Union and marriage, it's not quite even

MICHELLE COOKE
Last updated 14:37 19/05/2012

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When Anya Satyanand met the love of her life 11 years ago she asked her to marry her. But that wasn't possible then, and it's still not now.

Ms Satyanand (the daughter of former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand) and her partner Ange Fleming are one of 2745 couples who have entered into a civil union since they were introduced in 2005.

Some have done it because they wanted to get married, but New Zealand doesn't allow same sex marriages.

Some did it because they wanted to make a commitment, but didn't like the idea of marriage, while others - such as Wellington couple Natalie Gousmett and Drew McGlashen - did it because they didn't want to support an institution that discriminates.

"By not allowing same-sex couples to wed is putting them in a category as second class citizens, and what makes their relationship lesser than a heterosexual relationship? Who has the right to make that decision? It's the state that's making that decision, " Ms Gousmett says.

Of the 2358 couples who have entered into a civil union in New Zealand (the other 387 went through the ceremony overseas and had it registered here), 45 per cent were same-sex female couples, a third were same-sex male couples and just over 20 per cent were heterosexual.

Civil unions are a popular choice in Wellington, with 20 per cent of the country's total registered in the capital, compared to just 11 per cent of marriages. Eighty-three civil unions have been dissolved.

While civil unions paved the way for dozens of pieces of legislation to be changed so that they did not discriminate against same-sex couples, that didn't go far enough, Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson says.

"We got that in all but two laws - the Adoption Act and the Marriage Act.

"I think we made good progress with the civil unions, we achieved a close to equal situation, but it wasn't equality, and I think that's what most people want."

Mr Robertson and his partner, Alf Kaiwai, entered into a civil union in 2009, but Mr Robertson admits they probably would have married had it been an option.

Same-sex marriage entered into the New Zealand public consciousness in 2004, when it was widely debated in Parliament.

Last week, United States president Barack Obama stated that he supported gay marriage, and once again it's become a topic of conversation in New Zealand and throughout the world.

Both Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader David Shearer have indicated they would not stand in the way of moves to allow gay marriage in New Zealand.

Labour MP Louisa Wall has been drafting a private member's bill which would define marriage and enable same sex couples to wed.

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She hopes to put it in the parliamentary ballot for members' bills next week.

Ms Satyanand, 34, says she finds it "riotously funny" that Mr Key would support same-sex marriage considering most members of his party voted against civil unions.

The Wellington High School teacher says she and her partner have been to many civil unions "marked by absence", and their union was no different.

Some of their families have struggled to understand their relationship, so when the couple committed to each other in front of a civil union celebrant in Houghton Bay last month, it was a small ceremony.

"Ideologically I find the idea of marriage problematic, but that's because it's an exclusive concept at the moment, " Ms Satyanand says.

"I think civil unions now have a meaning that is politically different to marriage."

The family of Ms Gousmett, 31, and her partner of nine years, Mr McGlashen, 30, also struggled to understand their union but for a different reason.

The concept of civil unions is still foreign to some people, the couple say, and their families could not understand why they chose it over marriage.

"They didn't know what it meant and they didn't know why we were choosing that, and in some ways didn't know how to react. In the end they were just excited we were having a celebration of our relationship, " Ms Gousmett says.

They say Pakeha New Zealanders don't have many traditions to hold onto so can understand why people choose to get married.

"The tradition of marriage is pretty ingrained - it's a big part of our culture."

But the couple decided to get a civil union because marriage is not available for everyone, and they didn't like the idea of being a husband and wife.

"Because of the religious and traditional stuff, marriage wasn't for us, but if people want to get married then who has the right to say they can't, " Ms Gousmett says.

While Conservative Party leader Colin Craig may not agree, Ms Satyanand certainly does.

She and her partner have two young children, who were conceived via sperm donation provided to them by a heterosexual couple who have their own children and who also chose a civil union over marriage.

She hopes things will change once her children are old enough to decide whether they want to get married or not.

"When they step out into the world on their own I really hope it will be a better place."

CIVIL UNION FACTS

2358 registered in New Zealand since 2005.

About 20 per cent registered in Wellington 387 civil unions overseas, but registered in New Zealand 169,792 marriages registered in New Zealand and overseas since 2005 Same-sex marriage is legal in 11 countries.

Same sex marriages introduced worldwide:
2001 Netherlands 2003 Belgium 2004 Canada 2005 Spain 2006 South Africa 2008 Norway 2009 Mexico City 2009 Sweden 2010 Argentina, Iceland and Portugal.

In the United States and Brazil, same-sex marriages are not recognised federally but some states or courts have allowed same-sex couples to legally marry.

- Stuff

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