Executed for Sodomy is a play about two woman put on trial over 300 years ago for getting married (and other things!) Gay marriage is having something of a heyday at the moment. France and New Zealand have both passed legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry over the last few weeks, and the general mood is pretty positive. It might be wise while we’re feeling optimistic to look at how a Kiwi politician, MP Maurice Williamson, used his platform to answer gay rights critics, and think about how we can use a similar rhetoric to promote tolerance in our own lives.
Whenever a country puts gay marriage in the spotlight of the political theatre, it’s usually cause for kerfuffle. What tone the kerfuffling takes depends a lot on the dominant discourse of that country, and as New Zealand was the first nation to give women the vote, one of the first to decriminalise homosexuality and the first to elect a transsexual mayor to Parliament, it’s no surprise to find the Kiwis at the forefront of human rights again.
By passing a bill allowing equal marriage rights for the gay community last week, New Zealand has shown again that it thinks big for a small population. But it’s Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson who’s really captured attention, as his 4 minute speech to the House of Representatives sweeps its way through Youtube and social media in earnest. His charmingly disarming oration came as a burst of fresh music to politically fatigued ears, and served as a humour-filled counterpoint to the US Bible belt bleatings so commonly associated with gay rights debates. Williamson didn’t fall prey to the pitfall of many a frustrated gay rights advocate either, classily avoiding a self-righteous call to arms. In fact Mr Maurice achieved something we see all too rarely in political discourse these days; a calm and compassionate yet robust voice.
His speech shows us it’s possible to speak out in favour of gay marriage without alienating traditionalists. For many of us, same-sex marriage is a natural progression; an obvious rebalancing of rights and statuses to reflect changing ideas and values over the last century. But for many people, not necessarily anti-gay in principle but raised under circumstances where marriage meant only heterosexual union, it may seem a frightening restructuring of the world as they recognise it. Williamson acknowledges this, and instead of mocking their fears, he draws them in, making it clear he has listened to their concerns before reassuring them with positive associations and a rational perspective. His tone comes across as good humoured Sherpa, coaxing you along an unfamiliar mountain path and telling you how beautiful it will be when you get to the top. Emphasising gay marriage as a loving and positive addition to family life, rather than an invalidation of it, is a good way forward for equality, and demonstrating compassion to those unsure can tip the scales in favour of gay rights when it comes to convincing moderates.
Of course not everyone is on the fence. Williamson admits he was also beset by messages ranging from prophecies of a “gay onslaught” to his own inevitable fiery damnation, before using science to dispel the eternity of flames by predicting he’d last exactly 2.1 seconds in hell before his fleshly fuel ran out. By acknowledging but good-naturedly lampooning the obligatory ramblings from the radical right, Williamson defuses the rhetoric of fear, and once again reminds us that the best way to deal with a monster is to laugh at it.
We can learn a lot about how to deal with fear of change in politics from New Zealand. It’s true that the state has a duty to supply audience to all its citizens, whatever they have to say. And that means listening to everyone, however ill-informed or ignorant they may be. We as a society need not to dismiss them, but educate, and lead by example. People are far more likely to support social change if they feel listened to, valued and reassured; hence the advances made through legislation can stick.
We must remember the movement for equality is about love, compassion, listening and understanding, and the more we show those qualities to the sceptical, the more likely it is we will receive it in return. The public response to the passing of the bill is a heartening example of this, as citizens in the public gallery raised a chorus of “Pokarekare ana”, a Maori love song detailing the pain of a couple separated and the beauty of the love they could have if they were together. That, at its core, is what this movement wants; nothing more, nothing less.
By Stephanie Gunner