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Estelle Nagel Headshot

The Aftermath of Legalizing Gay Marriage in South Africa (Yes, America, This Will Happen to You)

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In the last few days, New Zealand and France became the 13th and 14th countries to legalize gay marriage, respectively. My home country, South Africa, legalized it in 2006, becoming the first African country to do so.

Although it was a positive move, it doesn't mean that South Africa is progressive enough for gay people to live their lives entirely without fear. As in many of the countries that have made the move to legalize gay marriage, the decision was met with a good deal of criticism: Internet forums were splashed with derogatory comments, sermons and prayer groups were devoted to seeing the law revoked, and gay people were persecuted as much as, if not more than, ever before. In 2008, Eudy Simelane, a player in the national female soccer team, was a victim of "corrective rape" (a phenomenon in which lesbian women are gang-raped in order to be "cured" of their homosexuality) and murder. And last week, police cautioned against a serial killer who may be targeting gay men in Johannesburg -- with some people lauding the killer a "hero."

This is partially why I follow the U.S. debate surrounding gay marriage with some interest. It's not because I'm gay but because I can't understand why there is so much straight hysteria surrounding the subject, with radicals blaming everything from Hurricane Sandy to the Boston Marathon bombing on Obama's support of gay marriage. "This is just the start," one man wrote on Facebook. "Who knows what will happen when the laws are actually passed?"

You know what will happen, right? It happened to South Africa, and it will happen to you.

Ready?

Wait for it...

A bunch of gay people will get married!

They will do so the same way straight couples have been doing for years: Privately, with their friends and family, without you ever having to know about it.

It's what has happened in South Africa. Gay people got married. The girl who came in third on Idols, the South African version of American Idol, got married. Two men got married in a traditional African ceremony, wearing animal skins and killing an ox so that their ancestors could bless their union. An avid rugby player I went to high school with got married to his partner, whom he met while traveling. A friend of mine from college is thinking of proposing to her longtime girlfriend. Gay people got married, and some got divorced, and some are living right across the road -- and my life has gone on as usual.

I understand the religious fears. I've heard the argument that the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah were "homosexual cities," and that God decided to firmly and mercilessly "smite" them with fire. Therefore, by "endorsing" gay marriage or homosexuality, we open ourselves up to fire and damnation -- a sort of condemnation by association scenario, I'm assuming. Well, that hasn't happened over here yet. Seven years on, and the whole gay marriage thing is still as mundane as straight marriage. It hasn't shaken the foundations of society, and there is no sign of fire raining down from the sky.

In other words, legalizing gay marriage will not make it easier to be a gay man, woman or couple. It's still a struggle, and a scandal, in many communities. My own friends who have come out have had a long, painful battle for acceptance. Some were able to open up to their parents in high school, some cracked under the pressure of bullying, and some are still grappling with the very idea of being "different" in their 30s. Some haven't spoken to their families in years. Some entered disastrous marriages with the opposite sex in order to "fit in."

Thus, legalizing gay marriage has not changed the landscape of South Africa in any way, shape or form. The only effect it has had has been on gay people themselves, and on a deeply personal level. It also won't make it any harder for you to be a straight man or woman, or to raise your children with your values. It won't change your life -- and it might not even change the lives of gay people.

You might therefore wonder why gay people would want the right to get married if it won't change anything. I've lived in the pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. I've seen people who didn't have the right to vote before 1994 go to the polls, year after year, and go home to the same shacks, in the same ill-protected, under-serviced slums, working the same jobs and going to the same subpar hospitals. Perhaps on the surface little has changed for that individual, but the right to vote has meant everything, even if it simply means that there is hope that things will improve for them in the future.

Living with someone for years, knowing them intimately and yet having to do so without being seen as that person's legitimate, legal partner, and without being able to make important legal decisions with and for that loved one, is dehumanizing in the same way that denying someone the right to vote for who will govern them or access to an education in their home language.

Legalizing gay marriage did not flip a magical switch that made our society more tolerant, but it was a very real gesture, a move in a direction where all people, no matter their sexual orientation, will be accepted for who they are, along with those whom they love.