Homosexual law reform in the mid 1980s was hugely formative for me. In my mid-early teens, it was the first time I realised I wasn’t always going to agree with my brilliant father.
I was convinced consensual sexual activity between men should not be criminal. Dad broadly agreed, but, like households all over Aotearoa, debate raged. He “didn’t know any gay men” and “didn’t want to see New Zealand go too far.”
I was yet to think about my (hetero)sexuality, or have any attractions to women that I called sexual. But my out gay chemistry teacher was repeatedly verbally abused for “taking it up the arse” by some of my classmates, and his classroom defaced with spray-painted graffiti hate.
The pinnacle of the arguments between my father and I involved my asking him how he would feel if a male couple moved in next door, and we could see them kissing one another good-bye in the morning, in the same way my parents kissed each other good-bye, every morning.
Dad said that wouldn’t be ok with him. When I told him he was homophobic, he laughed and said “no, I’m not. We wouldn’t move.” My relationship with him changed, because I thought he was wrong and I found his views truly offensive. Much as I continued (and continue) to love him.
The debate Aotearoa is about to have about Marriage Equality (and yes, that phrase is deliberate – everytime it gets called “gay marriage” we leave out trans people, lesbians and bisexual people) is going to be heated, make no mistake.
Queer people will have to listen to homophobes telling us there is something wrong with loving someone of the same gender, that “homosexual relationships” are not normal. This will be painful and horrifying and dangerous for queer people in ways it will be difficult to describe to our straight and/or cis friends.
I don’t want to get married. I don’t want the state to have anything to do with who I share my bed with, or my life with. I don’t believe monogamous long-term relationships are “better” than other ways of loving. For me, a relationship’s worth comes from how the people involved treat one another, the room there is to grow and explore together and independently, the joy that comes from connection.
But I know that this Bill will make a difference for queer people in Aotearoa. Just as Homosexual Law Reform did in 1986, the Human Rights Act in 1993, the Civil Union Bill in 2004. We would not even be able to have this discussion, in 2012, about marriage equality without the activism that set the context for those earlier legislative changes. Every time we have these debates and voices for increased equality win, the world becomes a little safer for queer people.
But the debate itself won’t be safe for us, which scares me. Not for myself – I have a privileged – which should be an ordinary – existence as an out queer cis woman. I have control over where I live, and who I live with. My employers know my sexuality, so does my family and everywhere I volunteer and participate in activist work, and I am surrounded by beautiful, loving friends with all kinds of identities.
For that gay kid coming out in Te Awamutu, this debate will be terrifying. For that closeted bisexual public servant, this debate will be painful. For that lesbian who wants to leave the church and her husband with her children, this debate will be life-threatening. For all of us who don’t look like the gender norms we’re supposed to, this debate will be dangerous.
Social change comes at a cost. Activism isn’t always easy, or safe. Let’s look after each other while conservative New Zealand tries to argue we’re not the same as everyone else. And let’s remember this is just one step to respect, justice and equality – not the step. We have more work to do yet.