Gay marriage - time to end discrimination

Once, when Harry met Larry, any loving - and particularly sexual - attraction between them had to be kept secret, because male homosexuality was illegal.

After a long and sometimes courageous battle against discrimination, it was decriminalised in 1986, and then civil unions were introduced in 2004, allowing same-sex couples to tie at least some sort of knot. Now, Labour MP Louisa Wall's private member's bill, which has been drawn from the ballot in Parliament, would allow same-sex couples to marry on the same footing as heterosexual couples.

Subject to a conscience vote, it has garnered significant support for its first reading due this month and could very well pass. Even if it does not succeed in this Parliament, it seems inevitable that a future House will pass such a measure.

Also inevitably, many objections to same-sex marriage are raised, particularly by religious people, whenever the issue comes to the forefront of public debate. As time goes by and public opinion shifts, these arguments become more and more difficult to sustain. A recent Colmar Brunton opinion poll suggested that 63 per cent of New Zealanders supported gay marriage and more than three-quarters of those aged 18 to 35 were in favour.

This support has been strengthening over time and even Prime Minister John Key, who opposed the Civil Union Bill eight years ago, says he will support the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill.

New Zealanders, it seems, are ready to accept same-sex marriage and there is no real reason why they should not.

Any objections are likely to come from older people, who have had a lifetime vision of marriage which is sometimes difficult to change, and those of strong religious views, who may see a scriptural basis for exclusively heterosexual marriages, and often cite the raising of children as a primary concern. Socially conservative people may also extol the benefits of "traditional marriage" to the exclusion of other forms. Allowing homosexual marriage is seen, therefore, as tantamount to an attack on marriage as an institution.

Such arguments fail not least because attitudes to marriage in general have been changing remarkably over recent generations. The traditional vow to love and cherish, excluding all others, till death do us part is increasingly honoured in the breach. Twenty thousand couples were married last year, but in more than 6000 cases, at least one of the partners had been married before. A further 8000 couples were divorced.

Many loving and committed couples don't bother to marry at all. The mere 300 civil unions granted to New Zealand residents last year (nearly one- quarter of them heterosexual unions, incidentally) would have had no significant impact on the overall marriage trends. Allowing gay marriage won't make much difference either.

And, as for children, it is impossible to sustain an argument against two loving parents who happen to be of the same gender when too often children are let down by "traditional" families which turn out to be violent or abusive.

But the strongest argument of all is this: New Zealanders should not discriminate. Once, mixed-race marriages would have been frowned upon, along with unions which crossed the boundaries of class or religion. We have rightly moved beyond all that.

Now is the time to move beyond this barrier, and let people declare love and be acknowledged for who they are.

The Press