It’s About More Than Just Marriage
Last Wednesday evening, I watched as my country made history, and became the 13th country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. It was an exciting evening, in ways that I hadn’t quite anticipated. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never been interested enough in the inner workings of parliament to tune into the parliamentary TV livestream, but I did last Wednesday, and it was a real eye-opening experience. It was thrilling to watch the debate as the night went on– although, to be fair, it wasn’t much of a debate. One of the only speakers who spoke against the bill spoke in favour of a referendum on the matter, and he got a thorough yelling at by the speaker who followed.
In the days after the bill was passed, two videos quickly went viral. The first was the moment that the bill passed, as parliament erupted into a waiata (song), “Pokarekare Ana”. The second was of MP Maurice Williamson’s speech. His speech got such worldwide attention that he has been invited to appear on Ellen.
I am glad that Maurice Williamson’s speech is all over everywhere on the internet and people from all over the world are watching it and enjoying his speech and thinking good things about my country.
I am glad.
There is also this little bit of me that thinks: yes, his speech was funny; but it also stayed well within lots of nice little boxes, and those were boxes that other speakers broke out of.
For example, the bill’s sponsor, Louisa Wall, who is also a lesbian woman of Maori heritage, says in her speech that opened the debate:
But marriage equality is only one issue. There is still a lot of work to be done to address discrimination against our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex—or LGBTI—communities. Closer to home, many of our Pacific neighbours still criminalise homosexuality; so too do the countries of our new migrant communities. We need to understand these heritage identities and how they contribute to this debate. As the indigenous people of Aotearoa, we can acknowledge that takatāpui have always been part of our history and culture, and that is the case for many indigenous people around the world. Fa‘fafine, ‘akava‘ine, fakaleiti, and mahu vahine are words that go back in time to identify our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex communities. They are part of our Pacific heritage and need to be acknowledged.
Right from the outset, she spoke of Marriage Equality as the final legislative hurdle to be overcome, but not the final hurdle in dealing with discrimination against LGBTI people, and set a strong example of the intersection of culture and sexuality and gender identity.
Other speakers spoke about sexuality as a spectrum, as something that is sometimes fluid, and about gender as a spectrum too. Maryan Street spoke from her experiences as a lesbian who doesn’t want to get married because sometimes marriage is not the right choice for some people. She also heavily emphasised the importance of youth in her speech.
I am gay, but I do not wish to get married. I have never wanted to get married. It does not mean that I do not cherish the relationship I have with as much ardour as any married person. But I do not want not to be able to marry because the law discriminates against me—that is the point for me.
This position has been driven home for me by working closely for years with a group of young people in Nelson called Q-Youth. This is an alliance of straight, gay, and transgender young people and adults, who began at Nayland College many years ago to build a safe and supportive environment for young people who were questioning, or wrestling with, their sexuality. It includes adults who are parents, teachers, counsellors, professional people—and me—who all want the same thing, which is for these young people to grow up in safety, free from discrimination, free from bullying, and free from violence and unsafe practices, so that they can be who they truly are. […]
Through that work I met many questioning young Nelson people, who had all suffered to a greater or lesser degree because of being made to feel like an outcast—an outlaw. Some had cut themselves. Some had punished themselves with drug and alcohol abuse. Some had become mentally unwell. Some had attempted suicide. Some were hugely supported by their parents; they were the lucky ones. Some were rejected by their parents; they were not so lucky.
Equality before the law is the start. If there is a benign legislative regime, there will be, over time, different behaviour and greater acceptance. Laws alter only behaviour, not attitudes, but attitudes come eventually, when people see that the sky has not fallen and that their own rights are not diminished by extending them to others. But when one is growing up, like these young people in Nelson, from whom I have learnt so much, one can sense discrimination and a lack of acceptance at 500 paces. It sits on your shoulder like a vulture, waiting for you to fall and to be pecked to death. Little by little, stroke by stroke, young people are diminished and reduced, unless they can find a safe place to be.
Earlier in her speech Street acknowledged the presence of former MP Georgina Beyer in the gallery that night. She was the world’s first openly transgender politician, and was an MP from 1999-2007. She achieved many great things in her time in parliament, including steps forward for transgender people. The passing of this bill is important because it means that transgender people who are married don’t have to get a divorce and then have a civil union if they stay with their partner through when they officially change their gender.
Other gender issues were also addressed by National MP Paul Hutchison:
As a former specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist, extremely poignant experiences for me were the rare occurrences where at the birth of a baby, when the parents instinctively asked: “Is it a boy or a girl?”, I had been literally unable to tell them. This has been because of ambiguous genitalia or a unique physical abnormality. It may take some weeks to fully assess a child, have genetic testing carried out, and assign a sex. Even that may be later changed. This illustrates the dramatic new knowledge available in the modern world to better understand the spectrum of physical, genetic, and social expression of gender and sexuality that was simply not possible in the past. I ask anyone, on either side of the debate, whether they would not hope that their newborn could be brought up in a society that is both tolerant and as caring about their child’s status and aspirations as any other child’s—a society that is inclusive, fair, and committed to respecting one another.
Street’s points about the affect this bill will have on the discrimination faced by LGBTI youth was further brought home by Green MP Mojo Mathers who told a ridiculously adorable story about her own daughter attending her first school formal with her girlfriend, and she also said:
I find it incredibly sad that opponents of marriage equality speak of this cultural change as if it is something to be afraid of. For me, it is something to be embraced with open arms, so I will be voting for this bill as an affirmation of the rights of rainbow youth and the hope that one day every young person in New Zealand will feel safe and confident about their sexuality, free from fear and bullying.
MPs Te Ururoa Flavell and Kris Faafoi followed Wall’s lead and both gave beautiful speeches that stressed the importance of marriage equality from their cultural perspectives — Maori and Pacific Islander. Especially in Faafoi’s case, a lot of the resistance to the bill has been from PI communities as they are, demographically, much more religious. From his speech:
I want to take this opportunity because there is more than one Pacific perspective in this House and in our country. To my fellow Pacific members of Parliament, I respect your choice. To those in the Pacific community who oppose this bill, I respect your beliefs. I hope that you respect and understand my choice and my strongly held beliefs. The belief driving my choice and my opinion is more prevalent among, but not restricted to, younger Pacific Islanders. It is in no way meant to be disrespectful or a challenge to our elders. In fact, in my mind, my strongly held views derive from the strong Pacific values that have been passed on to me by my parents and family.
I am proud to support this bill. To me, it speaks to the heart of the values of what being Pacific in New Zealand is. Those are values of family, love, inclusion, equality, respect, and having pride in who you are. Our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents came to New Zealand to give their families a better life. Vital in that was that they came to these shores and got a fair go, were treated equally, were not discriminated against, and were given the respect that every New Zealander deserved. As we know, that was not always the case. There were battles, battles were won, and the Pacific community is now proud and vibrant.
Culture and Sexuality and Gender and Disability and A Whole Lot of Other Things are all distinct but also all intersecting in many ways, and the fact that the one speech that only focused on one of those things has gone viral and has become the one thing people from around the world associate with NZ’s milestone is a little disappointing, because the legislature that passed last week was more than just about marriage.
One day, it would be nice if the Louisa Walls, or Kris Faafois or Maryan Streets of other countries who pass marriage equality legislature in the future are invited to feature on Ellen, but in the meantime we live in a world that still pays more attention to a straight white guy addressing the concerns of other straight people, than the people the legislature actually affects.
(full transcript of the debate)
(full playlist of the debate)
If you have time, I would highly encourage checking out the full speeches of the speakers I have mentioned in this article, because they all had so many things to say that were so full of win I had a hard time cutting them down.