n South African Journal on Human Rights - Race and gender in the Civil Union Act

Volume 23, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0258-7203



This article seeks to investigate some racial and gendered dimensions of the Civil Union Act. First, it looks at the social and cultural characteristics of those lesbian and gay couples who are allowed to conclude civil unions and the racial and cultural aspects of the institution itself. In aligning civil unions so completely with the institution of civil marriage, the Civil Union Act strengthens the position of marriage as the ideal for all other relationships and implies that other forms of marriage, in particular customary marriage, are inflexible and incapable of accommodating same-sex couples. This is directly contradicted by a body of social science evidence which shows how some African cultures have created spaces in which certain forms of same-sex activity are allowed, or simply ignored. Moreover, the Act is premised on a particular form of global gay identity which does not accord with the identities or practices of many African people who have same-sex relationships. The second part of the paper deals with gender. It argues that the acceptance of same-sex practices within African communities is often conditional upon the adoption of very stereotypically patriarchal roles and identities within these relationships. This is similar to the way in which the Civil Union Act reserves legal recognition for those same-sex relationships which mimic marriage. Finally, a lack of co-operation between gender activists and same-sex activists around the contents of the Act has resulted in a failure to focus simultaneously on gender and sexual orientation. This, in turn, has created the possibility of disadvantage, both for women and for people who have relationships with others of the same sex.

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