JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Vernon Gibbs and Tony Halls got hitched Friday in South Africa's first gay wedding, a day after the government made same-sex marriages legal.
The couple, who run a guest lodge and animal rehabilitation center on the southwestern coast, donned their game-ranger outfits and went down to the local home affairs office in the town of George.
In front of marriage officer Petro Kruger they exchanged rings and were pronounced a married couple.
"It was so amazing. So quick and easy. I can't believe it. I am so happy," said Gibbs.
South Africa on Thursday became the first country in Africa, and only the fifth in the world, to legalize same-sex marriages, despite opposition from political parties and religious groups.
The Civil Union Act went into effect a day ahead of the Dec. 1 deadline set by the country's Constitutional Court, which required the marriage law be changed to ensure equality for gays and lesbians.
As some couples began hurrying to make preparations for long-awaited nuptials, jewelry shops, hotels and entrepreneurs were offering "pink wedding" services.
Jacky Mashapu, a spokesman for the Home Affairs Ministry, where couples will need to apply for permission to wed, said George had been the site of the first two gay weddings — Gibbs and Hart at 11 a.m. and another one at 2 p.m. Details of the second one are not yet known.
Mashapu said they were still trying to ascertain how many applications had been made to offices across the country.
In the meantime, Janine Pressman with the Glorious Light Metropolitan Community Churches in Pretoria on Friday became the first pastor allowed to perform marriages under the act. She is expected to marry a Johannesburg couple in a private ceremony on Saturday.
But Gibbs and Halls are not keeping their union secret — and it would be hard to suppress such excitement.
Too busy partying to answer the phone, the couple's voicemail message proudly states that they are the first gay couple to get married in South Africa and thanks well-wishers for all the calls.
The couple, who have been together nine years, made headlines last year when they clashed with local church members who objected to their opening their lodge to gay tourists.
The lodge was vandalized five times and in response a gay militant group threatened to destroy the church building. The church later apologized and the couple withdrew criminal charges.
"After all the trouble it was so amazing to be able to do something like this and everyone was so supportive," Gibbs said.
"We have been planning indirectly for this for about eight months but it was only last night that we got confirmation from home affairs that they could do it today," he said.
Gibbs said their wedding was attended by some friends, students he trains and a number of curious onlookers who crowded into the small hall to witness the historic event.
"We couldn't stop people coming in and taking pictures," he said.
He said it was also significant that South Africa's first gay marriage had taken place on World Aids Day — the happy couple and many of the guests wore red ribbons to mark the day.
"This marriage is not just for Tony and I. It is for all HIV/AIDS sufferers and gay people who have experienced discrimination," he said.
Gibbs said advantages of being married included greater legal protection as well as better medical aid and pension benefits.
But for him, marriage is about much more.
"Marriage means a lifetime commitment. It means to cherish, obey, love, honor. It means through sickness and health. All those relevant words I never thought would be for me," he said.