.
- Manuel Roig-Franzia, “Mexico City Officials Legalize Gay Unions,” Washington Post , 10 November 2006, A24, accessed 10 November 2006, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/09/AR2006110901880.html>.
- “ Mexico City Legislature Approves Law Recognizing Gay Civil Unions,” International Herald Tribune , (09 November 2006), accessed 27 November 2006, <http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/11/10/america/LA_GEN_Mexico_Gay_Unions.php>.
- “Mexico: ‘Si' to gay civil union”, CNN (10 November 2006),accessed 21 November 2006, <http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/americas/11/10/mexico.gay.ap/index.html>.