Marital split

ESTHER ASHBY-COVENTRY
Last updated 05:00 05/02/2013
sean langrell
NATASHA MARTIN/ Fairfax NZ
EQUAL RIGHTS: Sean Langrell wants to be treated the same as heterosexual couples and be able to marry.
karen and doug bradley
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/ Fairfax NZ
TRADITIONAL FAMILY: Karen and Doug Bradley look at their wedding photo from 1991 while their son Rob, 18, looks on.
gordon rosewall
ESTHER ASHBY-COVENTRY/ Fairfax NZ
COMPROMISE? Life Church pastor Gordon Rosewall would like to see the status quo of the Marriage Act remain but suggests if gay couples want to adopt children they should perhaps look at changing the adoption laws instead.
riki
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/ Fairfax NZ
NO COMPROMISE: Gay hairdresser Riki Arras does not want to erode other people's precious traditions but says it is hard to compromise without someone having their toes stepped on.
ella thomas
SUPPLIED/ Jill de Joux
HUMAN RIGHTS: Bank worker Ella Thomas is for same-sex marriage.

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The right of gay and lesbian couples to marry is the subject of heated debate globally and nationally. Reporter Esther Ashby-Coventry seeks local views.

Same-sex marriage is an issue which, in conservative Timaru, people seem to find difficult to talk freely about on either side of the debate.

Those for the bill fear being labelled "too liberal" and those against fear retribution. Some claimed it could affect their business or they could sound judgmental, whatever they said on the subject, and chose to stay silent. Hence a fair and balanced picture of public feeling is hard to get.

Marriage - considered an archaic institution and rejected by some for decades in favour of de facto relationships, for its freedom from social and legal restraint - is back under the spotlight.

The Marriage Amendment Bill select committee report will be presented to Parliament on February 28 and if accepted, the final reading will be in May. Its aim is to give same-sex couples the same opportunity to wed as mixed- gender couples. It is estimated about 10 per cent (450,000) of the New Zealand population is gay.

Looking at the PR machines on both sides, it appears the gay community has been effective in gaining public support for the proposed changes while the counter has captured the religious front.

The gay community has ingeniously embraced former insults such as "queer" and "gay" and absorbed them into their own vocabulary, meanwhile aiming arrows at opponents by labelling them "discriminatory", "bigots" and "homophobes".

But it is the redefining of the word "marriage" to include same- sex partners that has upset those against the bill. They say a marriage can only be between a man and woman, otherwise it is unnatural. Proponents of the change say if they love someone of the same gender it is discrimination not allowing them to marry.

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The arguments go back and forth, dividing the country in a way not seen since the Civil Union Act of 2004, which afforded same- sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as a marriage. Despite the furore leading up to that legislation, which saw Destiny Church members march on Parliament against it, 249 couples chose civil unions in 2005.

Same-sex couples say civil unions have not gone far enough and are pushing for equal status and ceremonies heterosexuals take for granted.

According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2011, 301 civil unions were registered to New Zealand residents - 232 same-sex unions (99 male and 133 female) and 69 opposite-sex unions.

Statistics are not available for South Canterbury only, but the Canterbury figures, which include our district, show 23 same-sex couples had civil unions in 2011.

Both sides of the argument claim they want the right to follow their own morals and not have other people's views forced upon them. Proponents want their objections heard and traditions preserved.

Gay people spoken to had not considered that the marriage tradition as it is already enshrined in law is important to heterosexuals and were horrified at the thought they may be responsible for eroding a treasured culture. Another unexpected response was that many opponents spoken to agreed people could fall in love with their own gender and gay couples could be good parents.

Despite these realisations and apparent understandings, there appears to be no room for compromise on this emotive issue.

Retaining the status quo is seen as stomping on a minority's rights.

Alison Grey of Women's Wellness sees the proposed changes as being vital for social justice and human rights while set designer Aaron Williams points out that far from being a tug of war between only liberals versus religious followers, "atheists get married too".

'Step forward'

Timaru cafe worker Sean Langrell says although the Civil Union Act has meant same-sex couples can be united and their commitment recognised by the state, that was just "one step forward".

"It is positive but not the same rights [as heterosexuals]," he says.

Civil unions did not impact on adoption laws, retaining the gap between gay and heterosexual parents. As it stands, men cannot adopt a female child and gay couples cannot adopt as a couple.

Prolific letters to the editor writer and retiree Pat Schaab remembers when the Civil Union Bill was being debated there was an emphasis on it not being a marriage.

"But there must've been some subconscious realisation that marriage is the ultimate social goal, otherwise why bother?" he says of recent trends.

Mr Langrell would like to see a future where he can marry a male partner if he chooses and it won't be called gay marriage, just marriage.

"I don't have gay lunch or park my car in a gay carpark; I just do those things like everyone else."

'Natural point of view'

The push for the redefinition of marriage is the crux of the problem for Life Church pastor Gordon Rosewall.

He says the understanding through generations in society is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

"I come from a Christian perspective based on a biblical world view which I have chosen to hold. I don't ask others to hold the same view."

Though it is mostly religious people who seem to hold the same view, Mr Schaab says being a Catholic has nothing to do with his opposition to same-sex marriage.

"I come from a natural point of view, the biological and physiological characteristics. Men and women complement each other in those aspects.

"Two of the same don't."

'It's about love'

The older generation don't have the monopoly on the conservative angle.

Eighteen-year-old plumbing apprentice Rob Bradley believes gay marriage should not be allowed for the same reasons as some older opponents claim, including his parents Karen and Doug.

"You can't change the recipe [of marriage]. If you redefine budget Coke as Coca-Cola it's still budget coke," Rob says.

Mr Bradley Sr wants the status quo maintained to protect children from what he sees as potential gender confusion.

"Just because a boy has feminine characteristics it does not necessarily mean he is born gay," he says.

There is nothing about Mr Langrell's appearance or mannerisms to suggest he is of any specific persuasion. He says he knew he was gay from the age of 11 and has never been attracted physically to women.

He gets frustrated with the debate focusing only on the sexual aspect of a gay lifestyle.

"It's about love, not what happens in the bedroom."

According to Mr Schaab, "love is one of the most overused words you can get. It can be anything anyone wants it to mean. According to traditional church teaching [same-sex couples] should do the same as anyone unmarried and remain chaste."

Equal rights

Hairdresser Riki Arras says no matter what sex someone is, if they have a connection with another person it is natural.

"There are so many ways to interpret religion and rules."

He accepts people with different values but cannot see how both sides can compromise without someone missing out on what is important to them.

Mr Langrell wants the inequality in the adoption laws changed, which will automatically occur if the amendment goes ahead.

"At the moment if I adopted a daughter and had a partner he would be just considered a guardian. If she is in hospital I can have a say [in medical intervention] but he can't," he says.

He says he just wants equal rights with heterosexuals, not special rights.

Gay couple Tarewa Karetai and John McIver want to marry to gain the legal right to adopt 7-month-old Charlie, for whom they have struggled to become legal guardians, because of their sexuality.

The full force of opponents' views is revealed on this parenting aspect.

Mr Bradley Sr sees same-sex parents as an "incremental decay of society" ushered in by the amendment.

"They have civil union. I can't see why they are making such a big deal."

Mr Schaab thinks two people of the same gender can "probably" bring up children.

"But what happens when a girl grows up with two fathers? They will have to call in the opposite sex to talk about things, which shows the necessity and desirability of a mother in the girl's life."

Mr Langrell is not fazed by female puberty and says he would just take a daughter shopping for a bra like any parent would. As far as fears of role-modelling being too narrow, he says, like in many families, role models also come from outside the nuclear family in the form of extended family and friends of both genders.

"There's always mothers-in-law."

He claims most gay males have a mother instinct built into them, which he suggests is a caring side to their chemical makeup.

"Two guys can make great fathers but they are not mothers, and two women can make great mothers but they are not fathers," Pastor Gordon says.

He says according to research, the ideal environment for children is with mixed gender parents in a committed monogamous relationship. He does not see the reason to change the Marriage Act to enable a gay couple to bring up children. Instead, he suggests they should look at amending the Adoption Act.

Future brings fear

Bank worker Ella Thomas, 22, thinks everyone should have the right to be able to say they are married.

She says her grandmother is against it but it is her generation who will have to live with how the future pans out.

That future brings with it the fear that if same-sex marriage is seen as a fundamental human right then everyone, no matter what their personal or religious views, will be forced to recognise it, Mr Schaab says.

Clergy who decline to officiate for a same-sex couple on religious grounds could find themselves in contravention of the NZ Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act.

"We have to think very carefully on this."

He says opening the door to such changes could see people demanding the right to marry more than one partner.

"There is something uniquely appealing about being married for the religious or not religious perhaps because of the way it is promoted in magazines."

Tarewa wants to marry his partner of three years "in a big expensive wedding" and love and honour him.

"He is my life." But he is not unrealistic about the potential commitment and suggests some couples prepare for a wedding day but not the actual marriage.

"And I would not be silly enough to go to a Christian church and expect them to marry us."

The origin of marriage pre-dates Christianity, though it is believed always to have been a union between a man and woman in western culture.

Its evolution has seen slave rings ensuring a kidnapped bride did not escape now symbolised by a wedding ring, to bridesmaids, used as a foil to lure evil spirits away from the bride, now being an accessory to the wedding party.

As we sit on the cusp of perhaps the biggest evolution in nuptials yet we have no way of knowing the ramifications of the Marriage Amendment Bill, which could become law this year.

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