24 October 2012
London

My submission to the New Zealand Parliament, who are currently considering allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

The New Zealand Parliament is currently debating changing the marriage laws to allow same-sex couples full rights of civil marriage. The Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, introduced by Labour MP Louisa Wall, “aims to ensure that all people, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity will have the opportunity to marry if they so choose.”

The Bill passed its first reading in Parliament in August with a comfortable majority of 80 votes to 40. The reading and vote provoked some interesting last minute changes in allegiences. National MP Paul Hutchison had told media that he would oppose the bill, but following discussions with Wall and other Labour MPs, changed his tune, making this rather fine public statement (as reported by the New Zealand Herald):

He said: “I cannot construct a strong enough intellectual, moral, health or even spiritual argument against it.”

Dr Hutchison said all New Zealanders should have the right to civil marriage despite race, creed or gender.

He said he was deeply concerned that gay adolescents had a suicide rate five to eight times that of heterosexual adolescents ”in a country that already has an appallingly high suicide rate.”

He was told by gay MPs Maryan Street and Kevin Hague that the passage of the bill would make a profound marginalisation that adolescents felt.

“From a health perspective, we should be doing everything possible to create an environment in New Zealand where everyone feels they are included.”

Wise words, if somewhat overdue for those of us who have seen first hand the devastating effects that homophobia has on New Zealand men.

After passing the first reading, the Bill is now passed to a Parliamentary Select Committee who are required to consider written and oral submissions from the public. Thanks to the marvellousness of the Internet, I can sit at my desk in London and issue an electronic submission to the Select Committee in Wellington, in time for their deadline of Friday 26 October (NZ time). I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood experience of my sexuality, which is informing some of the creative writing that I’ve been doing. This has also strongly informed my thoughts about the necessity for this Bill.

Here’s my submission in full. (If you’d also like to make a submission, click here.)

To the New Zealand Government Administration Select Committee

Dear Select Committee Members

I am a gay New Zealander, currently living in London, England, and working as a solicitor. I am writing in support of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill.

I grew up as a gay man in a rural community near Invercargill, in the rural heartland of New Zealand. At the time of my birth in the 1970s, homosexuality was illegal. I remember sitting in church with my parents at the age of 10 as the petition opposing the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, lead by the then National MP for Invercargill, Norman Jones, was circulated for my fellow churchgoers to sign. I remember my mother making a point of signing the petition. Though I didn’t understand what was being discussed at the time, I remember taking notice, because my mother, who rarely expressed political opinions, had thought this important enough to put her name to. I concluded that homosexuality, whatever that was, must be something bad and certainly must be something that had no place in the church. The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986, when I was 11, but homosexuality remained for many years something that was virtually invisible in public life, and certainly not discussed within our family walls.

Even before I was aware that I had a sexuality, I was bullied, continually and remorselessly, throughout primary and secondary school, for being a “faggot”. The social messages of my education and upbringing were very clear – that effeminacy or homosexuality in boys was unacceptable. I grew up without openly gay teachers or gay role models, and the idea that two men could live together in the semblance of a marriage was at best a fantasy, and at worst a cruel joke.

As I became a teenager in the 1990s – a period when homosexuality was tolerated but still widely criticised – and acknowledged my sexuality to myself, I became aware that life as an openly gay man would be a life lived largely outside social norms. For a start, I concluded that a break with my church was inevitable. It would be impossible, I thought, to remain within a religious organisation that taught that homosexuality was a sin and that failed to recognise any same-sex relationship I might enter into. I attended the weddings of my elder siblings and heterosexual friends, both religious and non-religious, happy to celebrate with them but knowing that I’d never be able to achieve the same status myself.

Over time, I developed coping strategies for dealing with this exclusion: I’d tell myself that marriage wasn’t for me, that as a gay man I was lucky to exist outside of heterosexual norms, and that I didn’t need society’s approval of my relationship status. I never quite believed this, but it seemed better to make some attempt to define myself as an outsider, rather than accept the more depressing conclusion that I wasn’t fully accepted by my society. I conducted most of my personal relationships in a state of semi-secrecy, often without telling my family or work colleagues that I was in a relationship – it seemed an easier solution to avoid an “I told you so” speech when the relationship ended, which it inevitably did.

As I’ve since learned, relationships can’t exist in a vacuum – they need the support of your family, friends and community if they’re going to survive and flourish. But in a society where two gay men or lesbians can’t legally formalise their relationship and have it recognised on an equal footing to heterosexuals, it takes extraordinary courage and inner strength to make relationships work. Some of my friends have managed to form and maintain loving and long-lasting personal relationships, and I’m delighted for them. Others, like me, have remained within a continually uneasy state of arrested adolescence – wanting a big gay wedding and love and commitment, but failing to make it work. For me, at heart, there was still a resounding cynicism about the possibility of my finding public acceptance or approval of any same-sex relationship. Unsurprisingly, this cynicism tainted my commitment to whoever I was with. On a deeper level, I had a sense that it just wasn’t going to be possible for me achieve that kind of happiness, no matter how much I wanted or thought I deserved it.

In recent years, New Zealand has formalised civil unions for same-sex couples – a “separate but equal” policy aimed at giving same-sex couples the equivalent rights of civil marriage, but preserving marriage itself as a heterosexual institution. This law change has had a transformative effect on our society, and on my own perceptions of what is possible for my life. Gay and lesbian couples have become more visible, less tentative about declaring their sexuality, and are even now more open to public displays of affection – something that seemed unimaginable in the world of my childhood. I still get a jolt of excitement when I see two men or two women holding hands in the street or kissing – gestures that seem everyday and unremarkable for straight couples but which for gay couples still carry the electrifying charge of political urgency.

As a result of the law change, gay and lesbian people, both married and single, have increased in their sense of self-worth and become less apologetic for their existence. Our relationships are now able to be celebrated in the public domain, not just behind closed doors or among tolerant friends. Heterosexual people have been encouraged to adopt more tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality and had an insight into the difficulties experienced by gay and lesbian people. I have been pleased to attend civil unions of gay and lesbian friends, which are extraordinary experiences. Everyone of my generation or older who has participated in or attended a civil union knows that life wasn’t always like this, and that the recognition of their lives and relationships has been a hard-won victory, which gives the celebration of the union an extra depth and poignancy.

There are, of course, still many people who disapprove of homosexuality – many of them in my extended family – and who would rather that The Gays didn’t make so much of a fuss, or just disappeared. But somehow, this censure feels less restrictive than it used to, because I and my kind are able to point to the statute books and say, Under the laws of this country, We are Here and We Belong. Though I might have found a more secure form of self-acceptance myself over time, having this process lead by New Zealand’s social policy via the Civil Union Act 2004 was a massive encouragement to me to move towards living as a gay man more openly and unapologetically.

I am writing in support of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill because I believe that the exclusion of civil marriage to gay and lesbian people is an inequality which has no legal or moral basis in New Zealand society. As long as gay and lesbian people are able to have civil unions but not marriage, we will still regard ourselves and be regarded as not quite equal to heterosexual people. Civil marriage should be open to all consenting adult citizens living in a democratic society, regardless of their sexuality. The historical connotations of marriage as a religious rite between a man and a woman which is enacted for the primary purpose of having children, no longer apply in our current society. Heterosexual couples are now free to have children without marrying, and many married couples choose not to have children. Marriage, like all civil institutions, should adapt and change to reflect the social preoccupations of our society. By passing this Bill, New Zealand would be acknowledging that, in our modern, pluralistic society, marriage means the commitment of two people to each other, whether gay or straight.

I am also in favour of the Bill being clarified to confirm that same-sex marriage ceremonies may be held in churches and religious buildings and that religious blessings may be allowed in those ceremonies. I would also urge Parliament to consider prohibiting marriage celebrants from refusing to perform same-sex civil marriage ceremonies on religious grounds. In New Zealand, our constitution is based on the principle of Parliamentary supremacy. Marriage celebrants, regardless of their faith, do not and should not have inalienable rights over who they choose to marry. A marriage celebrant cannot, for example, refuse to allow a mixed-race couple to marry, as this would be in contravention of the law. Accordingly, it is open to Parliament to conclude that the right of same-sex couples to marry is a right that should overrule the religious objections of religious celebrants. Homophobia should not have any place in civil marriage, and if the law is changed, then it should be mandatory for all marriage celebrants to be required to adhere to it fully and not discriminate against same-sex couples.

It is my hope that, one day, being gay or lesbian becomes no more remarkable a fact of human existence than being left-handed. Unfortunately, as so many of our educators and religious organisations seem bent on teaching young people to fear and loathe homosexuality, there is much work to be done before young gay and lesbian people will grow up without the crippling sense of shame that I was taught to adopt. The passage of this legislation will be a critical step towards full equality for gay and lesbian people, which will be of benefit not just to existing couples who wish to get married, but to gay and lesbian young people. I would like to think that, before not too long, another 10 year old boy could sit with his parents in a church, watching a same-sex marriage ceremony taking place, and smile, and see himself getting married to another boy one day.

To help make this happen, I would urge the New Zealand Parliament to pass the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill into law.

Thank you for reading my submission.