Hard News by Russell Brown


Gaying Out

I have a quiz question. It is in the vein of "Which New Zealand Prime Minister opened the processes of government via the Official Information Act?" (Muldoon) and "for what party did the National Business Review advise its readers to vote in the 1972 general election?" (Values). It is: "Which New Zealand Prime Minister first held out the promise of same-sex civil unions?"

The answer, of course, is Jenny Shipley. In the course of an evening with Burton at the 1999 Hero Parade, she told the crowd that she had asked Ministry of Justice officials to prepare a report on official recognition of same-sex relationships. (In truth, Shipley had countenanced the idea of the relationship equality in Parliamentary debate the previous year, but the setting and timing of this promise gave it particular impact.)

A spokeswoman made it clear the following evening that the Prime Minister was not advocating gay marriage, but, in the words of John Armstrong's story, the report would investigate same-sex couples having "normal legal rights in matters of matrimonial property, adoption, inheritance and immigration."

I can't tell you what the report said, or even if it was delivered before that year's general election, but the following Wednesday, Shipley was bailed up in Parliament with a reminder that she had, a year before, voiced her opposition to amendments to de facto property legislation that gave property rights to people in same-sex relationships.

Those amendments came swiftly under Helen Clark's Labour government. Shipley responded by insisting that marriage itself be held separate: "National believes marriage represents a commitment and its sanctity should be recognised by law."

In 1999, no country in the world offered full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Even the Danes hedged around their "registration of partnership" with bans on church marriage, adoption and state funding of IVF services for same-sex couples.

And, indeed, getting through the civil unions legislation in Labour's second term was a torrid business. Shipley had given way to Bill English who was in turn toppled by Don Brash, who allowed himself to be co-opted into the cynical courting of what appeared to be a resurgent Christian conservative movement.

Yet it is fair to say now that even Parliament's moral conservatives would not seek to roll back civil unions. They are here for good, in both senses of that phrase. Society has not fallen into the abyss. The social goalposts have moved.

Yesterday, as is now the case every year, the Big Gay Out came to my suburb. Point Chevalier's Coyle Park is thronged with gay men and lesbians and their friends and families. You can't get a park for kilometres around. The food is very good, the entertainment slightly ropey and the vibe magnificently relaxed. And it's all sort of blazingly normal, in the sense that "normal" has extended to include drag queens, men in hot pants and punky young dykes (who are, it struck me, sometimes hard to distinguish from the roving gangs of straight girls)

The Prime Minister still turns up, and the Labour Party sends a small army of MPs.

What was said warrants some scrutiny. John Key cheerfully backed Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye's proposal for a revival of the Hero Parade as a Mardi Gras-style festival. And then, under questioning from Stephen Oates, he said something really bizarre:

Radio host Steven Oates invited Mr Key to his stall and asked him whether he would support civil unions if a conscience vote were held tomorrow.

"I voted against it last time. It was a very marginal call. But we're not going to face that again, so ..."

Mr Oates persisted, but Mr Key would not reveal his cards.

"I'm leaving it until my book. I know the answer, but just wait until my book," he said.

For fuck's sake, you're the Prime Minister. No, we are not going to "wait until your book" to get a direct answer to a simple question.

It was a weird and spineless response. In the end, all the Prime Minister could promise was that his government would not remove any of the relationship rights extended by previous governments.

Phil Goff, in his turn, declared that "There is still discrimination in the community," and thus much work to be done. But he was vague on what that work might be.

Actually, everyone knows what it is: full marriage equality. The legal rights (apart from those around adoption) are largely enshrined and what remains is of symbolic value -- but that symbolism is immensely important to some people. On a personal level, it is not important to me -- I'm in an unmarried relationship of 23 years' standing -- which is why I need to chivvy myself along on this.

The chances of such a move being raised as a government bill are zero. And I'd wager that it won't form part of a Labour manifesto this year: for a party nursing a tiny revival in its electoral fortunes, it would be too much like painting a big target on the party's collective back. Too many people remember how hard and nasty it was getting civil unions into law. There would be no new votes in marriage equality. But perhaps now is the time for the idea to be formalised into a private member's bill.

Such a bill does not need to be brought by a gay MP. We tend to forget that much of the hard work on marshalling support for civil unions was done by the commonly-reviled David Benson-Pope, who took a lot on his back through that time.

Contrary to certain predictions, the world did not end when civil unions became law. It will similarly fail to end if, and when, marriage equality becomes law too.

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