Love in the time of democracy

2014-03-02 14:00

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The mums are white lesbians, their adopted daughters are black.

Before 1994, this family would not have been allowed to exist.

In the week that being gay became even more dangerous in Uganda, this very modern family tells Charlotte Bauer Charlotte Bauer how democracy changed their lives.

Emilia Potenza and Lael Bethlehem got married twice.

The first wedding was a lavish event in 2000 with family and friends, and the second was in 2007 at the home affairs office in Edenvale, a year

after same-sex marriage became legal in South Africa.

The couple wore their same wedding outfits the second time around and blushingly told their friends not to buy more gifts.

Two witnesses and the couple’s daughters – Lulu, then six; and Thembi, just four months old at the time – made up the modest second wedding party.

Potenza and Bethlehem didn’t rubber-stamp their union just because, thanks to the passing of the Civil Union Act in 2006, they could.

It was because of something a social worker said when they applied to Johannesburg Child Welfare to adopt their second child. “When we were adopting Thembi,” says Potenza, “our social worker said: ‘If you were a heterosexual couple, we’d want you to be married.’”

The family lives in a light-filled house of curving glass and glossy timber in the liberal-posh Joburg ­suburb of Parkview.

Potenza (55) is the curator of exhibitions and education at the Apartheid Museum; and Bethlehem (46) manages investments for Hosken Consolidated Investments, a listed empowerment company whose major shareholder is the SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

They met in 1994 at the Yeoville ANC branch choir.

They remember it as a time when, in Bethlehem’s words: “It felt that everything holding us back because of prejudices about race, gender, sexuality, had been swept away. We sang that whole year.”

Potenza says: “It felt like we were busy becoming the most progressive country on earth.

We didn’t need to feel ashamed, we felt?...?glorious. We could do what would make us happy.”

They are as modern a family as their home full of local art, laptops and a serious coffee maker suggests.

When City Press photographer Leon Sadiki arrives, Lulu, now 12, and Thembi (6) put down their iPads to pose for pictures.

It is a bouncy session that includes a game of header-football led by Bethlehem (who played team soccer) and a dizzying number of star jumps on the trampoline.

Under apartheid, this family would not have been allowed to exist.

“None of this,” says Potenza, “would have been possible without democracy.”

“Look,” says Bethlehem, “we don’t wake up every day and think ‘we’re lesbians and our children are black’. But that’s the freedom we have now – to love each other and get on with our lives.”

Still, even in the 21st-century world of urban sophistication and suburban privilege that the couple are the first to admit they inhabit, their decision to adopt children of another race can spark more curiosity than Lulu and Thembi having two mums.

“People ask: ‘What about their culture?’ It’s a mistake to try to replicate ‘their’ culture because you don’t know what kind of family they’re from. On the other hand?...?they are black,” says Bethlehem.

From learning to deal with their daughters’ hair – “From when we got them as babies I rubbed their heads with a damp cloth to form their first dreads”, says ­Potenza – to the couple’s ongoing attempts to get the children to speak isiZulu, the pair want to be true to themselves yet mindful of their unusual diversity.

The whole family is taking isiZulu classes, with limited results so far. “None of us are anywhere near fluent,” they admit, “but we’ll keep trying.”

Last year, Potenza and Bethlehem bought a flat in Soweto to introduce their daughters to township life.

The family spends one weekend a month in the Jabulani complex.

“We go for supper on Vilakazi Street, we have birthday parties in Thokoza Park and when Nelson Mandela died, we all went to a memorial service at Regina Mundi church,” says Potenza.

For this family that has crossed so many borders of bias and bigotry, it’s easy to forget they also have to deal with plain adoption issues too.

Potenza says: “We’re not the tummy mummies of our children. They understand that. But we are their real parents because we look after them and love them every second of every day.”

It’s not so easy to forget that the rights of this modern family, born of democracy, can’t be treated lightly.

“We’re middle class and live in the suburbs so we don’t really experience prejudice,” says Potenza.

“But the reality of post-apartheid South Africa is that there are challenges to the vision of the Constitution. Hate crimes perpetrated against lesbians and gay men in townships are cause for grave concern, as is the

deafening silence from the government around that criminal behaviour.”

Bethlehem adds: “There’s no question that gay rights came on the back of the struggle against apartheid and would not have been won in isolation. We continually have to fight to maintain those rights, especially for those who don’t enjoy the same liberty as we do.”

» Modern Family is a series about 21st-century South African family life. It is part of our 20 Years of Democracy coverage throughout 2014

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