Our big fat gay wedding

2009-09-26 00:00

“I, BRENDON, take you, Andrew, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” After placing the titanium wedding band on Andrew’s left hand, Brendon will have committed himself to Andrew for life.

At a traditional wedding, this is usually where the marriage officer announces: “By the power invested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

However, when two men marry chances are that none of them would take being called the “wife” very lightly. This is why Weekend Witness has decided to explore what it takes to plan a gay wedding: the legalities, technicalities … and the wording of course.

Sure, gay weddings aren’t that far off from heterosexual ones; you’d have to choose your wedding colours, dresses (or suits – depending on your preference), scout for a caterer, get the napkins, souvenirs, horse-drawn carriage, champagne, ice sculpture, cake …

It’s all about making choices.

According to the Reverend Chris Verster, who has conducted close to 100 gay weddings since the Civil Unions Act was passed in 2006, gay weddings offer a lot of freedom in terms of formalities.

“There is a lot more freedom because it is not your traditional wedding set-up,” she said. “A lot of people stick to what they know, but others do things completely different.”

Pietermaritzburg newlyweds Brendon and Andrew Newton-Clarke did precisely this when they decided to tie the knot after six years together.

Theirs was an intimate outdoor ceremony at the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens earlier this month with a guest list of about 60.

The proceedings took place on the bank of the lake. Each drafted their own vows, and each was walked down the aisle by their long-time friends, a lesbian couple that they’ve known almost as long as they’ve been together.

“It would’ve been nice for us if our dads had walked us down the aisle, but we’ve always said that Jacky and Lisa would do it. We decided that we’d be each other’s best people long before any of us got married,” said Andrew.

Verster said that in the three years that she’s been officiating at gay weddings, she has seen couples walking in together, meeting at the altar, and even doing the traditional thing where one partner is escorted in and handed to the other at the altar.

“People assume that people take on roles in a gay relationship,” she said. “They assume that one will be the wife and the other, the husband. In some cases this is true, but most of the time, especially with the younger generation, partners are equal.”

Equality is the very reason that Andrew and Brendon decided to get hitched in the first place. “We made the decision to commit to each other a long time ago, it was just time for us to make it public; to make it legal,” said Andrew.

“If we were not married, we would not be able to enjoy the same things that married couples do,” said Brendon. “Medical aid, banks … They wouldn’t recognise my other half as my spouse if we hadn’t married, no matter how long we’ve been together as a couple.”

They are not technically married, however, but rather joined as a civil union.

“The person who conducted our ceremony had to ask us, as required by law, whether or not we wanted to enter a marriage or a civil union,” Brendon said. “We chose a civil union because we do not want to offend anyone because of their religious beliefs and definition of what a marriage is.”

Brendon, who comes from a Christian background, said this is also why they opted not to go the religious route. “Look, at the end of the day this is not us trying to throw it in anyone’s face. We are just expressing our love for each other, but we respect other people’s views and beliefs.”

However, a religious wedding is an option for gay couples. By May 2007, 17 South African churches, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa and the African Church of Truth, were given the go- ahead to conduct same-sex weddings.

Our newlyweds were extra careful not to overstep any markers — in fact, they signed the necessary documentation at home before the ceremony to make sure that their union was 100% lawful.

“It says that you must either get married at a public office or at a private residence,” said Andrew. “And you have to leave your front gate and front door open, just in case somebody has any objections.”

However, Verster said that they could have signed the papers at the venue if they wanted to. “It says that if a venue is assigned with the purpose of being a wedding venue then you can conduct it there,” she said, “just as long as the papers are signed indoors.”

She also said that the only legal grounds to object to a civil union or marriage is if one partner is already married, if the persons involved are close family, and if a step-parent is planning on marrying their stepchild.

After the ceremony guests were treated to a champagne breakfast at the nearby reception area, which was decorated with blue and green fabric and white roses.

When the couple danced their first dance and cut the cake, it seemed as though everything was smooth sailing, but as with any other wedding, this was not entirely true.

“Brendon had a bad case of bronchitis for two days before the wedding … [and] the lady who did the flowers said there were no roses any­where in Maritzburg the day before. But she managed to get them from I don’t know where,” said Andrew.

“The flowers were not crucial,” he added. “We weren’t going stop the wedding because there weren’t any roses. It was our day. It was the best day of my life.”

“We could have just gotten married at Home Affairs — but what’s the fun in that?” added Brendon. “I have sat in weddings all my life thinking: I’m never going to be able to do this. So when the law changed, I thought: why the heck not?”

In fact, since the act was passed, close to 2 000 gay couples have decided to do the same.

“Why should I be embarrassed to say I love Brendon?” said Andrew. “He is my life.”

With that said and as the marriage officer put it on their big day: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce the Newton-Clarks.”

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