Gays not 'others' but family

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 14:37 21/05/2012
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Denise Irvine

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OPINION: It's interesting how something that starts out as intensely controversial can seep into public consciousness as being harmless, and cause you to quietly wonder what all the fuss was about.

Civil unions are like that. Born of pain and bitter argument in this country, the Civil Union Bill became law in 2004, passed in Parliament on a conscience vote with a winning margin of 10.

A few years on, you have to ask yourself why it was so unacceptable to many that same-sex couples couldn't get hitched under legislation that offered identical legal protection to marriage – without them actually being embraced by the Marriage Act.

Now we may be ready for the next round, the more contentious issue of gay marriage, neatly side-stepped a few years ago by offering the next-best-thing.

Some big names are lining up on favour of gay marriage. United States President Barack Obama last week gave it a historic endorsement, saying he would approve of legalising it across the country. A day later, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he was not opposed to gay marriage, although he added his Government's got bigger things on its mind.

Key could be described as cautiously supportive, as is Labour leader David Shearer. Labour MP Louisa Wall weighed in with an announcement that she's drafting a private member's bill on the issue.

Key's comments are especially interesting given he was among the politicians who voted against the Civil Union Bill. He has said this was due to a lobby from his electorate rather than his personal view. Now he may be one of those wondering what all the fuss was about.

If gay marriage does comes up for serious debate, we need to look at our history to understand that dark things don't necessarily happen when we loosen up, become more inclusive.

Civil unions haven't sent the country hurtling to hell in a handcart as many predicted. In fact such ceremonies turned out to be happy, warm-hearted celebrations in the manner of heterosexual weddings.

As a civil union celebrant, I've found each ceremony I've been part of to be a genuine pleasure for those assembled. My most memorable is the one conducted for two happy-but-nervous men on the deck at my home with my husband and neighbour as witnesses, along with a flotilla of noisy ducks who'd popped up from the pond below our property. The ducks defused the tension, the couple posed for photos with their uninvited guests.

The first few civil unions made the front pages of newspapers nationwide, nowadays no-one takes any notice. In fact civil unions haven't been as popular as expected, the total number of unions to the end of 2009 being less than 2000. Same-sex couples, it appears, wanted the right to become legal partners – just like everyone else – without necessarily doing it.

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Some gay couples have held out because they believe they should have the right to wed under the Marriage Act. They view civil unions as a second-rate offer, a compromise, political expediency pandering to vocal opponents.

Such opponents argue that a wedding is a sacred, loving union between a man and a woman, and should remain so. Yet in much earlier times, marriage was typically an act of social and financial consideration, the joining of two families for protection of lands, inheritances and lineage. Marrying for love was rarely an option.

As traditions and legal practice evolved, marriage in European countries became a combination of state and church. The state issued the marriage licence, the church conducted a religious ceremony.

In New Zealand, there was a departure from this practice in 1977 when independent marriage celebrants were appointed, offering more choices for people not connected to a church.

Like civil unions, the early civil marriage ceremonies made the news. Now the majority of Kiwi couples choose this option, if they choose to marry at all. Marriage has been in decline here since 1971, hitting an all-time low last year.

Who could have predicted such change 50 years ago? Who knows what will happen in another 50 years because nothing stays the same, each generation puts its stamp on social mores.

I don't think the country was ready for gay marriage a decade back; I guess we had to do the civil union thing first. See how that played out.

It will be interesting to see where this latest round, and the over-heated American debate, takes us.

I hope we loosen up on it. Same-sex couples should be accorded the same rights and respect as everyone else. They are not "others", they're not people with no faces and no names who should live on the margins, who some perceive as having a potentially dire effect on families.

Gay men and women are family. They are much-loved sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins, parents, aunts and uncles. They are part of the inner circle, not the outer. They shouldn't be treated differently.

It was strong of Obama to say this so succinctly, and get us talking about it again.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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