Posts Tagged ‘marriage equality’

Recognising the enemy

datePosted on 09:46, April 18th, 2013 by Lew

Last night the New Zealand parliament voted 77-44 on the third reading of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, passing it into law. The strategy I wrote about after the first reading has been spectacularly successful, and marriage equality will be a reality as soon as the bill receives the royal assent.

There were many powerful speeches last night. Louisa Wall discussed the spectrum of cultural traditions around sexual and gender diversity, and called a huge roll of supporters from almost every corner of the political compass.

Maurice Williamson lampooned the supposed “gay onslaught”, celebrated the “big gay rainbow” that had appeared in his electorate this morning as a sign, and hilariously used his training in physics to calculate the amount of time a person of his mass and humidity would burn for in the fires of Hell. “I will last for just on 2.1 seconds — it’s hardly eternity, what do you think?”

Tau Henare gave his old party leader Winston Peters a lesson in political history, why referenda aren’t the answer to everything, and why exactly he is no longer a member of the New Zealand First party.

Mojo Mathers spoke of the pride she felt when her daughter attended the school formal with her girlfriend. And following the vote, in scenes that have been viewed all around the world, the House stood and broke into song.

There were others. But for me the heaviest work of the night was done by Kevin Hague, who got to the very heart of enmity to this bill, and to this cause in general. I’ve quoted him at length, emphasis mine:

“I remember travelling to Auckland’s North Shore to protest against one of our opponents, Pastor Richard Flynn, who called publicly for homosexuals like me to be put to death. Over the years I have campaigned hard for the right of our communities to not be outsiders any more, to assume a full place in New Zealand society. With every new reform, the same group uses the same strategy, raising fears of terrible consequences which always fail to materialise.
[…]
“Mr Speaker, that’s why this bill is about so much more than achieving equality under the law, a basic human right that has been denied us until this day. It’s about saying ‘these lives matter: our society is big enough for us all.’ With this bill, our parliament stretches out its arms to my communities and says ‘our society is big enough for you, too — you belong, unequivocally, and without compromising who you are.’

“When the debate started, I thought all of the people like Richard Flynn had thankfully gone. The early comments from opponents were refreshingly free from fire and brimstone. There is no doubt that New Zealand has grown up over the past 27 years, as we have become a more modern, vibrant, and pluralistic society. But as the debate has worn on we have seen the re-emergence of a hard core whose opposition to this bill has lost its veneer of reasonableness. Their problem with this bill is that they believe that we gay and lesbian people are morally inferior. They don’t want to include us as as full participants in New Zealand society. They recognise — correctly — what full legal equality, what this signal means. And they don’t like it.

Kevin Hague’s measured words and calm delivery obscure a stark and clear-sighted analysis: This is war. The enemy does not regard us as human, and they never will, so we must defeat them utterly. When it comes to GLBTI people, adherents to this creed of brimstone will be satisfied with nothing less than extermination and erasure: they are an existential threat. Although it is often couched in such terms, beneath the veneer theirs is not a rational objection founded in philosophy or pragmatism, in science or honest assessment of tradition; it is simply fear and hatred that burns like the fires they preach. This is not confined to the religious sphere — variants of the brimstone creed exist within secular society, and across a broad ideological spectrum, but they share extremism in common. Much of the discourse around marriage equality, and much of the discourse around related matters, rests on ignoring, minimising or mocking those who stand up for the brimstone creed, but the brilliance of Kevin’s analysis is that he meets them — and it — kanohi ki te kanohi, staring it in the face and recognising it for what it is.

But marriage equality won because it isn’t just an issue for GLBTI people. Ghettoising it as a “gay issue”, (as feminism for generations has been ghettoised as a “women’s issue” and racial equality has been ghettoised as a “black” or a “brown issue”) was a delaying strategy that worked for a time. But no longer. Marriage equality passed because a bill introduced by a gay Māori woman was supported not only by gay Māori women, but by men and women, young and old, homosexuals and heterosexuals and bisexuals, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, atheists and agnostics and Christians and Muslims, Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, Chinese and Indians.

All of us who believe in a just society, and an equal society, who believe in a place where ancient prejudices, cultural inertia or the maintenance of privilege cannot justify erasure must fight these battles too. The brimstone creed isn’t just an existential threat to “teh gays” — it is an existential threat to a free and decent society, and we will not have won until we defeat them utterly. There are many more battles like this, and with the clear vision and fierce determination of people like Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague, I am strangely optimistic about fighting them.

L

Framing marriage equality to win

datePosted on 07:00, August 31st, 2012 by Lew

On Wednesday night Parliament voted 2:1 in favour of marriage equality, as defined by Louisa Wall’s Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would permit two people of the same sex to marry. I haven’t been involved in any of the organised aspects of this movement, but I have watched it closely and lent some ad-hoc support to it. Here are some observations on some of the symbolic and framing issues in the campaign for marriage equality, and some discussion of why, and how, it was successful.

Unity and commitment
This campaign had two features that many do not. First, its proponents worked to find common cause with their erstwhile political opponents. This iteration of the debate was sparked by Barack Obama’s “coming out” a few months ago (I wrote about this here.) It has been a bipartisan project; groups and people from across the spectrum worked together. As many National MPs voted for the bill as did Labour MPs (30 each), splitting the National caucus almost in half. The United Future, ACT, māori Party and Mana MPs also voted for the bill. That is a diverse ideological range.

Second, they committed to really making the case, even though they believed it to be self-evident. Too many many good causes fail because, believing them to be oviously right, their originators fail to organise and articulate their “rightness”. This was not so with marriage equality. They employed a broad range of complementary strategies to appeal to different demographics and constituencies. The campaign spoke to queer people, obviously, but it also spoke to straight people; to the families and friends of those who might benefit from it. It spoke to urban liberals and rural conservatives and Māori and Pasifika and other groups. It spoke to atheists, but it did not generally alienate people of faith. It spoke to peoples’ heads, and to their hearts.

These themes — unity and commitment — are central to marriage, and they were central to this campaign for marriage equality.

Naming rights
One of the great battlegrounds in the Culture Wars is over names, and marriage equality won this hands down. This framing was not the incumbent: early battles were waged for “marriage equality” to supplant “gay marriage”/”same-sex marriage” as the preferred term, and it was successful. One example of this was by Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who appeared on the TV show Back Benches and suggested the change in terminology, insisting that “I didn’t just do gay parking or have gay dinner”.* This groundwork was laid long ago — there’s a substantial discourse about this piece of terminology, and all Robertson and others did was articulate it effectively. But that was important to do.

“Marriage equality” frames the cause as being about non-discrimination, a universal civil right nominally guaranteed in law and accepted (again, nominally) by a vast majority of people. It’s also an emotively-neutral term, which in this case worked to exclude stereotypically negative or controversial words — words like “gay” and “(same)-sex” — from the frame. These terms may not be generally offensive, but they do retain some valence as insults and evoke an “ick” factor in some people. Largely for this reason, opponents of marriage equality continue to use “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” almost exclusively. (In other contexts these terms, and stronger terms, were used within the campaign to shock or challenge, or were owned & celebrated — I certainly am not suggesting that such terminology be erased from the discourse.)

Note that there’s no discussion of “civil union” as a frame here. This was rejected outright by proponents of marriage equality as being a half-measure, a technocratic institution, and simply not an equal form of marriage.

Hearts and minds
“Marriage equality” is a strong intellectual and symbolic frame with some emotional undertones. Its intellectualism played a key role: it provided a rights-based analysis of the issues, and that rights-based analysis, in turn, provided a platform for a broader, less threatening set of frames.

The rights-based analysis on its own would probably not have won this battle. Intellectual arguments rarely win on their own, particularly when the issues are emotionally-bounded and tied into deep non-intellectual sentiments of culture, history, identity, family, faith and the role of the state, as marriage is. But an emotionally-oriented argument would probably have lacked the necessary rigour to succeed, as well, since the reasoning that marriage ought to be extended to all couples is not self-evident. The “marriage equality” frame appealed strongly to people who were willing and able to articulate the rights-based analysis, to coordinate and disseminate it, and to establish it in the public consciousness. They did so forcefully, with flair and humour, they scored the points and won the policy battle.

This activist community, who mobilised in the social and mainstream media, on the streets and outside the electorate offices, were not themselves the target audience — there aren’t enough of them and they are not widely-enough distributed to strongly influence politicians’ sense of electoral self-preservation. But these actions provided cover for the less-intellectual, but ultimately more emotionally resonant frames — especially “legalise love” — to thrive, and to reach the wider non-activist community and make them care.

“Legalise love” framed marriage equality as being about the recognition of already-existing reality, of acceptance, and diversity, and contemporary family values. Whereas “marriage equality” made a case for what was just, “legalise love” made a case for what was right. Like the best Australian Greens campaign ad the Australian Greens never made, it asked people to think of marriage as being “about love, not laws”; it evoked peoples’ experience of the gay people in their lives — their parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and asked people to identify with gay couples, not in terms of their practices in the bedroom or their sense of fashion, but in terms of the quality of their love. It asked people to consider how hard it would be for their own relationships to have been declared verboten by a state and society that just didn’t get it. These are deep, emotional arguments that strike people in ways that an intellectual policy debate, no matter how clever, cannot.

Another strength of “legalise love” was its breadth. Whereas the intellectual “marriage equality” arguments were focused and direct, arguments about love and the quality of relationships touched on more expansive religious and moral themes. Importantly, the cause was framed as being integral to conventional morality, not a subversion of it, and as modern “love thy neighbour”, “live and let live” Christianity in practice, the bloviations of a handful of self-appointed conservative demagogues notwithstanding. Marriage equality was not framed as a challenge to family values, but as a manifestation of family values; to paraphrase a number of politicians, including London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: marriage is great, let’s have as many as possible. David Farrar made this case well, here.

Double-framing a cause like this — running complementary intellectual and emotional arguments in parallel — is quite hard to do without getting your narratives mixed up and turning incoherent, and too often the weakest aspects of either frame can be exploited by an opponent. But if you can pull it off, it really works. It worked for Obama in 2008 (“hope” and “change”), and it worked in this case. Where the cause came under attack from rational arguments (admittedly this was rare), rational arguments were able to be deployed in defence, and when it came under attack from moral and emotional arguments, those were available as well.

But while the intellectual arguments were effective at laying the groundwork, in my view it was these emotional and moral themes, rather than the logical, rational arguments that underpinned them, that did the heavy lifting of persuasion, of shifting peoples’ consciences, not just their brains. The diverse range of arguments and appeals permitted the campaign to reach a wide demographic range, to reach into faith communities and to appeal to people outside the activist clique. Most importantly, this reach made clear to the MPs whose job it was to vote on the matter that they could, but also that they should vote in favour.

Not done yet
I have used the past tense throughout this as my reference has really only been the campaign so far, but it cannot be emphasised enough that the battle is not won. An unknown but significant number of MPs have voted for marriage equality to go to select committee for further public discussion, but have made no guarantees to support the bill in future. As Jane Clifton argues, there is a coterie of socially-conservative MPs who saw which way the vote was going to go and decided to be on the right side of history as “both a tactful and a time-buying” strategy. There will be attempts to derail this cause, to minimise and distract from it, to dilute and to neuter it. The first of these may have already emerged: Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, perhaps seeking to reprise his role as the great diplomat who proposed the “sensible” compromise position on the Section 59 child discipline repeal, is said to have proposed a compromise position on marriage equality.**

New Zealand’s Parliament passed marriage equality legislation through its first reading, and the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature is set to pass its own. I have not followed that campaign closely, but from what I have seen, many of its framing and symbolic characteristics are similar to those observed here. It is a policy whose time has come, and this is a winning strategy to enact it. Marriage equality holds the high ground; now we must retain it.

L

* Not 100% sure about the phrasing of this, and since TVNZ removed old TVNZ7 episodes from their on demand site, the video is no longer available to check. I’va amended this to match Grant’s recollection. Another twitter user, Jessica Williams points out that it was originally American comedian Liz Feldman.
** I missed this announcement and have been unable to find any detail on Borrows’ proposed compromise but I understand it was announced on Wednesday — if you have details, I would appreciate hearing them.