We did not even consider tying the knot legally, even though we were jubilant with gay people in South Africa when the new “Civil Union” Bill was passed through parliament. Then we started wondering how our pension schemes would view our living-together-for-twenty-years state, should one of us kick the bucket. After all, I was 50…’
After a long battle with search engines, I find a highly acclaimed gay judge on the web (a different one to the one I was weaving). Wonder upon wonder, she replies to my desperate cry for help and I send her my pension scheme rules, which she studies. Her advice: “Make it legal.”
I phone the Department of Home affairs in a neighbouring town. When you are in the closet, you do not step out in your home town for such an occasion. After an initial misunderstanding, I obtain the direct number of the person dealing with “Civil Unions.” I phone and get what sounds like an Afrikaans-speaking, helpful young woman on the line. A sigh of relief – I can explain in my home language. Lynette (not her real name) asks about what feels like both of our pedigrees and family trees and explains that the woman doing “Civil Unions,” only comes to their offices on Fridays and that she first conducts regular weddings before (unusual?) Civil Unions after 12:00. I make an appointment for Friday, 1 February 2010 at 12:00, three months in advance, but still, an appointment is an appointment. Step one – check.
Step two: have passport photos taken. We look like the Addams family on a bad day, but hey, they are meant for obscure forms on file somewhere and the more unrecognizable, the better. Step 2 – check.
Eish (local expression of disdain), then the difficult step: find two witnesses. Luckily the school friend I had come out to, still lives in the same town and she had known B, my partner and Almost-spouse, for many years. We make an appointment with her to ask for a “huge favour” and meet at a coffee shop. You don’t discuss heavy topics like marriage over a phone! She immediately agrees to act as witness – was expecting us to ask something like this! She would meet us at Home Affairs on the appointed day. Relief – one witness down, but things are getting tougher.
We consider, weigh and discard options. The only other person who knows we life together as partners, lives in Johannesburg. There is nobody left who knows for real without stepping out of the closet. We have few friends and family and family are out of the equation – hopelessly too conservative and judgmental. My cousin, who might agree, is out of town. We hesitantly decide (time is running out!) to ask an older acquaintance. We meet her for breakfast and very diplomatically paint the scene: we emphasize the financial aspect, how we would not be able to claim each other’s pensions after years of “friendship.” Pandora agrees and we sigh a huge sigh of relief – the second witness has been found – or so we thought.
A few days later, Pandora phones. She had consulted her diary and “discovered” that she had an appointment with her doctor on that date and that she cannot postpone the appointment. Almost-spouse and I are stunned and in despair – what now? But somewhere there is a false note in her tune… Almost-spouse phones Pandora’s doctor and inquires at what time Pandora is seeing the doctor. Surprise! Pandora does not have an appointment on 1 February. “A friend in need is a friend indeed??” Pandora’s Box has opened and the bugs are escaping in hordes…
By this time, we both had taken leave from work for “business purposes” on the BIG DAY and time is running out. We decide to spill the beans to Almost-spouse’s sister and ask her if she would act as witness to the signing of an official document. By this time we are arranging a “shotgun” wedding” – the only difference is that the gun will be held against sister’s head, figuratively speaking. We decide to only tell her on the way to Home Affairs, that way she would be in shock and sign in a haze!
The “wedding day” arrives with fanfare – or so I thought when my phone woke me up. It is Lynette from Home Affairs, sounding very apologetic, explaining that the Home Affairs official would be taking a day’s leave due to “unforeseen circumstance.”
In despair I stutter, “But we have taken special leave from work…”
Lynette is embarrassed, but she is only the messenger. I assure her I am not upset with her, just very, very disappointed. By this time Almost-spouse had deduced from my side of the conversation what was being said and she is spewing fire. I am stunned, feeling nothing at all.
A few minutes later, my phone chirps again, Lynette again, This time she gives me the name and number of a woman in our town, who may conduct gay wedding ceremonies. Almost-spouse phones her and get Haley on the phone. She explains our dilemma. Haley explains that she does conduct spiritual gay weddings, but the sting in the tail is that she is not yet empowered to conduct legal ceremonies, she is awaiting approval from Home Affairs – why do we not have the spiritual ceremony while we are waiting?
Almost-spouse is firm in her denial – we have been committed to each other spiritually for 20 years already, even had out own private committal to each other in a chapel. Haley offers some advice – why do we not phone Mrs Davids from another neighbouring town? She might be able to assist.
I phone. The phone only rings. At last somebody answers.
“Hello?” Only this.
I ask, “May I speak to Mrs Davids, please?”
I am put though without another word. Mrs Davids answers and confirms that she may conduct civil unions, as she works for Home Affairs. She does also conduct civil unions in our own town. Before I can enquire or make an appointment, she ask me to phone again at 13:00, as she is on her way to court and gives me her mobile number.
I phone her at 13:00 on the dot. She answers, but asks me to phone back in ten minutes’ time, as she is in a meeting. I count off the minutes and phone again. I can barely hear her on the mobile and she gives me her direct office number. I phone the office number. The phone rings and rings. Is this our Civil Service?! I blow a fuse and send Mrs Davids a text message to phone me to make an appointment. She does not reply and I decide to cool my heels and phone again the next day – maybe she had an emergency to attend to…
Just after 08:00 the next day, I phone again. No reply at Mrs Davids’ number. Her mobile phone also rings and rings… My neck hairs start to raise and I phone the Home Affairs general number.
“Could I speak to Mrs Davids, please?”
“Uhh … she’s not working today.”
“When will she be in?”
“Uhhh … I don’t know…”
I slam down the phone in anger. Doors are slamming closed in our faces…
Almost-spouse phones Haley and tells her the whole tail. Maybe her documentation has arrived? Hopeful… Ha-ha. She already has six gay couples on her waiting list, we should phone back in a month’s time…
Almost-spouse (getting more and more almost), decides to phone Lynette again and tells a sympathetic Lynette the whole saga. Lynette informs her that Mrs Davids is the same person who would have conducted the ceremony on 1 February. Intrigue… Almost-spouse ask her if she could tell her between us and the telecommunications company, if the whole saga had to do with discrimination. Lynette denies it, Mrs Davids apparently had real unforeseen circumstances and she really is our only hope. Mrs Davids’s manager is however not keen on her travelling to our town.
Lynnette supplies Almost-spouse with contact details to speed up Haley’s case at Home Affairs – maybe, who knows? But Haley informs us that she had been unsuccessful at Home Affairs so many time, she gets a different response every time she inquires. But another inquiry won’t hurt… She asks us to keep her posted on any “progress.” Ha-ha.
By this time both of us have nerves so tense, you could play sonatas on them and we are in each other’s hair about trivialities all the time. I read about a gay couple getting married in the Western Cape and dream about flying there, but I am also prepared to forget the whole thing and just carry on “out of wedlock.” The four-legged children do not give a damn in any case. On the other hand we discuss flying to Johannesburg and getting married in a gay congregation. Dream on…
Then, wonder upon wonder, my phone rings and the angel Lynette informs me she had managed to trace Mrs Davids. She is working from home and we can phone her there. Almost-spouse phones again and manages to speak to her this time. She is travelling to our town the next day – do we want to have the ceremony then?! How would we be able to get leave from work and arrange for the witnesses to be present on such short notice? We make an appointment for two weeks later, 22 February at 11:00 – work and witnesses must agree with the new date, come what may.
I phone witness one, my friend, and luckily she is available on the new date. Now for the difficult one. My cousin is back from her travels and we decide to ask her – sister must stay in blissful ignorance for now, until she really needed to know. I phone my cousin and plead an oath of secrecy from her, with the option that if what I was going to ask, was against her principles, she could opt out, we would understand. My legs feel like rubber and my hands are sweaty. Cousin has no problem with my request, she agrees willingly. Why have we done this years ago? My legs give under me in relief and I sink onto the couch. After 20 years together, the family must have had suspected???
22 February 2010 arrives. We had again taken leave from work and cousin arrived the previous day to sleep over. My phone rings at 09:00 and Almost-spouse nearly has a heart attack – another cancellation? But it is my friend who confirms the time and place.
It is a hot, humid day. Sweat is running from my hairline. We leave half an hour early, Home Affairs is in the central business district and parking is an issue. I do not even see a traffic light turn red and speed across, my nerves shot. We find parking right next to the building. Immediately we are descended upon by opportunistic photographers’ assistants who want to take us to home-made stalls where we can have our photos taken. I politely inform them we already have photos, thank you.
My friend arrives and we enter the Home Affairs building, armed with the name of the person acting as Mrs Davids contact. Security is strict at the entrance, our bags are X-rayed in a machine and we walk though metal-detectors.
It is fairly quiet inside. At Information we are curtly told to report to security with a vague indication of where we would find said security. We drift in the general direction and see a sign “Marriage licences.” We enter though this door, surely this must be the right place. Another sign reads “Wedding chapel, ” this MUST be the right place. It is a small hall and seats are set out for a ceremony. I weigh the number of seats against our two witnesses and find it totally out of proportion. However, the hall is unoccupied and we slink though a second door. This time it is a small office with a table and chair. Opposite the table are two chairs and on top of the table is a fake wedding cake in three layers – decorated with bows and flowers, setting the atmosphere. For sure this must be the right place, but there is nobody in sight.
We drift out again and see a woman at a table on which a huge book is lying. She has “Security” embroidered on her jersey. Almost-spouse signs us in and we are taken though a door with a number of security locks towards Mrs Groenewald, our contact.
This time the office is huge with a few open-plan desk where officials are entering data onto computers at their leisure. Mrs Groenewald is not aware of our appointment, but ask us to take a seat, Mrs Davids has not arrived yet. It is five to eleven and my throat is constricted – what else can go wrong? Mrs Groenewald points towards some easy chairs and we sink into them, lambs to the slaughter. We try and make small talk while we scout the office. There are photos of the State President, Thabo Mbeki, and two other people, one probably the Minister of Home Affairs, but I cannot recall her name. The flag of the country hangs limp as the day next to them. Everywhere posters warn, “Use your sick leave responsibly.”
We wait. 11:15 and no sign of Mrs Davids. We watch as decrepit old people are made to pose against a wall by a hugely overweight female official with an equally huge camera. Every now and then a person wanders past and we look up hopefully: will this be Mrs Davids? Then Mrs Groenewald calls Almost-spouse, Mrs Davids is on the phone. She had to take a detour to a neighbouring town, but she is on her way. We wait, what else is there to do? My few grey hairs are increasing by the minute, my friend had to get back to work. A male gay couple arrives for their 12:00 appointment. They chat with their two witnesses and ignore is. So much for solidarity…
At last, at 12:30, Mrs Davids storms in. She does not even need to introduce herself, it can only be her carrying folders under her arm and becking us to follow her and her windblown hair. She mentions to Almost-spouse that she had been speeding at 160 km/h (our speed limit at most is 120 km/h). We follow, sheep to the shepherd, down a passage to a deserted, dark committee room with brand new tables and chairs, a white board still in its plastic cover, leaning against a wall, waiting to be bolted to the wall. A wooden bar divides the walls in two, the bottom half painted lime green. It is stuffy and dusty.
Mrs Davids is friendly, but clearly rushed, She shakes off her jacket and wants to drink from the water in a carafe, but the only glass is dirty. My throat is just as dry and I see a vision of a cold beer. My friend offers to go and look for a clean glass and disappears. Mrs Davids, whose name is Mary, commands Almost-spouse to help her fill in forms so that we can get to the real ceremony and frantically starts writing in her book. Luckily we had faxed though our Identifications and there is no need to make copies of our ID books. The ID books of Spouse A (me), and Spouse B (Almost-spouse), Witness 1 and Witness 2, flies to and fro as Mary checks them and writes something in her book. Mary’s dress keeps on revealing cleavage and she coyly folds it back. I smile inwardly about the curves she wants to hide, possibly very ill at easy in the company of “gay” women. But then why dress like that?!
My friend appears with the carafe and a clean glass. She even managed to get ice cubes and Mary drinks like a camel on a long desert trip.
The next step is pasting our photos in Mary’s book. Spouse A and Spouse B (in colour!) are glued into the book. We all now have to sign forms. I stop counting at three. The form in Mary’s book has 3 pages and 2 separate “abridged marriage certificates.” Mary hauls out an ink pad and Spouses A and B have to roll our thumbs on the pad and enter our prints into the book.
“Relax,” Mary says, but my thumb stays erect (no pun intended). In the rush, we both make two imprints of our right thumbs and the process has to be repeated with our left thumbs. Eight thumb prints later, the process is finished. Mary finalizes the process with an official stamp at the bottom. Red tape over.
We look around hesitantly and Mary asks us to stand next to each other opposite her at the table. She shrugs on her black jacket and starts reading, “Do you,” and reads my name, “solemnly declare that you …” She spits out the rest of the sentence almost as one phrase and looks at me expectantly.
“I do,” I manage to stutter and she nods in approval. Then it is Almost-spouse’s turn to mumble, “I do.” I wonder what she feels like, my own emotions in such a turmoil, I cannot settle on one one in this unreal situation.
Then we have to exchange rings. Mary solemnly declares us legally married. We kiss, a quick peck on the lips and my friend and cousin hug and kiss us. It is over.
Mary smiles and says we have to go and celebrate and we assure her we already have an appointment for that evening. Her smile is relieved, like mine. It is 13:00 when we walk out into the heat and humidity, but I do not care. At last, we are legally married, even though it was not in the wedding chapel. We will stay second class citizens in the eyes of the world.
Married to a woman, but still I cannot find happiness. Something is still off…