October 20, 2004

The Liberals are Wrong to Support the Civil Union Bill

David W Young writes…

I’m probably not particularly good at being gay. I don’t feel I belong to any special 'community’. I dislike identity politics as much as the next (generic) guy.

But because I am That Way Inclined, I do dwell on some issues more than my straight mates. I get hit pretty hard by stories about the homosexual panic defence or an honest account of someone living with HIV.

The old line, There, but for the grace of God go I, never quite disappears no matter how Middle Class Establishment I become.

And every now and then, my inner OUTrage burns me like a branding of a pink triangle. (On such occasions, like many people succumbing to identity-based arguments I fall easily into the trap of believing I have a monopoly on the moral high ground or sole ownership of self-identifying experience. For that, and my naturally pompous style, I apologise in advance).

Watching what passes for ‘debate’ over the Civil Union Bill has made me frustrated and angry. I’m not interested in debating the fundamentalists who promote eternal damnation – I doubt many will be reading this article. I’m more interested in talking to the social liberals who have bought the spin that this is a two-way fight between them and the fundamentalists.

Do you progressive thinkers believe you’re taking a brave stand by dissing Destiny Church and mocking Maxim? I’m sorry, but shaking your fists at the Baddies of the Moment doesn’t make you courageous. When your posturing is taken away, do you really believe in the coherence of your arguments?

Here's my point-of-view: The fundamentalists are right when they argue the legislation is deceitful. The Civil Union Bill is a cowardly half-measure. It will continue to prevent gay couples from adopting children or getting married. Those are the exact two rights that I want. I'd even say they are the only two rights that I want.

My partner and I want to marry. We want to raise a child. Sure, I thank you for fixing odds and ends of legislation that ‘discriminate’ against me in ways I never knew and never noticed. But the discrimination that keeps me awake at night – the discrimination that hurts – is the line in the sand that stops me and my partner from being allowed to raise a family. Why aren't you fighting for that?

There are no arguments for a civil union that do not apply equally to full marriage. Therefore, I believe that to endorse civil union and reject full marriage is to actively engage in the stigmatisation and discrimination of gay couples.

As American commentator Andrew Sullivan has written, opposing the extension of marriage rights “is an incoherent position — based more on sentiment than on reason, more on prejudice than principle. Liberals, of all people, should resist it.”

In New Zealand, social liberals line up on both sides of the political spectrum. Russell Brown and David Farrar ask you to send your money to the Civil Union Bill promotional department. It’s a slick operation. I’m sure they will win.

I believe Brown and Farrar both mean well. But their advocacy, if successful, will make full gay marriage that much more difficult to obtain any time soon. (You can picture the arguments: “We gave them civil unions back in 2004, and they’re already greedy for more – when will they shut up?”)

Will either of them join a fight for full marriage rights? And for that matter, do either of them plan to actually 'register' their relationships as civil unions? If not, for whom do they believe they are fighting?

The supporters of civil unions often say they support this as a "compromise" position. I agree it is a compromise... a compromise that provides straight couples with a whole new option, yet allows just a few-more-rights for gay households. Personally, that's not a compromise I can support.

Early on, I talked to Tim Barnett about the Civil Union Bill. I really wanted to be able to support it. He explained that this option was chosen over full marriage because it was more likely to be passed by parliament. It was a "pragmatic" decision. That was when my support evaporated. Imagine if anti-segregationists had opted for a “pragmatic” solution: black American Rosa Parks still could not sit in the "whites only" seats at the front of the bus, but whites would have a new choice – they could ignore the signs and sit with her.

Proponents of civil unions argue this Labour administration is as gay-friendly as New Zealand Governments will get. It was actually National that signed up to eliminating discrimination against gay couples; Jenny Shipley even looked at opening up marriage but then lost the leadership. "Gay-friendly" Labour has taken two parliamentary terms to come up with its "pragmatic compromise”.

I do agree that it would be a hard fight to convince the current lot of parliamentarians to support full marriage. But I think we should at least have had the debate. Support for civil unions has grown since campaigning started - is it not fair to assume the same would occur if we were battling for full marriage?

Labour has foisted this option upon New Zealand. I don't believe it was the result of a groundswell of popular support from any community. The cynic in me wonders if it is just a politically astute move to appear pragmatically middle-of-the-road and avoid a full debate on gay marriage which would split Labour’s ranks far more than this legislation would.
Ben Thomas gently suggests I might be being contrarian. I’m not – or at least, I’m not a comfortable contrarian. It doesn’t feel good to be yelling loudly for a position that most people reject. Feeling like a traitor to the team is not cosy. When I think about the bigots who will take heart from my arguments, my skin crawls. I really don't want to be trotted out as 'the gay guy who agrees with the conservatives'.

But, try as I might, I can’t embrace civil unions. Nor will I pretend to be grateful for the efforts of those that are fighting to give me just some of the rights that they currently enjoy.

In April the Listener published a short argument I wrote for gay marriage that was aimed to a broader audience than this piece. It contained a couple of the same arguments and is available as Uncivil Union here.

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