23/07/12
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Hollow Vows

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Gay marriage and why it somehow isn’t legal yet.

Argentina. Belgium. Canada. Portugal. Spain. These are a few of the countries whose ranks we are yet to join when it comes to marriage equality. We pride ourselves on being accepting and open-hearted, but our society just can’t seem to break the ‘equal but separate’ status quo. Some say that our politicians are holding us back, while others argue that it isn’t a priority, but for the thousands of non-heterosexual New Zealanders, those replies are a slap in the face. With that in mind, Salient brings you an overview of what it’s like to live and love (as a gay person) in God’s own… 

THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW:

Legally, there are few differences between civil unions and marriages. The Relationships Bill, which was passed shortly after the Civil Union Act, harmonised most of the benefits, protections, and responsibilities between marriages, civil unions, and de facto relationships. How these differences translate in to real-life applications is another story. According to VUW law lecturer Dean Knight, “civil unions aren’t as readily transportable internationally—recognition of civil union is rather ad hoc.

Unlike marriage, couples who want to get a civil union abroad face problems. You can elope to a Pacific island to get married. Civil unions only operate locally and NZ only recognises a handful of civil partnership regimes from overseas.”

Symbolically, civil unions remain the second choice option, languishing on a lower social tier than the “gold standard” that is marriage. Gay couples are a part of society, and naturally want access to the same institutions and ceremonies that their heterosexual siblings freely enjoy. Arguing that civil unions—and by implication, gay people—are separate but equal “sends the message that somehow same-sex relationships are not as deserving of recognition”.

Regardless, adoption remains a looming question. When asked whether or not the legal procedures for adoption differed between married straight couples and gay couples whose relationships have been recognised via civil unionship, Knight clarified the small print.

“Same-sex couples have found some mechanisms to protect their families caused by the ban on adoption for same-sex couples and there are some arrangements that can be made to give a same-sex partner some guardianship rights”. But the bottom line? “These arrangements are not as strong and  enduring as adoption.” Legally and ethically, gay adoption remains a sore spot, and while there are fewer than 200 non-family adoptions in New Zealand each year, around 80 per cent are intra-family. This describes family members and step-parents assuming parental responsibilities for children of immediate whanau or spouses.

The latest census information showed that over 3,000 kids lived in same-sex families. That’s 1,000 mothers and fathers who are legally prohibited from adopting their step- children, or gaining the same recognition and protection as their straight friends and neighbours.

This is a sad, yet hardly surprising state of affairs. As with any ‘controversial’ social issue, the end goal is usually achieved through small, incremental steps. But legal change is a long way off on the horizon. According to Knight, “the National led-government has made it clear that it’s not inclined to progress this issue. Its priorities lie in strengthening the economy and Christchurch earthquake recovery. That’s disappointing for the same-sex families affected, and an indictment on the competence of the Government.”

On National’s hypocritical approaches to issue-management, Knight points out that “the Government still finds time to progress legislation stripping prisons of rights to compensation and passing legislation restructuring the Families Commission. Surely a modern Government has the ability to multi-task and to progress a range of policy initiatives in its legislative programme.”

Although Knight and other socially-minded citizens have called on the Government to refer the issue of adoption to the Law Commission so that they can update their earlier reports, he remains dubious of the powers-that-be. “If the Government is willing—which, sadly, it’s not—there are ways to easily solve this problem.”

While some strides have been made, is there a correlation between advancing equal marriage and advancing adoption? Yes and no. Both topics entail discussions around what protections, benefits, and responsibilities apply to certain relationships. Knight points out that “it makes sense for them to be progressed in tandem. But one doesn’t solve the other”.

In other words, marriage equality won’t necessarily result in gay couples being able to adopt. “That depends on the interpretation of the Adoption Act. Even if gays are able to marry, I’m not sure that overcomes the nasty problem of the Adoption Act not contemplating same-sex parenting. While some folk have suggested gay marriage is a quick fix for gay adoption, I’m not so sure.”

So things are far from perfect. Although New Zealand doesn’t employ the convoluted and moralistic justifications that other nations use to outlaw gay marriage, we need to wonder whether, legally, it’s a matter of civil rights versus majority rules. Our country has outlawed discrimination on the basis of relationship status, but on the other hand, there are a variety of ways to recognise relationships while avoiding discrimination. We seem happy to uphold the double standard instead of seeking workable ways to integrate equal recognition for same-sex relationships, a blind spot which will no doubt have future law students scratching their heads in confusion.

Personally, Knight favours amalgamation of the Marriage Act and the Civil Union Act into one common piece of legislation called the Civil Marriage and Civil Union Act. This would allow both gay and straight people to choose whether to marry or enter a civil union. “And”, he concludes, “we could also remove the strange privilege churches presently enjoy to have their ministers automatically registered as marriage celebrants”. Hear hear.

THE POLITICAL PUZZLE:

Louisa Wall has been making the rounds in support of her marriage equality bill, and was happy to share her take on our political lack of cojones. As chair of Labour’s Rainbow Caucus, Wall believes that marriage and adoption equality legislation are pertinent issues for her community and has made it her prerogative to prioritise a member’s bill that addresses them.

When asked how she’d describe the current political climate towards marriage equality, Wall was cautiously optimistic. Citing the influence of Barack Obama’s recent declaration and of newly-elected French President Francois Hollande’s LGBT strides, she says that consequentially, John Key and David Shearer have said they would support her bill at first reading, if selected from the ballot. “It is also worth noting that the Maori Party and Green Party support marriage equality and both marriage and adoption equality were included in Labour’s 2011 election manifesto and have been endorsed at regional conferences this year.”

Be that as it may, many social issues that appear ‘controversial’ stay out of the political agenda. Salient asked if she thought that public support was great enough to make the parties pay attention; Wall reiterated her belief that “this is the right time for legislation to be passed and for the majority of politicians to vote for this legislation, given it will be a conscience vote for the House”.

“Marriage and adoption equality are issues of human rights and equality under the law for all New Zealanders”, she continues, “which is why my bill defines marriage between two people regardless of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity”. Wall’s bill is also careful to include clauses stipulating that same-sex couples be allowed to adopt jointly as spouses.

Labour and the Greens have made commitments to advocate for Rainbow causes. Notably, Kevin Hague also has a marriage equality bill in the running, which Wall is whole-heartedly supportive of. Additionally, Hague and Wall point to recent polls that disprove the Prime Minister’s assertion that “there isn’t any clamour for gay marriage”.

A One News TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll released last month highlighted that 63 per cent supported same-sex marriage, while Maori TV’s Native Affairs poll showed support at 76 per cent. Hague said recently that “it is time for New Zealand to amend our laws to reflect the change in society’s views on same- sex marriage”, adding that the Greens are the only party unanimously in favour of marriage equality.

As for National, Wall remains unimpressed with the Government’s track record. “I do not think the Government is doing all it can to support the needs and interests of our Rainbow Whanau and in fact, National Party Leader and Prime Minister Key has said he is ‘not personally opposed to gay marriage’ but it is not a priority for him, his party or his Government. This says it all really.” She stresses the importance of public discussion and emphasises the need to “focus on [Key’s]

commitment to voting for legislation at its first reading so at minimum there is a guarantee for public debate on marriage and to a lesser degree adoption equality”. “When this opportunity presents, as communities committed to human rights and equality for all, we need all people to have their say and to support the bills Kevin and I are advocating”. Of course, marriage equality must compete for mainstream attention alongside other pressing LGBT matters like child bullying, harassment, and youth suicide, all of which are symptoms of the greater problem surrounding gay rights and the importance placed on respecting differences from the default.

GREIG IN REAL LIFE:

For all the political statements and legal fodder, the impacts of marriage discrimination are still felt most dearly by those whose right to chose remains absent. Greig Wilson, husband and owner of popular nightspot and LGBT icon The Ivy Club and Bar, talked to us about the everyday effects of marriage inequality. Salient asked his opinion on civil unions and whether they were a step in the right direction or a way of side-stepping the larger issue of equal recognition. “I think civil unions were a band- aid solution at the time for what we really wanted, which was marriage, and I think it’s almost a kind of social evolution as a stepping stone to marriage. What will happen in twenty years time is that society will look back and go ‘gosh, isn’t it ridiculous how gays weren’t allowed to marry 20 years ago’. Just like we look back at smoking now and think, ‘I can’t believe we used to smoke in bars’”.

His remarks seem prophetic. Wilson sees adoption as an “issue of discrimination”. “It would open up other opportunities that we perhaps hadn’t been able to think about because of current legislation”, but he concedes the reality of the present situation. “From what I understand, the number of children that are available for adoption in NZs very low anyway”.

Others in the gay community regard marriage as a heterosexual, religious institution with inherently discriminatory connotations. They feel that because of its anti-gay standpoints, marriage isn’t something that the gay community should pursue as long as gay couples get the same rights as straight married couples. Wilson, who is respectful of that, points out that many secular straight people chose marriage because “it was the only form of partnership that was available at the time. From my point of view, I see marriage as religious, yes, but I think it just depends on the individual.”

Luckily, Wilson and his partner of 3-and-a-half years haven’t experienced public discrimination for being part of a gay couple. “We’ve never had any problem with mixing with heteros, most of our friends and family are straight and we have no problem mixing in with the mainstream. I think as time goes on, gays have become more accepted in society”. This has led him to believe that New Zealand society is ready to accept gay marriage. “It’s because we’ve got more gay people in Parliament, we’ve got some gay celebrities, and that’s slowly starting to normalise gay people and relationships. What we need is for an All Black to come out as gay. That would be great, wouldn’t it? I think New Zealand as a whole though is generally conservative. I spent a few years in London and England’s quite liberal. There’s a lot more visibility and that’s what we’re lacking here”.

Kiwi celebrities have been stepping up, as part of the WTF campaign, with celebrities like Jo Cotton and Fern Sutherland lending their support to the equal rights movement. On a local front, we can’t forget the hard work of grassroots organisations like Legalise Love, Rainbow Wellington, the Queer Avengers, and our very own Uni Q. From organising petitions and protests, to inspiring discussion, each of their small triumphs makes the cause more visible and exposes the ludicrousness of sexual discrimination.

So where does that leave us? Unsatisfied. Gay marriage is just the tip of the iceberg, but we’d rather crash in to it than make the effort to admit it’s there and swerve away. It’s seems trite to even be discussing this–it’s 2012, for pity’s sake–and as sick as everyone is of hearing about it, it won’t go away until the discrimination stops. Let’s be the generation that ends it.

The author would like to thank Dean Knight, Louisa Wall, and Greig Wilson for their help with this article. 

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