Liberals in the closet
They say politicians rarely change their minds, so when MPs who once opposed civil unions last month voted to support same sex marriage, many were surprised.
Eleven MPs switched sides in the vote, and while some now claim they didn’t vote for civil unions because they didn’t go far enough, others say they’ve truly had a change of heart.
For three of the senior citizens of Parliament, their opposition to queer rights seemed more entrenched. John Banks, Lockwood Smith and Winston Peters all voted against homosexual law reform in 1986, but of the three only Peters has continued to vote consistently against queer rights legislation. He and his fellow New Zealand First MPs block voted against Louisa Wall’s bill saying the issue of same sex marriage should go to a public referendum.
But last month’s vote did see a dramatic turnaround from Banks and Smith. Banks had been the most outspoken of the two. In 1986 he labelled homosexuality as “evil” and said the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act was a “sad and sickening day.” He is saying very little this time. Asked if his vote for Wall’s bill reflected a change of stance on his part, Banks only replied “that was 30 years ago”. Perhaps the intervening 26 years has seen him put aside many of his homophobic ideas, but some political analysts are suggesting his silence, and his vote, may have more to do with Act Party officials wanting to appear more libertarian than any personal change of heart on Banks’ part. It may be an internal party battle still smouldering. Banks would not confirm his support for Walls’ bill past its first reading.
Speaker Lockwood Smith has always been more closeted in his comments. Long dogged by gay rumours, he married longtime girlfriend Alexandra Lang in 2009. Smith did not reply to our questions, but it is thought that his views have been softened by the influence of Lang, a high school counsellor.
Of the newer MPs, those who voted against civil unions, but for same sex marriage, at least two are claiming a genuine shift towards inclusiveness and understanding. Hunua MP Paul Hutchison. National, says he changed his mind after speaking to Louisa Wall on the eve of the vote.
“I cannot construct a strong enough intellectual, moral, health or even spiritual argument against it,” he says.
He’ll be supporting Wall’s Bill to the final vote.
Ohariu Belmont MP and United Future leader Peter Dunne has in the past had a bet both ways. He supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but voted against civil unions.
“Yes my vote for Wall’s Bill does represent a change of stance,” Dunne says. “Voting against civil unions is one of the things I regret the most.”
He says none of the fears he had over civil unions had come to pass and he would be supporting Wall’s Bill through to its final stages.
So too are Ministers David Carter and Maurice Williamson.
“I did not vote for the civil union legislation because I believed that it was not required,” Williamson says.
“I am a libertarian and would find it hard to say to people who are in love that they can’t get married. I have been married for 36 years and don’t feel that same-sex couples choosing to marry in any way threatens my marriage.”
Justice Minister Judith Collins is less certain about her continued support of the same sex marriage bill. She says she will consider the Select Committee’s report before the final stages of voting. She says she voted against civil unions because she didn’t support a “half-way” option.
“I voted against the Civil Union Bill because it created a parallel, not equal, form of marriage for gay couples.”
Gay activists remember it differently. Tony Simpson of Rainbow Wellington remembers Collins as a “virulent opponent” of the right for queers to legalise their relationships. During the Civil Union Bill’s third reading she argued civil unions were not a human rights issue and that if marriage became a human rights issue, then so would polygamy.
The shifting ground at Parliament over queer rights is most evident within the National Party. Labour MPs have always shown support for queer rights legislation, but for National it’s been more of a slow leak than a landslide. While barely half of National’s 59 MPs voted for same sex marriage (30 to 29), in 1986 only three of National’s 36 MPs supported homosexual law reform.
Bill sponsor Louisa Walls says the changes are reflective of a general shift in society’s attitude to the queer community. She says members of the public have moved on from the heated and often negative debate seen during homosexual law reform and the civil unions debate.
“I think we’ve evolved. We’ve matured as we’re 26 years post homosexual law reform. So homosexuality in our communities is part of everyday life.”
Queer activist Bill Logan agrees.
“I guess that’s what the fight is all about, to make being gay be ordinary. There have been a lot of good changes, but there are still places where it’s horrible to be gay – namely at home and at high school.”
And it may still get horrible with public submissions on the Definition of Marriage Amendment Bill still to be heard. Conservative groups such as Family First and many of the churches are readying for a fight. A petition from 50,000 people opposed to marriage equality has already been delivered to Parliament.
Then there’s the Destiny Church, organiser of the Enough is Enough rallies during the civil unions debate. The church hasn’t yet shown its hand on what it might do to fight marriage equality and doesn’t seem too keen to do so. It did not return our calls.