Recognising the enemy

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.


12 thoughts on “Recognising the enemy

  1. As a Christian I’m happy the law passed. We live in a secular society and all people should have the same rights under the law. I just think there may have been a better way of achieving this equality without all the division.

    Because if it’s rights we’re talking about, then isn’t the main reason “marriage” is seen as a right is because the State regulates it? If the State stopped regulating marriage and replaced it with civil unions for everyone, then our secular society would achieve giving the same relationship rights to everyone, but also allow religious institutions to perform their religious ceremonies.

    Anyway, it’s water under the bridge now, but an opportunity missed I reckon.

  2. I often think about this matter in terms of history. Im 60 and my parents in their youth would have thought that homosexuality would remain illegal and the idea that marriage would ever include the probability that people of the same gender could legally marry each other was simply beyond imagination – it could never happen.

    Then I think about where we are today. We probably think that things like fathers marrying sons – or daughters – is just something that wont/cant happen; and even further out we just couldnt imagine cross species unions being made legal. Sounds crazy doesnt it.

    The reason for limits on marriage between close relatives is the high probability of mentally limited offspring. But the advent of (generally free) contraception and abortion means that offspring dont have to be produced. The reason for limits on close marriage thus have no longer any basis. Pressure is already mounting for these limits to be removed somewhere in scandinavia.

    We might currently think that such crazy things as mothers marrying sons (or daughters) is beyond the pale – but its no more out there than what our parents thought of the current situation.

    And I for one dont like the direction these things are taking….Its not so much the doing of it – its the blessing of the state on them.

  3. @Rua: I personally would have no real problem with civil unions for all, but the reality is that marriage stopped being a purely religious institution a long time ago. When most people think of marriage they’re not thinking about two people united under god in a church ceremony, they’re thinking about two people who have had a wedding somewhere. What you’re suggesting is, effectively, banning atheists from getting married.

    Anyway, how does the new law not achieve ‘giving the same relationship rights to everyone, but also allow(ing) religious institutions to perform their religious ceremonies’? Did I miss something? Have the ceremonies been banned?

  4. Rua, I’d love it if progress like this could be made without the division. I’d love it if progress on Tino Rangatiratanga could be made without marches, haka parties or Iwi/Kiwi. But the evidence of the generations is that groups won’t give up their power without a fight.

    Reverse-Clausewitz: politics is war by other means. So, reluctantly, we fight.

    Barry, I’m not even going to engage with this sort of nonsense.


  5. @Barry: So your argument is ‘Thing A is clearly bad, therefore Thing B should remain illegal’?

    If acceptance of homosexuality leads inevitably to acceptance of incest, wouldn’t the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1986 have led to the decriminalisation of consensual incest by now?

    Perhaps some consensual incest couples will be encouraged to lobby for a law change. If that’s the case, I really hope you have a better argument ready than ‘yours is a non-traditional relationship and my parents would have thought it was weird!’

  6. Ha! Lew, I was just about to use the reverse Clausewitz maxim myself.

    The point is that if political compromise is impossible to achieve via negotiations, then the opposition must be approached as an enemy in war. The approach can be direct, stealthy, indirect, overwhelming, covert–the relative strength of the enemy dictates the strategy and tactics to be used. But the objective must be to force surrender of the enemy to the political reality that you wish to impose.

    That may sound harsh and undemocratic, but when the enemy is disloyal, zero-sum in mentality and already paints your position as one that defies the “natural” order of things (descending into Barry’s sort of logic), then you have no choice but to apply the Clausewitzian rationale to the political arena.

  7. @helenalex.
    Im not saying or implying anything at all – except that over a period of less than 100 years what seemed like rules that were the basis of society have been completely over-turned.
    Its like taking the law about murder and turning it totally around to making murder legal.
    Im not saying that one scene is more important than the other, nor am I saying anything about homosexuality as such.
    Already within 2 days – there are complaints that the new law still leaves ‘inequality’ (Kevin Hague), and I have no doubt that incest will be overturned within the next 50 years.
    I dont think society will be improved by that at all.

  8. Helenalex, marriage stopped being a purely religious institution a long time ago for a significant proportion of society, but not all, as we can see with most Christians, Muslims etc. Clearly marriage has different meanings to different people, then why not get the State out of regulating it altogether?

    I don’t think civil unions for everyone is banning atheists from getting married, as once the civil relationship is recognised by the State, then everyone can go off and celebrate that relationship in the manner they want. This at least gives religious groups, or any other group for that matter, the independence to define or redefine their own meaning of “marriage” without State dictation.

    I think there will always be a hardcore group who will oppose same-sex marriage/civil union/adoption etc, and would share the views of Barry. But I’d like to think there are a whole lot more people who would’ve been more receptive to giving same-sex couples the same rights of hetero-sexuals, if their own communities were given the independence to define “marriage” for themselves.

  9. If by ‘marriage’ you mean an explicitly religious ceremony, then why -would- atheists want to get married?

  10. @Rua: What if people define marriage partly in terms of its recognition by the state? That’s what this whole debate was about, really. Most churches will continue to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, and apart from the adoption thing married gay couples won’t have any rights that civil union couples didn’t already have. So the fight was over state recognition, which suggests that both sides see it as a crucial part of marriage. You can wish it wasn’t so, and that’s fair enough, but I can’t see it changing.

  11. Helenalex, I think that’s something people will have to give up on both sides of the argument. Christians will have to give up their previously State sanctioned definition, and so would proponents of same-sex marriage – give up the new definition of marriage.

    But you are right, it’s just hypotheticals and won’t change anything.

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