Aotearoa New Zealand has a reputation as a forward-thinking, open-minded country. We led the world on gender equality when we were the first country where women won the right to vote, and we have the most rainbow parliament in the world. But equality has not been easy to achieve.
For most of the twentieth century, homosexuality was illegal in New Zealand. ‘Coming out’ was incredibly challenging for most gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and the risk of discrimination was very real.
In the sixties and seventies, gay activists and groups like the Homosexual Law Reform Society became more visible and vocal in calling for equal rights and acceptance, and many New Zealanders joined them in solidarity.
In 1985, Fran Wilde, a junior MP, sponsored the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. There was public opposition to the bill, including rallies and petitions, but in 1986, the bill was passed and homosexuality was decriminalised. It was long overdue, but it was the first step towards truly equal rights for all.
In 1993, the Human Rights Act made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, and by the end of the twentieth century, New Zealanders had voted in openly gay politicians, and the world’s first openly transgender member of parliament, Georgina Beyer.
Then in the early 00s, we turned our attention to marriage equality. In 2005, civil unions were introduced allowing people to enter into a legally recognised union, but without the right to adopt children as a couple.
In 2013, with a Legalise Love campaign that promoted legal marriage and adoption equality gaining momentum, MP Louisa Wall introduced a member’s bill to allow same sex marriage. That too had its opposition, mostly from conservative groups, but polls at the time suggested there was widespread support for the bill, particularly among young people.
Parliament passed the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act in April 2013, allowing anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, the right to marry the person they love. It made us the thirteenth country in the world to legalise same sex marriage, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region. When the bill was passed, supporters in the galleries broke into applause and began singing the traditional Māori love song ‘Pokarekare Ana’, in footage that was broadcast to the world.
That moment was made possible by people across Aotearoa of all sexual orientations, gender identities, ethnicities, and ages rallying around a cause that was important. It was a proud moment for us as a nation, and a monumental moment for those who now had the legal right to marry.
Now, we are facing the climate crisis, arguably the biggest challenge in living memory. Climate change doesn’t just affect some of us, it will affect all of us – individuals, whānau, communities, and businesses. We are stronger when we take action together, and we need to act urgently. When we look back on climate change, as we have with marriage equality, will we be proud of our actions?
Will we be on the right side of history?