Gay Marriage
A Campaign from the Outside

May 25, 2012 in General

I thought it interesting to be at such a well-attended AIDS Candlelight Memorial service in Auckland on Sunday, with no “out” parliamentarians present.  Maybe it was because I was accustomed to attending services in Wellington (where four gay parliamentarians reside); regardless, as I listened to the political messages from Labour and National being read by two straight women (admittedly both extremely gay-friendly), I began to wonder about the gay and lesbian political agenda.  What is it?  Who is leading it?  How is it being organized?  What will happen in the fight for gay marriage?  Is a campaign being organized?  Who is leading it?  I also began to think about the implications of straight politicians fronting at an event like this.  Perhaps this shows a new maturity in the way our country now deals with issues that largely affect our gay and lesbian community.

Twenty years have passed since Chris Carter became our first MP to “come out”.  Now there are seven openly gay members of parliament – four men, three women – from three political parties, including the National Party.

Our political leaders behave differently now. The Big Gay Out has become the queer version of the annual pilgrimage to Ratana Pa.  Political leaders clamor for the microphone, desperate to communicate their commitment to our rainbow communities.  The response from the crowd seems to be increasingly conflicted,  a mixed sense of both flattery and cynicism.

Helen Clark was always popular (understandable given her support for homosexual law reform, anti-discrimination and civil union legislation) but, ironically, it was the surprise (and, in my view, courageous) visit of Don Brash in 2006 that set the pattern for the attendance of future National Party leaders, and consequently drove support for gay and lesbian issues further into the mainstream.

However, it hasn’t been until recently, with the debate around gay marriage, that we have had an opportunity to really test this new generation of leaders with an issue that matters deeply to gay men and lesbian New Zealanders.

Gay marriage is not only a test for our political leaders. It is also a test for gay and lesbian community leadership and organization.  There has been little gay and lesbian lobbying activity since the campaign for Civil Unions in 2003.  That campaign was well-organized, and ably supported by then-Christchurch MP Tim Barnett (with his exemplary lobbying and advocacy skills) and the resources of his parliamentary office.  The closeness of the final vote – 65 versus 55 – suggests the quality of that campaign’s organization was instrumental in delivering legal equality for same-sex relationships in New Zealand.

There are a number of challenges for gay marriage campaigners this time around.  The first is apathy.  Even though gay and lesbian support for civil unions was divided, pragmatism prevailed as gay marriage supporters joined the campaign for civil unions on the basis it would confer legal equality for same-sex couples (albeit not gay marriage).

Secondly, many of our best campaigners have either left New Zealand or are now in Parliament.  Tim Barnett was one of Parliament’s best campaigners.  He was a driving force for civil unions, prostitution law reform and retention of Human Rights Act protection, parliamentary reform, euthanasia (and the list goes on!).  Unfortunately Tim is now overseas.

Grant Robertson, Alastair Cameron (recently appointed Chief of Staff to David Shearer), Charles Chauvel and Louisa Wall are all good campaigners, but need the support of motivated campaigners outside Parliament.   In an MMP environment, gay marriage will need support from across the political spectrum, and a campaign driven from the left runs the risk of isolating the right.  In this Parliament, votes from the Greens and Labour will not be enough.

It is for these reasons that I believe we should thank Don Brash for coming to the Big Gay Out. His attendance arguably precipitated John Key’s decision to turn up in subsequent years, and may have influenced the Prime Minister’s recent comments on gay marriage. We should welcome Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye (and other MPs) to support our issues (including gay marriage) because we will need all the allies we can possibly get.

But, most importantly, if we feel really passionate about gay marriage, we need to start getting organized.  Our gay MPs can’t deliver gay marriage on their own.  The campaign for gay marriage needs to be led by people outside of Parliament, and ably supported by those within.

Historian Arnold Toynbee said:
“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”

We need a plan!