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Saturday 10 October 2009

Marriage, Civil Unions and the battle for equality

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 27th May 2009

Sadly, California's LGBT communities lost their fight against the anti-same-sex marriage constitutional amendment known as Proposition 8. So, what can we Kiwis learn from this?

In Britain and New Zealand, same-sex marriage proper is nowhere near a contentious issue. It was defused because of the interim and incremental reforms that attended civil unions/partnerships in both nations, which coupled parallel formal relationship recognition ceremonies and orders of service with substantive relationship equality legislative reforms. This incrementalism addressed the need of substantive relationship equality, while clearing the deck and neutralising the impact of the eventual introduction of same-sex marriage proper.

Some commentators criticise civil unions for not being formal equality, as same-sex marriage proper would have been. However, one need only look at Australia and the United States for feedback on the folly of non-incrementalist pursuit of same-sex marriage proper without going the route of civil unions first. Granted, the United States is somewhat backward when it comes to endorsement of the spousal rights of heterosexual cohabiting couples, so marriage carries a greater range of associated benefits and responsibilities than it did in New Zealand before the passage of our Civil Union Act and Statutory References (Amendment) Act in 2004-5.

As for Australia, PM Kevin Rudd is playing a dangerous game when it comes to refusal to even consider civil unions, which may end up alienating social liberal voters from his party unless he is made to see reason. He needs to reverse the federal anti-same-sex marriage legislation of the Howard era, otherwise he risks losing Australia's LGBT votes to the Australian Greens.

Insofar as substantive equality issues go, we in New Zealand have provocation defence abolition and inclusive adoption reform to achieve as remaining issues of lesbian and gay inequality, and the grey area of legal anti-discrimination inclusion of transgender/ whakawahine/fa'afafine citizens: Justice Minister Simon Power and Attorney-General Chris Finlayson need to be asked whether the current government still upholds the Clark administration's Crown Law Office opinion that gender identity discrimination is implicitly covered in existing anti-sexist anti-discrimination laws. I hope that they are. If not, then that must be one of our priorities. Most Australian states and territories now explicitly include their transgender communities within anti-discrimination laws, so why not New Zealand?

Same sex marriage proper will happen. However, it may take about a decade. Members of our community are materially suffering from remaining areas of criminal justice and same-sex parenting inequalities, as well as transphobic discrimination. All of them need to take precedence before we can think of reforming rituals, ceremonies and specified orders of service to include us.

Craig Young - 27th May 2009

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