JARED DE CANHA
Facebook newsfeeds have been a flurry of colours since the announcement that the United States would join the likes of Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand in the growing group of countries who have legalised same-sex marriages. From the first of these in 2001, this group has expanded and now boasts 20 members after the US joined its ranks on 26 June 2015.
How same-sex marriages were legalised in the US
In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that the US constitution provided the right of marriage to same-sex couples. This close decision, reached by a 5 to 4 vote, was reached after interpreting the constitution to guarantee equal protection under the law, meaning that no state could prohibit same-sex marriages. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a member of the five-judge majority, explained his reasoning for voting in the affirmative by saying that the US constitution granted same-sex couples the right to “equal dignity in the eyes of the law”. The judge also wrote that “without the recognition, stability and predictability” that marriage offers, children who live in same-sex families will suffer the “stigma of knowing that their families are somehow lesser”.
This ruling followed the efforts of gay rights advocates in the US through various legal battles, who first tasted success in 2004 when Massachusetts became the first state to legalise same-sex marriages. The ruling has also been regarded as the most expansive ruling to change marriage rights in the US since the decision in Loving v Virginia in 1967, which allowed for interracial marriages.
Immediately after the announcement of the decision, same-sex couples across many of the states where gay marriage had been previously banned flooded their County Clerks’ offices for marriage licences. Officials in these states agreed to respect the decision and immediately issued marriage licences, with the exception of Louisiana and Mississippi who vowed to wait for the legal formalities to be in place before issuing marriage licences. They will thus rely on the 25 day period which is afforded for Supreme Court rulings to take effect.
In a statement made in the White House rose garden after the ruling, US President Barack Obama viewed the ruling as a “victory for America”. Obama, who is the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage, stated that the “decision affirmed what millions of Americans already believed in their hearts”. The US president also said that all Americans were freer when they are all “treated as equals”. The White House also commemorated the court’s decision when it was lit up in rainbow colours at nightfall as a symbol of gay pride.
The Irish Referendum
Ireland also made headlines this year after they became the first country in the world to approve the right of freedom of marriage by popular referendum. After months of campaigning from many groups in Ireland under the “Yes Equality” campaign, Ireland officially donned their rainbow colours on 22 May 2015 and became the 19th country in the world to legalise same-sex marriages. The strong majority vote of approximately 62% in favour of same-sex marriages made Ireland the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through the ballot box.
The position here at home
South Africa can truly be regarded as a “rainbow nation” after being the first country in Africa, the first in the southern hemisphere and the fifth country globally to legalise same-sex marriage in 2006. After the ruling by the Constitutional Court in the Fourie case, the court held that denying same-sex couples the right to marry one another violated the South African Constitution and its core values of human dignity, equality and freedom. Same-sex couples in this country can now be married in terms of the Civil Union Act, which was promulgated by the legislature in response to the court’s decision to rectify our law.
Elsewhere in Africa
On 29 June 2015 Mozambique decriminalised homosexuality through the introduction of a new penal code, which repealed the former colonial-era laws that prohibited same-sex relationships. The former code placed a punishment of up to three years of hard labour on anyone found in contravention of the law. The scrapping of this colonial law has been seen as a victory for campaigners for gay rights in Africa.
The majority of African states across the continent, however, do not recognise the rights of homosexuals. This is summarised on the website of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), who have listed the countries which recognise the sexual activities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersexual people (LGBTI) as criminal offences. Over 30 of the African countries listed have anti-homosexual laws, including Angola, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Uganda.
Looking further north, Morocco recently made international headlines after videos released onto social media showed a crowd attacking a presumed homosexual man in public due to his appearance. This controversy came hot on the heels of another controversy on 19 June, where two men were imprisoned for four months after kissing in public in the city of Rabat.
In nearby Mauritania, any acts of homosexuality are punishable by death, according to their law.
All eyes on Australia
The LGBTI community in Australia have welcomed the US Supreme Court’s ruling and hope to use this opportunity to carry the momentum of the decisions in Ireland and the US forward down under. Various online campaigns such as #TeamEqual and #LoveCantWait have also been launched by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who were the largest marriage equality advocacy group in the US. The HRC have decided to focus the world’s attention onto the lack of marriage equality in Australia.
With the increase in the number of countries coming forward to advocate equal rights for all their citizens, it seems as though the rainbow of tolerance and love is set to shine brightly for generations to come.
Photo: Brendan Fraser