Today is the first day of marriage equality in New Zealand, so it is a day to celebrate. From now on, gay people can marry and enjoy a right which everyone else has long taken for granted. Democrats everywhere will welcome this as a victory for human rights in general.
And yet only a minority of people in the world enjoy this right, and in many countries the war against gays is getting nastier. In Russia, Vladimir Putin last month launched a crusade against gay rights by outlawing gay "propaganda". This has already sparked street violence and police brutality against gays.
Progressive leaders like Barack Obama have protested against Putin's law, and so the scene is now set for a contest between enlightenment and prejudice, between progress and thuggery. This will come to a head in 2014 at the Russian Winter Olympics in Sochi, a resort near the Black Sea. New Zealand can't avoid this battle.
John Key has spoken out in defence of gay Kiwi athletes who will attend the Games, and Foreign Minister Murray McCully says he has asked for assurances that our athletes will not suffer "undue harassment" in Russia. This is an odd phrase: they should not be allowed to suffer any harassment at all.
Once again we have an Olympiad being run by an authoritarian regime, and once again athletes from democracies are on the spot. Blake Skjellerup, a gay Olympian speed skater, has taken an admirable stand and says he will make no secret in Sochi of his gayness. How far the Government will back him up remains to be seen. Mr Key, after all, wants to win a free trade deal with Russia. He has many material reasons to pull his punches in this argument.
The actor Stephen Fry has compared the Russian Olympics with Hitler's infamous Games of 1936, with Putin's anti-gay crusade being the equivalent of Hitler's anti-Semitism. There is some truth in this, but a better analogy is with the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
China's Communist rulers issued warnings that visiting athletes were not to criticise their system, and to the shame of the Helen Clark-led Labour government, one or two New Zealand ministers failed to back our athletes' right of free speech. The public uproar quickly made them back down. John Key's government should remember this and stay staunch.
The gap between New Zealand's stance and Russia's is huge, but it is worth remembering that it was only a generation ago that homosexual acts were still outlawed in New Zealand. What is more, a substantial and noisy minority of New Zealanders strenuously opposed law reform.
However, the anti-gay cause rapidly ran out of steam after the law was changed. National MPs had voted strongly against law reform, but a National-led government only a few years later outlawed discrimination against gays. The tide can quickly turn.
But demagogues like Putin know how to fan the flames of prejudice. He must bear responsibility for the anti-gay violence now taking hold in his country. And democracies like New Zealand must oppose what he is doing.
- © Fairfax NZ News